Three reasons the Hawks have gotten better

5:10 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 Sports
John Bazemore/AP
Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer signals to his team during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Hawks are tied for worst record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, so they still can’t be considered a good team. But they have been better the past month while posting a 7-7 record that includes five victories over teams projected to qualify for the playoffs: the Wizards, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Spurs and Pelicans. 

“I think we are just starting to figure it out,” Hawks veteran Kent Bazemore said. 

Here are three reasons why the Hawks have been better over the past month. 

1. They are healthier 

Until recently, injuries left the Hawks without key rotation players for extended periods. That’s especially true in the frontcourt, which had figured to be the team’s deepest area before injuries took their toll. 

Starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova missed 10 of the first 14 games. Two weeks after his return, starting center Dewayne Dedmon went to the injured list for 19 games. During Dedmon’s absence his primary backup, John Collins, was out for six games. 

Veteran Mike Muscala, the second-unit power forward, was out from Nov. 5 to Jan. 2. Miles Plumlee missed most of the first month of the season. 

Ilyasova, Dedmon, Muscala and Plumlee are proven NBA players, and Collins has been one of the league’s best rookies. Ilyasova and Muscala are good 3-point shooters and Dedmon and Collins are by far the best rebounders on the team. 

With those players out, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer at times had to use smaller, makeshift frontcourt rotations that included undrafted rookie Tyler Cavanaugh and natural small forward Luke Babbitt. 

2. They are better on defense

Statistically, the Hawks are significantly worse on defense than they were in any of Budenholzer’s four previous seasons. The Hawks ranked 14th in defensive efficiency during his first season and seventh or better over the next three. The Hawks rank 26th in defensive efficiency this season, but there’s been significant improvement over the past month. 

In the past 14 games, the Hawks have allowed 105 points per 100 possessions, tied for the sixth-best mark in the league over that span. Opponents had a 52.3 effective field-goal percentage in those 14 games, compared with a 54.6 over the first 32 games, and the Hawks collected 76.6 percent of opponent missed shots in the past month, compared with 73.9 percent in the previous games. 

“I think being healthy has helped us be better defensively, having all of our bigs healthier and available to us,” Budenholzer said.

As of Jan. 15, the Hawks were the fifth-least experienced team in the league, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Their 17-man roster includes nine players with one season or less of previous NBA experience, and five of those players have played at least 400 minutes with the NBA team this season. 

Taurean Prince already has played 1,411 minutes this season, 430 more than he did as a rookie, and Collins now has logged 886 minutes. Over the past month second-year point guard Malcolm Delaney has played well in place of Isaiah Taylor, who played just 52 minutes with the Rockets last season. The healthier frontcourt means Cavanaugh’s minutes have been absorbed by veterans. 

With more experience in the rotation now, the Hawks have been better at finishing games. 

“I think from the beginning we’ve been a pretty confident team,” Bazemore said. “I think a lack of experience and inconsistencies on a nightly basis have kind of been our Achilles heel. Our mistakes ... allow teams to go on huge runs. I think we’ve done a better job coming out (strong) and giving ourselves a little wiggle room to make those mistakes that we are going to make and then roll the dice at the end of the game.”