Over the course of the last two seasons, the Atlanta Hawks have turned into a defensive juggernaut. The defense was solid during the 60-win 2014-15 season, but last year (coupled with a below-average offense), Atlanta finished with the second-best defensive rating in the NBA. The Hawks’ 48 wins last season came on the strength of this defense, as Atlanta stifled teams just enough to let the offense squeak by.
Although the starting five will be different this year, Atlanta will once again try to field an elite defense. It may be unreasonable to expect this team to finish second in defensive rating again, but the Hawks should still be able to deploy an above-average defensive team.
Predicting that the Hawks will be a defense-first team again this year is not difficult. Their offense struggled last season, and the team’s offseason moves don’t do much to suggest a different outcome this time around. The Hawks made several big moves this summer, but none should change their status as a team that wins with their defense.
While Atlanta is built to defend well, it is unclear if this team’s defense will be quite as good as it was last year. Dwight Howard is an excellent defender, but he is in the rare position (for a player of his caliber) of replacing an even better one. At the point guard position, Dennis Schröder’s speed and athleticism will provide a defensive upgrade over Jeff Teague from last season (although the second unit could struggle without his presence).
At the same time, though, the Hawks shouldn’t be much worse defensively than last year unless something unforeseen happens. Howard can still defend at a high level, and every other player on the starting five (Millsap especially) can contribute as well. There are a lot of question marks around this team right now, but defensive ability should not be one of them.
If Atlanta can roll out a top-level defense again, they could easily rank among the league’s elite at that end of the floor. Last year’s top defense — San Antonio — should take a step back without Tim Duncan, but should still be strong. Several teams that finished below the Hawks last season, like the Boston Celtics or Utah Jazz, seemed poised to make a leap, and the contest for best defense could be an interesting one.
If Atlanta finishes anywhere near 48 wins again, it will probably be because the team coupled an average offense with a top-five defense. The question facing the team is not whether or not the defense will be good, but rather just how good it will be. The Hawks will be a defense-first team in 2016-17 though, and this is their best path to success.