ATLANTA — Mike Budenholzer’s main concern has not been kept secret. In the midst of answering questions concerning his role as acting general manager, the health of the team’s top players and expectations for his team in the revamped Eastern Conference, the second-year head coach drops constant reminders: the Atlanta Hawks need to improve defensively.
Budenholzer’s oft-injured roster was far from a disaster on that end of the floor during the 2013-14 season, finishing ranked 14th out of 30 teams defensive efficiency, but it was also well removed from an elite level.
Only three other playoff teams finished worse than Atlanta in defensive efficiency — Portland, Dallas and Brookyln — and each team was superior on the offensive side of the ball. The Hawks, which missed at least one of its starters
"If we want to get to where we want to be, we are going to have to be better defensively," Budenholzer said at the team’s training camp last week. "As a group, we want to have a defensive identity."
In the team’s preseason opener, the Hawks received their first opportunity to establish that identity.
Standing in the way of that initial process, particularly for Atlanta’s big men, was New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis. Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, is one of the most versatile (and terrifying) two-way players the NBA has to offer. At 6-foot-10, the former Kentucky star can attack an opposing defense from all over the floor, both with the jumper, by putting the ball on the floor and as the screener/roll option on the pick-and-roll. He’s been described as the "new breed" of basketball standout and he’s primed to enter the MVP conversation in just his third season.
"He’s a great player, young player. He’s gonna be one of the best players in this league, if he isn’t already," Hawks forward Mike Scott said after his team’s 93-87 win. "He’s long, athletic. He’s a good shooter so we just had to take away his space and contest his shots and be physical with him."
(Hawks guard Jeff Teague assisted with the physical nature of play in a first-half tangle with Davis while fighting for a loose ball, which led to the latter heading to the bench after getting hit in the face.)
The name, obviously, was familiar for Budenholzer’s group.
Last season, Davis went off in two New Orleans wins against Atlanta, scoring 61 points and grabbing 21 rebounds versus a frontcourt that was already operating without Al Horford. Not that Horford would have guaranteed a different outcome. Davis finished 14th in win shares — and eighth in win shares per 48 minutes among qualified players — during the ’13-’14 campaign, so there were plenty of nights when well-stocked rosters were unable to slow him down.
So in the first night of testing their new-look, though still undermanned, roster against someone other than themselves, the Hawks lined up against one of the five or 10 most gifted offensive players in the sport. The results were drastically improved, preseason setting notwithstanding: Davis finished with 11 points (5 of 12 shooting) and six rebounds in 25 minutes, a far cry from his typical stat line. Yes, it’s preseason basketball. But for an opening test it gave the Hawks frontcourt a quality outing to continue building on, even if it wasn’t perfect.
"Team like that, they’ve got multiple options. They’ve got a good player, an All-Star player down low so we worked on our stunts a little bit, especially off the pick-and-roll. It wasn’t ideal, like we want it to be, but we’re still getting better, guys are still learning it," said All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who emphasized that mistakes were made defending the pick-and-roll. "We’re focused on ourselves right now, focused on what we need to do defensively, because most of the time our scheme’s not gonna change.
"We’re gonna pretty much do the same thing to any team, so it’s working on us getting better at what we do."
For one preseason game, playing without starters Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Demarre Carroll and bench options Pero Antic and Kent Bazemore, the Hawks held New Orleans to 36.6 percent shooting from the field, including 9 of 24 from 3-point range. The Hawks were a perfect 6-0 when holding opponents under 40 percent shooting last season. It was an up-and-down effort — as Budenholzer mentioned, 54 of those points came in the second and fourth quarters — but Atlanta held opponents under 90 points just 14 times last season and New Orleans is no slouch on offense.
Perfection and preseason rarely mix. Budenholzer’s area of emphasis certainly did not get off to a negative start, though, all things considered. There were breakdowns and corrections to make — and more will almost certainly show up on film, ones the Pelicans ocassionally failed to capitalize on — but the end result should be a step in the right direction.
Still, the quiet night from Anthony Davis did not do much for the coach’s confidence moving forward.
"I think it was just a preseason game. I’m sure if Anthony Davis said he wasn’t on our schedule, we wouldn’t complain," Budenholzer said. "I think our players did a good job. Anthony Davis is obviously one of the best young players in our league and any time you play against a player like that I think the awareness and the focus probably goes up a level. But I think there’s not a whole lot to put into a preseason game."
Twenty-three days away from putting much more stock into these types of results.