The Atlanta Hawks entered the break as the seventh best defensive team in the NBA despite lacking any sort of true rim protecting big man. Preventing early offense has been a key part of Atlanta’s defensive success this season. Their roster is full of capable, underrated individual defenders. But as partially reflected in the unprecedented award of January’s player of the month award to their whole starting five, Atlanta’s team defensive concept is the star of the show.
Time is often a defense’s best friend. Give a five-man unit of NBA players unlimited time, and they will unlock a quality shot. Put them up against a deadline of 24 seconds, and creating a good shot becomes a much more desperate affair.
The Hawks win on defense by defending well at either end of the shot clock. Any way you slice the numbers, one thing is clear about NBA defense: preventing early offense is an important first step. Once these initial thrusts have been parried, not having breakdowns late in the clock are key to finishing a good defensive play.
Transition opportunities are among the most efficient form of offense according to newly released data from Synergy Sports Technology now available on NBA.com. Only “cuts,” most often plays where a defender falls asleep or a driver draws a second defender and dishes to a teammate for a layup are a more effective means of putting up points than on the break:
While the Hawks’ opponents attempt to run an average amount, Atlanta is one of only two teams in the league (alongside the surprising Milwaukee Bucks, 2nd in the league in defense) to allow fewer than one point per transition play, per Synergy. It’s not just transition offense. In regular half-court settings, the Hawks’ opponents’ shoot the lowest percentage of any teams’ opponents through the all-star Bbreak. Removing immediate putback opportunities from offensive rebounds (which serve to make both Atlanta and Golden State’s early shot clock defense look worse than they are in raw terms):
In particular, the Hawks do a great job in terms of defending threes early in the clock. While the league as a whole is shooting 36.7 percent on “early” threes, Atlanta allowed only 33.3 percent, third in the league behind only Milwaukee and Memphis. By denying opponents their “first looks” with regularity, teams trying to score are forced into third, fourth or fifth options on a given set. While sometimes these plays out of continuity work well, it is still directing teams away from their preferences and offensive strengths.
Once they deny these early salvos, the Hawks are equally adept at “finishing” a play defensively. Very little can be as heartbreaking to a defense than executing a scheme properly for 22 seconds before allowing a layup late in the clock. Part of the Lakers’ struggles this season are attributable to just this as despite forcing the most very late (< four seconds on shot clock) attempts in the league, they are 29th in defending these shots, conceding 45 percent eFG, leading only Minnesota’s 46.4 percent. (NBA average is 40.6 percent in these spots). Atlanta by comparison both forces among the most (4th at 15.1 percent of opponents shots) very late attempts and defends them about as well (38.8%, good for eighth) as anyone in the league.
By bookending defensive possessions with strong play as a defensive unit, Atlanta is thus able to play elite level defense with good but not overwhelming defensive talent. Much like their stunning offense, the ability to play defense at a level not fully explainable by the sum of the individual parts is what makes the first half of the season’s surprise package such a fascinating and welcome story.
Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @SethPartnow.