Lloyd Pierce

Atlanta Hawks defense has become a serious problem

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The Atlanta Hawks defense has been awful of late. Only three teams have a worse defensive rating over their last 10 games.

Defense was always the worry for this Hawks roster. The exciting offseason moves did not address the defense as such.

There are mitigating circumstances. De’Andre Hunter has missed time. Bojan Bogdanovic has played a grand total of 213 minutes. Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn, two defense-minded signings, have appeared in 14 games combined (all by Rondo). Cam Reddish missed a handful of games, too.

Slumping to 12-17 after the loss to the Celtics, the Hawks are 2-8 over their last 10. The defense has been, unfortunately, as advertised.

Down in 27th in turnover rate for the season, the Hawks are getting picked apart. They rank in the bottom 10 in the league in opponent points per possession on pick-and-roll plays. Trae Young continues to get exploited – the Hawks’ defensive rating is 5.1 points worse with their star guard on the floor. Danilo Gallinari‘s defensive on/off numbers are poor, too.


Opponents are getting to the rim at will. Atlanta ranks 24th in the NBA in percentage of opponent attempts at the cup.

Lloyd Pierce doesn’t have many plus defenders. Hustle and activity is key. Forcing turnovers takes pressure off the defense, but the Hawks aren’t doing that. They aren’t disrupting passing lanes either – they rank in the bottom 10 in deflections per game. Even with Clint Capela and Collins, the Hawks aren’t dominating the glass. Their 76.9% defensive rebound rate is 23rd in the league.

Missing key pieces

Atlanta is not doing the basics. Of course, playing without Hunter is significant. Teams are scoring almost 10 points fewer per 100 possessions with Hunter on the floor. In over 300 minutes with Hunter and Reddish on the floor, Atlanta has a +3.7 net rating. Availability, or lack thereof, is part of the reason for their defensive struggle.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t a roster built with defense as a priority. And if the offense kicks into gear, they could make the play-in even with a bottom five defense. This is a long-term concern, however. Gallinari is signed for several seasons. Young is the future of the franchise. Perhaps this makes a John Collins trade more likely.

Pierce needs Reddish and Hunter to play big minutes. Their defense would be a necessity in a playoff series. Gallinari is the second-worst defensive four in the game per ESPN’s real plus/minus. How do Young and Gallinari co-exist defensively in a postseason setting? Maybe that’s a question without an answer.

Blowing teams away with offense is a viable first step towards contention. The defense can always come later, and the offense can fire you into the playoffs. The Hawks haven’t lived up to the billing on that end, unfortunately.


Sitting 11th in offensive rating, Atlanta is 22nd in effective field goal percentage. Their shooting percentages are league average or worse all over the floor. They are dead-last in transition efficiency. The offense or defense must improve if Atlanta is to achieve their playoff ambitions. This isn’t just a blip in their season or a run of poor fortune – their last four losses have come by at least 10 points.

Play-in is the bare minimum

Even with the injuries, Pierce has a roster with plenty of talent. This group should, at the very least, be a play-in team. There’s a lot of work to be done for that to become reality, however.

Atlanta faces Denver, Boston and Miami (twice) before the break. At the bare minimum, the Hawks need wins over Orlando, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. The Eastern Conference play-in race is fiercely competitive, and for all the offseason hype, the Hawks risk being the odd team out.

Hunter’s injury is a legitimate qualifier on their recent defensive performance, of course, but it cannot be an excuse. So many teams are missing key players. The Hawks aren’t going to be elite, but they can hustle more. They can make life harder for their opponents.

Their season will not be over if they continue to struggle until the break. This is a key period, though, and perhaps a period which could influence the front office’s decisions at the trade deadline.

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