Hawks have many issues but 3-point defense near the top

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s team is giving up a lot of wide open 3’s. (AP Photo)

The Hawks faced big deficits in four of their seven consecutive losses before rallying. The Hawks are focusing on the comebacks as evidence of their competitive spirit. That’s a legitimate perspective. Certainly, there is value the team’s younger players learning that laying down is not acceptable.

Yet there also is a lesson in examining the one big reason why the Hawks faced those deficits in the first place: They are very bad at defending the 3-point line.

Last night the Sixers made their first five 3-point attempts against the Hawks while building a 25-8 lead. The Bucks buried five of their first eight 3-point tries while running out to a 20-point lead early in the second quarter.

The Heat led the Hawks by 18 points in the first half while making 13 of 23 3-point attempts. The Nets enjoyed a 16-point advantage in the third quarter thanks in large part to eight 3-pointers made on 21 attempts.

And the inability to defend the 3-point line was a primary reason the Hawks blew a 20-point lead at the Hornets. Charlotte came back while making 6 of 15 3-point attempts spanning the second and third quarters (they also got to the free-throw line a lot).

The Hawks usually explain away their opponents raining down threes as a function of superior shot-making. What I’ve seen is Hawks opponents taking advantage of their deficiencies at guarding the 3-point line, and NBA tracking stats confirm my subjective view.

Hawks opponents have attempted 258 3-pointers and tracking stats categorized 147 of those as “wide open,” meaning no defender within six feet of the shooter. That means that when opponents shoot 3-pointers, there is no Hawks player within six feet 57 percent of the time. (The Hawks have been a little lucky that opponents have only made 34 percent of those wide open three-pointers — their 51.8 effective field-goal percentage allowed could be a lot worse.)

Hawks opponents have attempted 32.1 3-pointers per 100 possessions. Only six NBA teams have allowed more: Knicks, Kings, Hornets, Cavs, 76ers and Mavericks. The Kings are allowing the same percentage of “wide open” 3’s as the Hawks but the other five rest are allowing fewer.

All those 3-point attempts for Hawks opponents are problematic because the best way to defend 3-point shots is to not allow them in the first place. League-wide, the rate of 3-point attempts that come against what Synergy categorizes as “tight” defense (closest defender within two to four feet) is small:  2,969 in 1,784 games played, or 1.66 per game. The rate of 3-point attempts against what Synergy deems “very tight” defense (closest defender within two feet) is minuscule: just 47 total.

NBA players tend to shoot 3-pointers only when they are open and the way to discourage them from shooting them is to either not allow easy catches behind the line or run them off of it. The Hawks have not done that. Theoretically the Hawks should at least gain something by giving up all those 3-point attempts but they’ve been getting pounded on the offensive glass and are fouling at an above-average rate.

Clearly the Hawks have a lot of problems but I’d say their inability to defend the 3-point line is near the top. Do that a little better and maybe they won’t face so many big deficits.

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