CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 03: Head coach Larry Drew of the Atlanta Hawks gives instructions to his team against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on January 3, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Despite the small sample size, the numbers indicate that the Atlanta Hawks are a better defensive team and several people around the league are starting to take notice. Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus wrote about the subject after watching the Hawks in Chicago. Doolittle writes that the Hawks have not made any substantial roster moves that explain the improvement. He also talks about head coach Larry Drew's insistence on defense has finally gotten through.
MC weighed in with his thoughts here on both points and I agree. Atlanta may not have went out and acquired a defensive stopper but they have done two things in my opinion. No. 1 Jeff Teague is playing big minutes for the club and for the first time in memory, Atlanta has been able to slow down dribble penetration. This slows down the need for rotations and also quickens close outs because help defenders don't have to be focused on coming over to cut off drives to the basket.
As much a fan as I was of Jamal Crawford and Mike Bibby's time in an Atlanta uniform, they impacted the Hawks defense negatively every night. Atlanta had to game plan for their deficiencies every night so much so that Mike Woodson switched every single screen in an effort to minimize the effect. By simply replacing those two with young legs in Teague and adding Kirk Hinrich has in my opinion led to the improvement. I don't think this can be underscored but you may have to have followed the team day in and day out to notice it.
Second, I think by adding vets like Tracy McGrady to the bench, Atlanta has improved their Basketball IQ at both ends of the floor. Guys like T-Mac and Vladimir Radmanovic certainly aren't going to put fear in many teams at this stage of their career but collectively combined with Zaza Pachulia have built some good chemistry on the floor. What I have noticed particularly on the offensive end is that the second unit often gets by not so much on talent but by making the correct basketball play whether it is an extra pass or taking advantage of a mismatch. It is quite possible that this is true on the defensive side of the court as well.
Even more appealing is that we have started to see this type of thing carry over to the starters as well and I think that has to do with the positive veteran presence of guys like Radmanovic, McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse in practice. It is still a small sample size but one thing to watch for is whether or not Atlanta can sustain this type of play for the season.
One thing that emerged from the loss in Chicago was how Larry Drew used his bench and that the Chicago Bulls seemed to find their rhythm offensively against the Hawks second unit. Chicago is one of the teams that John Hollinger points out that doesn't seem to be protecting any of its players from the condensed schedule and are playing players heavy minutes. Both Derrick Rose and Luol Deng played the entire second half against the Hawks and are among the league leaders in minutes played. Hollinger wonders if they continue to do that if there will be repercussions come playoff time.
Hollinger also notes Larry Drew as one of the coaches that seems to be protecting his starters in the early part of the season.
Similarly, Larry Drew's Atlanta team lost the battle Tuesday night, but the Hawks may be winning the war. Joe Johnson averages 34.5 minutes and no other Hawk is above 32.2. An early blowout of New Jersey helped skew those numbers down, but the Hawks have overused Johnson in particular in recent seasons and have managed him much better this season. As long as Tracy McGrady stays upright -- he left Tuesday's game with a knee problem -- Atlanta may be in good shape come May.
Drew may not have had any choice but to protect his guys due to the Hawks starting the season with nine games in 12 days. His decisions on substitutions against Chicago sparked a spirited Twitter debate between myself and one of my fellow Peachtree Hoops writers.
Had the Chicago game been close heading to the fourth, then we might have saw the Hawks ride their starters a little longer. They had a big lead entering the fourth and as they have done all season, they were trying to buy their starters a few extra minutes on the bench. Personally I didn't have a problem with the tactic at the time of course it is a debate whether or not the Hawks second unit should ever be on the floor at the same time in a game. Still they had a decent sized lead in the game. Drew's decision is one though that is easily second guessed after the fact. If the Hawks win it is one that is quickly forgotten.
The point Hollinger makes here is that teams can't complain constantly about the schedule and then go out and ignore it during the games. They have to strike a balance and it may in fact cost a team or two a game over the course of the season. Coaches are going to have to decide when to go for the victory and when to be a little more cautious because going all in every night is going to have nasty repercussions come playoff time.