The Last Word with Lang Whitaker - Defense - Dec. 10, 2009

Lang Whitaker is many things - executive editor of Slam Magazine, a contributor for NBA TV, a book author, and most importantly, a die-hard Hawks fan. After starting 2-for-2 in pushing the Hawks into the postseason, he's back for his third season in 2009-10 to share his thoughts on the team exclusively for Hawks.com. Check back every Thursday throughout the season to read his latest musings, and read him every day at www.SLAMonline.com

"Defense. That's It. Defense."
by Lang Whitaker

I spent last weekend on an undercover mission with our Atlanta Hawks. You guys know my day job is over at SLAM magazine, and we wanted to do a feature in SLAM about the Hawks to talk about what a great team they’ve become. I asked the Hawks if they’d let me spend last weekend with the team. The entire weekend. From the Knicks game to the plane trip to Dallas to the team hotel to the private meetings to the postgame locker room to the flight home.

Shockingly, the Hawks said yes.

To read the full story, you’ll have to buy the next issue of SLAM (out in a couple of weeks), but in the meantime, I can tell you this: I feel like I have unlocked the secret to understanding Mike Woodson. I heard more from Woody over those 48 hours than I had in 6 years combined. Speeches, breaking down film, looking at scouting reports, motivating the guys.

And really, understanding what makes Woody tick isn’t that much of a surprise. I will not be betraying any confidences by revealing it here. You’ve all heard him say it, in press conferences, during games on ESPN and TNT and NBA TV, to Bob and Nique and Jerome and Stinger. Sometimes, it seems, the message tends to get lost. So here it is:

Defense.

Really, that’s it. Defense. And I don’t mean that the Hawks’ defense is of nominally more importance than their offense is.

No, it’s all about defense. That’s all Woody is worried about with this team.

When you consider it, it makes sense. Look, the Hawks have a roster full of guys who can score the basketball. Say they come to work and play just average on offense. The Hawks are currently averaging 104.4 ppg. As I heard Woody say over and over, the Hawks score more than enough points to win NBA games. There are only 6 teams averaging more PPG, and only 3 of them are Playoff teams. Getting 100 points, give or take, is generally a given.

What Coach Woodson is concerned with is making sure the Hawks’ opponents don’t score 100 points a game. Right now, the Hawks’ opponents are averaging 97.3 points per game, which makes the Hawks eleventh in the League in points allowed. Figuring out ways to keep our opponents under that mark is what keeps Woody awake at night. In the Dallas game on Saturday, the Hawks missed 20 shots in a row. Twenty! But you know what? They still won the game because they held Dallas to a season-low 75 points.

I understand that as a Hawks fan, our offense isn’t always the most poetic offense in the NBA, and that sometimes we rely too much on one-on-one plays. But as Mike Woodson sees it, and it’s hard to disagree with him, defense is what wins championships.

Does it really? I don’t know, but if Woody has his way, we just might find out.

MAILING IT IN...
Last week I wrote about empty seats at Philips Arena, which generated a lot of mail. Here’s two responses. First, from reader Sheena:
Hi Lang, my name is Sheena. I'm a huge Hawks fan. And have been for a long time. But this season, I haven't been to one game. It's not because I don't want to, but I can't afford to. I lost my job this summer and it's been really tough. The worst of the economy hit so hard in Georgia, no one has any extra money to spend. I know I don't. I barely can keep up with my bills. And on top of it, I'm a single mother, full time student. So, I don't think anyone, especially now, would want to miss a Hawks game. They’re at top of their game. The Highlight Factory is the place to be. Sitting in front on the television is not the same feeling of being there. I just really think the unemployment rate in Georgia has a lot to do with it. Trust me. In the past, I went to at least one or two home games a week. But now, I just appreciate that I can afford cable television just to watch them play on TV.

Also, from my main man Maurice Garland:
Hell Lang...

I've been going to Hawks games since the mid ‘80s, so I’m more than familiar with the attendance trends at Hawks games. I have my own opinion(s) as to why the attendance is poor at the Highlight factory.

1.) Nobody is actually from here anymore. People come to the games to see the LeBrons, Lakers, Heat and Knicks (and lately hometown hero Dwight Howard and the Magic). When the Hawks play a team that isn’t as big of a draw, "fans" feel no need to come. Mainly because most people in Atlanta probably don’t have any real connection to the Hawks. Especially if they moved down here in our down years.

2.) Everybody in Atlanta thinks they're "cool." I swear, sometimes I want to slap people in the back of the head at these games. I'm fortunate enough to be able to afford (or get hooked up) with pretty good seats closer to the floor most times. But it seems like most of the people around me come to the games to be watched themselves. Phillips Arena looks like a nightclub some nights. People not named Jack Nicholson walk around with shades on, take up a lot of the best seats and do absolutely NO cheering. They just sit there. Me and my brother were about 6 or 7 rows behind the goal at the Nuggets game earlier this season. We yelled and cheered the entire game. After while people finally joined us. But most of the game people were looking back at us like WE were the crazy ones for cheering at a sporting event. When we won the game, Al Horford said "the fans helped us win this one"...I just knew he was talking about us, because no one else in there was saying anything.

3.) People that would enjoy the games either live too far or cant afford to go. Some of the people I know or women I date who enjoy basketball stay all the way in Alpharetta or Douglasville somewhere and never feel like coming all the way into the city and driving all the way back afterwards (this is another result of #1). I also know people -- whether they're single or with kids -- who simply cant afford to go the games sometimes. Which sucks, because the people who can afford to go to the games just sit there or cheer for the other team.

I could go on and on about why the fan support at Phillips Arena isn't what it should be, but I won’t. Maybe Phillips should go the Jerry Jones route and build a larger than life jumbotron...that is their area of expertise, right?

Thanks to both of you for the emails. You both bring up some great, valid points.

At the end of the day, the way I see it is that fans -- not just in Atlanta, but in any city -- if they are to be expected to spend their hard-earned money on a team, deserve a team that is giving their all and doing their best to win a Championship. For a long time, the Hawks were rebuilding, and they openly admitted that. But now, the Hawks are right there at the top of the standings.

So where are you?

Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes throughout the week at SLAMonline.com. Also, catch Lang every Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. on NBA TV's "The Beat." He can be reached at lang@harris-pub.com.