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The Atlanta Hawks’ Struggling Three-Point Defense

The Hawks have a good defense, but its kryptonite is three-point shooting

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For all the general inconsistency swirling around the Atlanta Hawks this season, the team still boasts a very good (perhaps even elite) defense. According to Basketball-Reference, Atlanta has the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. Falling behind only the Spurs, Jazz, and Warriors, the Hawks are in good company on the defensive end of the floor.

As good as the overall defensive effort has been though, it isn’t perfect. Right now, Atlanta gives up the second-most three-point attempts per game in the NBA. Trailing only the Charlotte Hornets, the Hawks allow 30.5 three-point attempts per game. This number isn’t quite as bad as it might look, but it is still important. Perhaps most importantly, this metric shows how Atlanta’s defense has changed since approximately a year ago.

Atlanta didn’t always give up shots at such a prodigious rate. For reference, the Hawks gave up 24.5 three-point attempts per game in the 2015-16 season. The difference from year to year isn’t quite as stark as it might look, since every team is taking more three-pointers this season than last. However, the Hawks were 15th in the league in this metric last year, showing how much the defense has changed in this area.

The 2015-16 Hawks were an elite defense because they were quick, flexible, and able to move around the perimeter easily. This year the defense is still good, but in markedly different ways that affect what the team is able to do. Dwight Howard, for all his skills and abilities (which, to be clear, have been very valuable this season), will never be able to move around the perimeter like Al Horford can. Since he can’t close out on shooters in the same way, there is more open floor space, and more open shots.

Instead of a team that can switch at will and guard nearly every angle on the floor, the Hawks are now a team anchored by a mostly-stationary center. This is far from a bad product, and Atlanta still boasts a top-five defense. But there are marked differences from last year’s roster, and the amount of three-point shots the team allows reflects this change.

Given the roster that the Hawks field every night, there is no easy fix to allowing so many three-pointers. There may be specific strategic tweaks that Mike Budenholzer can deploy on a night-by-night basis, but the Hawks are almost certain to finish the season near the top of the leaderboard in three-point attempts allowed. For a team that prides itself on an elite defense, this is an odd statistic.

As weird as the Hawks’ three-point defense may be, it’s not an all-inclusive one. The New Orleans Pelicans also allow three-point shots at a top-five rate, and also boast a top-10 defensive rating. Allowing these shots is far from ideal, but this single issue alone is not enough to sink a defense. Instead, this statistic serves as an indicator of how much this team has changed from last season. The Hawks are still good on the defensive end of the floor, but are doing it in much different ways.