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Diving Into the Hawks’ Defensive Struggles

Dejounte Murray Drives against the Rockets
(AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

The Atlanta Hawks currently sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with an 11-15 record. Atlanta’s offense is never in question with Trae Young at the helm, as it ranks fourth in the NBA with a 119.7 offensive rating. The Hawks also own a 119.7 defensive rating- good for 27th in the association. Most games this season have ended with the Hawks and the opposition scoring over 120 points, which is not a recipe for consistently winning games. This article examines the players, defensive scheme, and more to give fans an in-depth analysis of the Hawks’ defense.

It Starts at the Point of Attack

When General Manager Landry Fields traded for Dejounte Murray last offseason, many Hawks fans were excited about the possibility of a great perimeter defender next to Young. Murray’s defensive calling card has always been his keen eye for picking off passes, leading to easy transition buckets for his squad. He brings that to Atlanta, as the Hawks rank fifth in the league in steals with 8.5 per game.

Many fans outside of Atlanta may know Murray as a great point-of-attack (POA) defender; unfortunately, he has not showcased that ability regularly with the Hawks. Murray often guards the opposition’s perimeter scorer with little success on most nights. The front office might have misevaluated Murray’s POA defense while he was on the San Antonio Spurs.

Young’s defense has always been a negative talking point throughout his career. However, this year, he is changing that narrative. Young is engaged defensively, averaging a career-high 1.3 steals per game and playing stable POA defense. However, he is still not a great defender, and with Murray’s POA struggles against paint penetrators, the Hawks give up the most rim attacks in the league. This puts a lot of responsibility on Onyeka Okongwu and Clint Capela, resulting in foul trouble for both centers.

The Impact of Jalen Johson

In games where Jalen Johnson starts and plays 30 minutes, Atlanta boasts an 8-5 record. However, after he suffered a wrist fracture on Nov. 25 in Washington, D.C., the Hawks have only been 4-8 in the 12 games since the incident. It is no secret that Johnson is crucial to the Hawks and their strategy on both ends of the floor.

At 6 feet 9 inches, Johnson is the only player in the main rotation who is above average in height for his position. The Hawks critically miss his defensive rebounding. Capela, who was diagnosed with a bone bruise on Dec. 17, has been a force on the boards, even playing through the injury. But if he misses any significant time, Atlanta will suffer mightily on the glass. Capela did not play against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 16, and they dominated the Hawks 49-34 in the rebounding department. Jarrett Allen took advantage of the Hawks’ small lineup, totaling 25 points and 14 rebounds.

The Importance of a Strong Backline

One of Johnson’s best defensive qualities is his ability to cover up some mistakes from the perimeter defense. His length and athleticism allow him to recover quickly if he is out of position or rotate over to deny an easy look at the rim. Outside of the centers, no one else on the roster has this ability.

A defensive backline of De’Andre Hunter, Saddiq Bey, Garrison Mathews, and Wesley Matthews does not have the range or size needed to deliver in Atlanta’s scheme. Head Coach Quin Snyder wants Capela and Okongwu high on the screen to stop the ball handler from turning the corner. This acts as a temporary boost to the POA defense. The responsibility then falls on the backline to cut off the pass to the roll man or make it tough for him to score. Even though Hunter is strong and a good defender, the backline lacks the ranginess and height to bother a center diving to the rim. Allen’s game against the Hawks illustrates this perfectly. Without Johnson, Snyder has to get creative with his rotations and adjust the defensive plan accordingly to compete with bigger teams.

Two Centers Can Co-Exist

Snyder started Okongwu at power forward with Capela against the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 15 to combat Toronto’s size advantage. Hunter sat out this contest with a sore knee, which moved Bey to small forward. It was Okongwu’s first start at power forward in the NBA, and it paid off. The Hawks blew out Toronto 125-104, with Capela putting up 18 points and 15 boards, while Okongwu totaled 14 points and 11 rebounds.

With this specific lineup, the Hawks moved more into drop coverage than sending the big high on the screen. This worked against the Raptors because they do not have elite guard scoring. Atlanta cut off easy paths to the rim and forced Toronto into their weakness- shooting. The Raptors only shot 10-31 from beyond the arc. However, drop coverage will not work against teams with elite guards due to the freedom and space it gives good scores.

Since Hunter returned to action, Snyder has not used this lineup, but Okongwu and Capela still share some rotation minutes on the court together. As long as Johnson remains sidelined, Hawks fans should expect to see Okongwu play more power-forward minutes.

The Waiting Game

Atlanta eagerly awaits the upcoming results from Johnson’s wrist re-evaluation within the next week. Young is arguably playing the best basketball of his career, putting up five straight 30-point, 10-assist games. He is shooting almost 38% from downtown and averaging a career-high 11 assists. If Johnson’s return gives Atlanta a boost defensively, the Hawks can still go on a run to get back in contention for a playoff seed with 46 games remaining.


Michael Kobrinsky is a writer for Back Sports Page. He studied communication and journalism at North Carolina State University and graduated in May of 2023. Michael lives in Atlanta, GA, and primarily writes basketball content for Back Sports Page. Outside of a career in writing, you can find him playing golf, basketball, and video games. Follow Michael on Twitter:

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