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Atlanta Hawks to prioritize defense heading into training camp

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They say defense wins championships. While that may not be the Hawks this year, their hat is hung on the right end...

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks 2017-18 season unofficially begins today as they commence training camp, gearing up for the beginning of another 82 game journey that spans from October to April, and thousands and thousands of miles...

By now, coaches across the league will have identified the areas of focus heading into training camp (some teams might, perhaps, be look to build chemistry and familiarity) and the Atlanta Hawks are no different this regard, with Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer stating on media that a goal of his heading into training camp is to prioritise defense.

“Defense is always something that we’ve taken a lot of pride in,” Budenholzer told the assembled media on Monday.

“Any team that wants to have some success and wants to be good, your priority and the first thing you probably talk about — the first thing you work on — is establishing a defensive identity. I’ve been a part of a lot a of training camps and tomorrow (Tuesday, when training camp gets under way) will feel a lot like that, will look a lot like that, and the goal of the guys understanding how important it is for us to be good on defense and all of the details that go with that.”

This ‘defense-first’ approach should come as no surprise to those who have followed the team over the last few seasons, especially under Budenholzer.

While the Mike Budenholzer-era Hawks have struggled on offense at times, defensively they were always one of the league’s better sides.

Stats via NBA.com

Atlanta Hawks defensive rating under coach Mike Budenholzer

Season Defensive rating Position in league
Season Defensive rating Position in league
2013-14 104.1 T14th
2014-15 100.7 7th
2015-16 98.8 2nd
2016-17 103.1 4th

When it comes to the 2013-14 season, keep in mind that’s with one of the team’s best defensive players — Al Horford — playing just 29 games after sustaining a season-ending injury in late December.

You can see the trend for yourself: Mike Budenholzer teams play good defense and rank highly in the league when it comes to defense.

However, there’s one — quite large — difference this year when it comes to the Atlanta Hawks defense and it’s something that they have not had to deal with under Mike Budenholzer in his four years with the team: the absence of one Paul Millsap, who left the Hawks after four successful seasons and signed with the Denver Nuggets over the summer.

Referred to as the ‘Anchorman’ by some during his time in Atlanta, Millsap truly was the team’s defensive anchor over the last few seasons. His defensive efforts were widely recognised across the league as he was named to the All-NBA Defensive 2nd team in 2016 and received many defensive votes again in 2017.

He guarded not only his own position extremely well but would, at times, check the opposing team’s best wing player, such as New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Indiana’s Paul George, not to mention some guy called LeBron James. At times, he would also guard the opposing team’s center, Memphis’ Marc Gasol immediately comes to mind.

But Millsap wasn’t the only defensive loss the Hawks suffered over the summer. Dwight Howard is also no longer with the team, traded to the Charlotte Hornets prior to the draft.

While Dwight was often punished by opponents for not stepping up on pick-and-rolls, he imposed somewhat of a presence at the rim and did a solid job protecting the rim at times last season.

Though his overall contributions in his one season with the Hawks were always met with a mixed response, it’s hard to deny that he was a factor on defense: it would be impossible for the Hawks to have a top 10 defense if Howard was completely inadequate on defense — he definitely helped play a part.

Between the two of them, Howard and Millsap played a huge role in the Hawks conceding the second fewest paint points per game at 39.1 per game last season. Only the Memphis Grizzlies conceded fewer paint points per game.

While these were two heavy defensive losses for the Hawks to suffer, coach Bud maintained that it’s not about individual defense but team defense, acknowledging that everyone has to play their part.

“I think it’s always about team defense for us,” said Budenholzer when asked how the Hawks would fare defending the paint without Howard and Millsap. “We have to have everybody participating, everybody working together...”

And Budenholzer is happy with the personnel he has to defend the paint.

“I think we have a lot (of strength when it comes to defending the paint),” Budenholzer added. “Dewayne Dedmon and Miles Plumlee, and Ersan returning and Muskie returning...”

Dewayne Dedmon — who will more than likely be the starting center for the Hawks this upcoming season — certainly has the potential to be the defensive anchor the Hawks need this season.

With the San Antonio Spurs last year, Dedmon registered the third highest defensive plus/minus at the center spot with plus-3.9. Opponents also shot 5% worse than normal when guarded by Dedmon. It’s good to keep in mind that these both came in an average of 17.7 minutes per game coming off the bench last season but the defensive potential for Dedmon is there.

While I think coach Bud’s trust in Dedmon’s ability to protect the paint is justified, I would be much less optimistic than coach Bud about Miles Plumlee being able to sure up the paint... He’s just not a spectacular defender.

Plumlee registered a defensive real plus/minus of plus-0.52 in 10.8 minutes per game in 45 games last season, ranking 53rd out of 66 centers. For context (and to be fair), Karl-Anthony Towns is 66th on that list, so make of ESPN’s real plus/minus stat what you will — I would still not have a lot of confidence in Miles’ Plumlee’s interior defense but, hey, I could be wrong (and I hope I am).

We saw last season that Ersan Ilyasova is a solid defender who willingly gives up his body to take charges for the team. He’s no Paul Millsap on defense at the power forward spot, sure very few are, but you could do an awful lot worse defensively at power forward than Ersan. You certainly can’t fault his effort, at the very least.

Mike Muscala has also proved solid on defense, especially when it comes to help defense. Sure, his post defense, you could argue, isn’t spectacular but the rest of his defense is more than adequate and I would say quite underrated.

Budenholzer also mentioned rookie John Collins and new signing Luke Babbitt as players who could help with the Hawks’ defense but eluded that their contributions on defense would become more notable once they “...understand their roles and what they need to do...” as they adjust to the Hawks’ defense schemes.

For coach Bud, when it comes to replacing Millsap and Howard on defense in the paint it’s about the five guys on the floor. The team.

“I think it’s always about team for us and protecting the paint and being good defensively in the paint is going to be about all five guys on the court,” said Budenholzer.

All five guys on the floor.

Well, the Hawks have some capable defenders on the wing in the form of Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince (though the loss of Thabo Sefolosha will certainly be felt), though, you get the feeling that if the Hawks are to have some success on the defensive end this season, a better defensive year from Dennis Schröder would be required (Schröder often let opposing point guards slide by too easily last season).

How likely is a better defensive showing from Schröder? Probably not too likely, as Schröder has even more of a offensive load to carry this season, and — generally speaking — when point guards carry large offensive burdens (as Schröder is set to do this season) they often take plays off on defense to save energy. Russell Westbrook comes to mind here, and I imagine Schröder will also fall into this category. And I can’t say I blame him this time around, he really facing a mammoth task on offense this season, trying to score himself, setting up others while commanding the opposing team’s attention — it’s going to be difficult.

Do I think the Hawks will have a top five defense this year? Probably not, but I think they could surprise some people defensively, especially if Dewayne Dedmon can make a similar impact in the starting lineup for the Hawks as he did on the bench last season in San Antonio, and if Dennis Schröder digs a little deeper on defense. Plus, we’re not sure what to expect from Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry defensively in year two, they could also surprise.

As has been the case in the last few seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, and as will be the case this season, it’s going to be their defense and not their offense that is going to give them the best chances of winning games this season.

Coach Mike Budenholzer is choosing the right end of the floor for the Hawks to hang their hat on, and the foundations for what the Hawks want to achieve on the court this season begins today, begins by placing a priority defense...

Can they surprise the league or will the loss of Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard and Thabo Sefolosha prove too much for a defense to recover from? Only time will tell.