For much of the time that Steve Nash has donned the purple and orange, the Phoenix Suns have been known as an offensive juggernaut. Unfortunately, they have also been known as one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. The "all offense" approach has resulted in much success, but it has ultimately failed to bring home a championship.
General manager Steve Kerr noticed this, and decided to make some changes in an effort to put the team over the top. He swung a blockbuster trade that brought in future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O'Neal. Kerr also made a coaching change, replacing offensive innovator Mike D'Antoni with the defensive-minded Terry Porter. The Suns altered their style and became a half-court, defensive team... and were very mediocre.
Kerr acknowledged his mistake at the All-Star break and made another coaching change, firing Porter and promoting holdover assistant Alvin Gentry. The team responded well to a shift back to their natural style and made a run at the playoffs, but fell short in the end.
Alvin Gentry is a disciple of D'Antoni's wide open offensive system. But, unlike D'Antoni, he also holds players accountable on the defensive end of the court. One only need look at the game last year where Gentry elected to play Lou Amundson in the fourth quarter rather than all-star Amar'e Stoudemire for proof of this.
Last year the Suns made steady improvement defensively, climbing from the bottom of every list to at least middle-of-the-pack in many categories.
Expect that trend to continue.
This year's roster boasts talented defenders at many key positions, and without Stoudemire's high-percentage scoring the Suns may need to rely on defense and hard work more than ever before. Grant Hill has even gone as far as saying that they need to be great defensive team if they want to be successful.
A closer look at this team reveals why such a loft goal is entirely within the realm of possibility.
Good defensive basketball starts on the perimeter. Steve Nash isn't exactly Gary Payton at the point of attack, but on this team he doesn't have to be. He has a plethora of athletic and aggressive players on the wings who can disrupt the guard-to-wing passes that are so important to many offenses. All that's required of Nash is to keep his man in front of him to the best of his abilities.
Suns fans are familiar with what Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and Goran Dragic bring to the table. But newcomer Josh Childress could be this team's defensive MVP. He brings athleticism, length, and versatility that will cause opposing teams nightmares. Hill, Dudley, and Childress give Phoenix three different looks Gentry can throw at opposing stars, keeping them off balance and wearing them out.
Post defense projects to be among the team's greatest weaknesses, particularly at the power forward position. New Sun Hedo Turkoglu not only has to acclimate himself to a new team, he has to adjust to an entirely new position altogether. He is still learning how to defend the post after playing on the perimeter for most of his career. His projected back-up Hakim Warrick, another new addition, also struggles to hold his own against bigger post players.
But both of forwards can turn around their perceived weaknesses - a lack of bulk and strength - and turn them into advantages when guarding pick-and-rolls and the perimeter bigs that are so common in today's game.
While the power forwards are running around on the perimeter, Robin Lopez will be waiting in the paint, anchoring the defense and protecting the rim. Lopez has grown tremendously over his two years in the NBA and has become an intimidating force in the middle.
A good defensive effort is wasted if the team can not come down with the ball after missed shots, and rebounding is another area the Suns figure to struggle.
Robin Lopez rebounds his position well, but that can't be said of the rest of the frontcourt. Turkoglu, Warrick, and back-up center Channing Frye all need to increase their rebound numbers this year if the team hopes to achieve its goals.
One positive can be found for the Suns in this department however, and that is the ability to rebound from the wings. The team will need to find a happy medium between between leaking out in transition and dropping into the frontcourt for rebounds.
The Phoenix Suns are anything but conventional, so why should they confine themselves to traditional measures?
During last season's Western Conference Finals, Alvin Gentry utilized the zone defense against the talented Los Angeles Lakers to great effect. A two-three zone can both hide the Suns' weaknesses and emphasize their strengths. When used in spurts it can frustrate opponents and take them out of their gameplan.
Another route Gentry can go in changing up his defense is to apply pressure after made baskets. The athleticism and depth on the roster could make a well-executed full-court press a real defensive weapon. Pressure not only generates turnovers, it also speeds up the tempo of the game, disrupts offensive gameplans, and wears out opponents.
The 2010-2011 Phoenix Suns are looking to change their reputation as a team who doesn't play defense this season. In order for that to happen it will take commitment and chemistry. It will take sound fundamentals. Most importantly, it will take hard work. It will take players giving their all on every possession, outworking the opposition. If all this can come together this team just might live up to Grant Hill's expectations.