Wednesday, March 10, 2010 Cunningham: So what to make of these Atlanta Hawks?

From the afore-quoted blog post that includes information about Mo Evans's illness:
The Hawks are supposed to be a defensive-minded team under Woody.
The key phrase there is "supposed to be." What follows is not to pick on Michael Cunningham. The quoted supposition is made far too often by people who have watched this team far longer than has Mr. Cunningham and has little basis in reality.

The Hawks, from the head coach on down, talk a lot about defense. I don't doubt they emphasize defense. They simply never have played very good defense for any appreciably time under Woodson. For all the talk about defense, and I've mentioned this before, the Hawks have finished better than 18th in the league in defensive efficiency once in Woodson's five full seasons as head coach: 12th last season. They're 13th in the league this season.

With the organizational emphasis on continuity, the team's defensive performance* this season shouldn't be a surprise. After all, there were pre-season concerns about the loss of Flip Murray's defense.

*Even with Josh Smith returning to health and making a fine case for inclusion on the All-Defensive Team.

Speaking of Josh Smith...rather, Josh Smith speaking:
“We seem to kind of not get the defensive concepts down on a consistent night in and night out basis,” Smoove said. “We go good for three or four games and then we slip. We have to be more consistent on night in and night out basis because we are going to score points.”

And which concepts do the the Hawks struggle to grasp?

“Maybe coverages,” Josh said. “But really just the simple principle of keeping your man in front of you.”
Mike Woodson:
"I think the fact that I am trying to–I don’t want to use the word ‘hiding’ guys–but we switch a lot of things, we try to be proactive. Maybe we need to scale back a little bit in those areas. But I don’t want to take our aggressiveness away. I think we are just doing it in spurts."
I contend the problem is primarily one of personnel, not tactics. Mike Woodson has preferred as his point guard Tyronn Lue, Mike Bibby, Flip Murray, and Jamal Crawford. (Even the "defensive" point guards he's used, Royal Ivey and Anthony Johnson, were more defensive point guards in the sense of being better than the alternatives rather than being objectively good.) This typically works for his offense* but leaves the team defensive concepts more a subject for discussion than implementation.

*An offense, one should mention, that looks assured of finishing in the top 12 of the league for the third time in Woodson's six seasons in Atlanta.

I don't doubt Mike Woodson's desire to have his teams play good defense but he's failed to turn his intentions into reality. I don't begrudge him the discomfort this perhaps less conscious decision to acquire a series of point guards that he may desire specifically for their offensive abilities so as to free up his time to concentrate on defense actually sabotages the team's defense to a significant degree. Nor do I believe his more intuitive ability to get his teams to play above average to good offense to be less a tangible success for it being so, so less verbalized.

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