Why aren’t the Hawks better defensively?

Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks teams have never finished a season ranked worse than 14th in defensive efficiency. (AP Photo)

I thought the Hawks would be a solid defensive team this season even if they didn’t win many games. I was wrong (about the defense, not the lack of Ws).

It would be difficult for the Hawks to be as good defensively this season after parting ways with two good defenders in the frontcourt (Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard) and one on the wing (Thabo Sefolosha). But there are some solid defenders among the players absorbing those minutes and, more than that, I figured coach Mike Budenholzer could mold this group into a decent defensive team.

It hasn’t happened so far. Surprisingly (to me at least), the Hawks have been a much better offensive team (ranking 19th in efficiency) than defensive team (28th). The Hawks have ranked sixth or better in defensive efficiency over Budenholzer’s past three seasons and they were 14th in his first year as a Hawks coach.

Hawks defensive four factors (league rank)

Hawks defensive play types points per possession (league rank)

Before the Hawks played the Heat last night, Budenholzer expressed disappointment with his team’s lack of defensive improvement. Then the Hawks gave up 104 points on 98 possessions to an injury-riddled Heat team that fielded one, maybe two above-average offensive players.

In what specific area does Budenholzer believe the Hawks can improve defensively?

“Every team in the league, including us, is talking about pick-and-roll defense and how can we be better at pick-and-roll: on the ball (and) our guards, bigs working together,” he said. “It’s obviously not easy to defend. But those teams that figure out how to do it and to it well are going to be better defensively.”

The Hawks are not doing it well.

Synergy defensive play-type statistics for individual players can be misleading because they only include those possessions that end with a shot, foul, or turnover. They don’t capture the many times when a defense reacts to the original action, leaving players to scramble to cover for teammates before recovering.

But Synergy does track “offense including passes,” which it describes as a possession that “transitioned from the original play type to a secondary play type as a result of a defensive commitment that causes a distortion in the defense from which the defense cannot recover to normal matchup.” In other words, those possessions in which the defense must scramble.

The Hawks defended 3,059 “pick and rolls including passes” possessions during the 2016-17 season and allowed 0.934 points per possession, ninth-best in the league. They’ve faced 1,013 such possessions this season and have allowed 0.959 PPP, ranking 25th in the league. The Hawks are a much worse at defending pick-and-rolls this season.

Defense is a team concept but certainly a significant part of the slippage, especially against pick-and-rolls, can be attributed to Dennis Schroder’s regression. It’s what led to his benching in New York. It’s a reason why Schroder was on the bench against the Heat last night when the Hawks needed stops. (Though, to my eye, Schroder was active and engaged defensively for much of the game against the Heat and also at Memphis on Friday.)

There are other personnel factors that help to explain the slippage in team defense. A power rotation with Howard, Millsap, Mike Muscala and Kris Humphries offers more interior resistance than one with Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins, Luke Babbitt and Ersan Ilyasova. Many of Sefolosha’s minutes have gone to Marco Belinelli.

Budenholzer’s defensive strategy and emphasis are factors, too. Aggressive help defense on pick-and-rolls is one reason why only two teams this season are allowing more three-point attempts per 100 possessions (32.8) than the Hawks. Opponents are shooting 37.4 percent on threes against the Hawks, the sixth-best mark in the league.

Budenholzer lately has talked more about “individual pride” on defense rather than schemes.

“Sometimes with us, we talk so much about team defense, we talk so much about being in the right spots and our rotations and being aware and being ready to help a teammate,” Budenholzer said. “But I think sometimes we rely so much on our team defense that we forget how important our individual defense is. Sometimes we’ve just got to keep that balance of great individual defense and great individual pride and then having your teammates all on a string behind you in case they are needed.”

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