The recent stigma of the NBA is that it consists of a bunch of extremely-talented offensive players who couldn't care less about defense. Haters of the league claim that the college game is much more enjoyable to watch due to an increased sense of defensive effort as a whole. However, the Atlanta Hawks are doing their best to break that point of view, putting an emphasis on the defensive end of the court. As a result, the Hawks are on a 13-game winning streak and have the best record in the Eastern Conference, at 34-8.
Let's first touch on the great success Atlanta has had this season. They've gone a dominant 24-6 against Eastern Conference teams, 17-3 at home, and an NBA-best 17-5 on the road. Only the Warriors have a better home record, at 18-1, and overall record, at 33-6. On the offensive side of the court, they rank 2nd in the NBA in assists per game, with 26.0, and points per game, with 103.1.
However, it's their effort on defense, emphasized by coach Mike Budenholzer, that has tipped this talented bunch over the edge and into an elite squad. They lead the NBA in points allowed per game, giving up just 96.3. In a very, very offensive-minded league, they're performing at an impressive clip, as indicated by the following numbers...
They've allowed a field goal percentage of 43.5% (4th in NBA), three-point field goal percentage of 33.4% (6th in NBA), average 9.0 steals per game (5th in NBA), force 15.4 turnovers per game (7th in NBA), and rank 2nd in the NBA in point differential at +6.8.
Not a "sexy" hire by any means, Budenholzer spent 19 years with the San Antonio Spurs organization, including 17 as an assistant under coach Gregg Popovich. His strong defensive mind and emphasis was likely one of the reasons why he appealed to Hawks general manager Danny Ferry in the hiring process.
It looks like sometimes "sexy" isn't always the way to go.
It's evident through the first half of the season that Hawks players have completely bought in to Budenholzer's system on both ends of the court. They have an uncanny commitment to the offense down to the end of the shot clock. Players play within a stringent system, but are still able to improvise and make smart decisions with the basketball. Each player has a role. Jeff Teague has emerged into one of the NBA's most up-and-coming point guards, Kyle Korver has shot the three-pointer at a higher percentage than any other player through this point of the season in NBA history, and Paul Millsap and Al Horford have performed at All-Star levels.
It's an organization that has had talented pieces, but the pieces never really fit together. Budenholzer has fit each piece into the puzzle, and is on track to make a playoff run, barring any major injuries.
Perhaps most impressively, Budenholzer has created a positive, drama-free atmosphere in his first season in Atlanta, which is very difficult to do (I'm thinking of you, David Blatt). By watching two minutes of a Hawks game, it's evident that this team is completely cohesive on both ends of the court, they genuinely play team basketball, and they enjoy playing together. All these factors make the team especially dangerous, considering they're playing in a weak Eastern Conference.
It will be pretty interesting to see if Budenholzer can transform the Hawks into the Spurs of the Eastern Conference. This is an example of a former Gregg Popovich disciple taking what he learned under the legendary coach and applying it with his own tweaks here and there.
Hawks fans certainly have a lot to smile about right now, and likely will for seasons to come under the direction of their new head coach.
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