Since roughly the start of the calendar year, the Atlanta Hawks have been one of the better teams in the Eastern conference. While the caveat that they have played mostly mediocre opponents should temper expectations for future success, the Hawks have undeniably played at a high level during this stretch. A perfect January (reminiscent of 2015) is out of play, but the Hawks have won seven out of their eight games so far this month.
Most importantly, the Hawks have emerged as an elite defensive team again over this last stretch. This development isn’t a shock — Atlanta’s roster is filled with talented defensive players at every position. Given how the team struggled earlier on this season though, seeing a strong defensive showing on a nightly basis is encouraging for the rest of the season.
As a whole, the Hawks’ defense is very good. Per NBA Stats, Atlanta ranks fifth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 102.4 points per 100 possessions. This rating is solid enough on its own, but becomes much more impressive when compared with some of the other metrics from earlier on. In December for example — in the midst of the team’s worst slump this season — the Hawks’ defensive rating of 109.5 ranked 22nd in the NBA.
Most impressively, Atlanta is tied with the New Orleans Pelicans for the best defensive rating in the league over the past 10 games. Over that same timeframe, the Hawks boast the third-best net rating overall, falling behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. Given the team’s strong performance in the month of January so far, this metric shouldn’t be terribly surprising.
As always, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. The team built their defensive rating against teams like Orlando, Dallas, and Brooklyn, hardly the elite offenses that the Hawks could face in the playoffs. However, the fact that Atlanta has been as good as any defense over the last 10 games — in addition to cracking the top five for the year as a whole — suggests that the elite defense from 2015-16 has returned.
Other advanced metrics back this up, pointing to the skills of individual Hawks players. Atlanta has two of the top six four-man defensive lineups, both of which involve Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap, and Thabo Sefolosha. Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder are each in one of these lineups, showing that any combination of Millsap, Sefolosha, and Howard is good enough to keep the Hawks near the top of the league.
Millsap has been a recognizably-elite defender for the last few years, and both Howard and Sefolosha have also built strong reputations on this skill. It also makes sense that the team’s best defensive lineups don’t involve Kyle Korver — as much as he has meant to this franchise, he has been exploitable from a defensive standpoint this season. His absence raises massive questions about the Hawks’ ability to score, but the defense at least stands to benefit at the moment. This isn’t to say that Korver is a terrible defender, but rather that replacing his minutes with Sefolosha allows for a more defensive focus from the team as a whole.
Atlanta’s schedule starts to get more difficult in late January and early February (bringing games against the Clippers and Rockets), and how the team adapts to these challenges will say much about their ability to keep up this defensive performance. However, all signs point to a defensive revival for the Hawks. Boasting a unit that ranks at the top of the league over the last ten games (and is top-five overall), Atlanta seems to have recaptured its defensive identity from last season.