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John Schuhmann

The Hawks are on pace for 52 wins, but their defense is a concern.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Hawks need to shore up 'D' to earn a better playoff spot

Posted Mar 10 2010 10:56AM

The Atlanta Hawks are on pace for 52 wins and their fifth straight season of improvement under coach Mike Woodson.

The key to their success has been the addition of Jamal Crawford, which has led to a big jump in offensive efficiency. Through Tuesday, the Hawks rank fourth in the league, scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the Suns, Nuggets and Cavs have been more efficient offensively.

Defensively, though, the Hawks have basically stayed put. They rank 15th in the league, making this the first season that they haven't moved up the charts since Woodson's first season as coach.

Despite the addition of Crawford and another increase in wins, the Hawks still stand exactly where they were a year ago: in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. And it's their defense that separates them from the top three. Cleveland ranks seventh in defensive efficiency, Orlando ranks second, and Boston ranks first.

Hawks Efficiency Under Mike Woodson
Season W L Pct. Off. Rat. Rank Def. Rat. Rank
'04-05 13 69 .159 97.9 29 108.4 30
'05-06 26 56 .317 103.8 12 108.3 26
'06-07 30 52 .366 100.1 29 105.5 23
'07-08 37 45 .451 104.0 16 105.9 18
'08-09 47 35 .573 106.6 10 104.6 11
'09-10 40 23 .635 108.6 4 104.0 15
Off. Rat. = Points scored per 100 possessions
Def. Rat. = Points allowed per 100 possessions

The Hawks went 4-0 against the Celtics this season, but there's little chance they would face Boston in the postseason. Meanwhile, they've lost all five games they've played against the Cavs and Magic, with a game remaining against Orlando and two against Cleveland.

Every playoff team wants to be playing its best at the end of the season, especially on defense. But the Hawks haven't made any progress defensively since the start of the season. In fact, they've gotten worse every month.

"As the year has gone, we've had some slippage on the defensive end," forward Marvin Williams admitted Monday. "And it's cost us some games. Our defense has also won us some games this year, too."

Hawks Efficiency, Month by Month
Month W L Off. Rat. Def. Rat. Diff.
Oct.-Nov. 12 5 108.1 102.6 5.5
December 9 5 112.0 103.3 8.8
January 9 6 105.1 104.7 0.4
February 7 5 106.4 104.9 1.5
March 3 2 116.0 106.4 9.6
Totals 40 23 108.6 104.0 4.6

Health has not been an issue. The top eight guys in the Hawks' rotation have missed a total of just eight games all season. So the defensive dropoff has to be a concern for Woodson, who never stops preaching defense.

"As we near the playoffs, we're going to have to get better defensively, without a doubt," Woodson said. "Because those are the teams that win playoff basketball, the teams that defend and rebound."

The Hawks' starting lineup has actually been very good defensively. But, overall, the Hawks are better when they bring Crawford off the bench and team him with Joe Johnson and either Mike Bibby or Williams, because they're gaining more on offense than they're losing on the other end of the floor.

Hawks Most Used Lineups
Lineup Min. Off. Rat. Def. Rat. Diff.
Bibby, Johnson, Williams, Josh Smith, Horford 951 108.1 98.3 9.8
Bibby, Crawford, Johnson, Josh Smith, Horford 352 117.0 106.5 10.5
Crawford, Johnson, Williams, Josh Smith, Horford 272 119.4 103.0 16.3
Teague, Crawford, Evans, Joe Smith, Pachulia 109 101.4 112.2 -10.8
Crawford, Johnson, Evans, Josh Smith, Horford 83 120.9 112.1 8.7

Overall, the Hawks do some things well defensively. They're above average in forcing turnovers, keeping their opponent off the free-throw line and defending the three. But even though their starting bigs, Josh Smith and Al Horford, are the most indispensible pieces defensively, it's on the interior where their defensive numbers are inferior.

The Hawks' opponents score 46.4 points in the paint per 100 possessions, the sixth most in the league. And Atlanta ranks 20th in defensive rebounding percentage. They've allowed at least 15 second-chance points in 29 of their 62 games, accounting for 15 of their 20 losses.

Both Smith and Horford are a little undersized for their positions, but through watching film, it becomes clear that the Hawks would be a better defensive team if they simply made a more consistent effort to box out.

The Hawks' worst problem, however, is their transition defense, which may be the worst in the league. Their opponents score 17.4 fast break points per 100 possessions (sixth most in the league), but because the Hawks are the best in the NBA in not turning the ball over, those fast break points are coming mostly on missed and made shots.

In fact, if you subtract a team's turnovers from its opponents' fast-break points, the Hawks have the worst differential in the league: +4.7 per 100 possessions. Only Toronto (+3.5) is even close. Contrast that number with Boston (-4.7), Orlando (-3.6) and Cleveland (-1.4) and you can see quickly how Atlanta can get better defensively.

They have five weeks to do it. The good news is that the offense is better than it's ever been under Woodson, and the Hawks are just a game behind the Celtics in the loss column, holding the tiebreaker. So if they can tighten things up defensively, the Hawks can avoid both a tougher first-round matchup and the Cavs in the conference semifinals.

But they have to stop those defensive numbers from going in the same direction they've been going all season.

All stats are through Tuesday, March 9 and were compiled with the help of the NBA and StatsCube.


John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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