Last season, according to several people in the Suns organization, the team simplified the defensive schemes primarily to help Amare Stoudemire. One of Amare's issues over the years has been thinking too much and not reacting quickly enough on the defensive end of the floor. While it often appeared to the observer that he was a disinterested defender, the reality was that he simply didn't have the ability to read and react to various scenarios as they were unfolding at NBA speed.
The solution was to take all the various options for defending the screen and roll, which is the fundamental core of most NBA offenses, and boil it down to one, or maybe at times two, options.
If you remember from last season, every time the opposing team ran a pick and roll the big man would hedge out and stop the ball which gives the guard time to get around the screen and recover. If the screener rolled to the basket, the rest of the team understood how to rotate from the weak side and pick up that guy. The quick recovery from the hedge by the big man would then complete the sequence.
There are essentially five basic ways* you can cover a screen and roll and the Suns picked one that worked best for the mobility of their big man and covered up for the lack of defensive ability from the point guard position.
It's an effective way to play defense but it's also limiting. Good teams with the right personnel could attack that scheme since they knew exactly how the Suns were going to play them.
It made sense then that this season the coaching staff wanted to raise the defensive bar and mix up coverages. Great defensive teams have the ability to mix things up and the Suns wanted to go from being a decent defensive team last year to being a great defensive team this year. Don't laugh, that was the preseason goal.
Instead of playing the screen and roll the same way, all the time, they wanted to be able to adjust coverages throughout the game and use different approaches on different players. A color-coded system was put in place to call out the defensive play. "Red" means one coverage, "Blue" another, and so forth.
Then came the season which started rather promising on the defensive end but now has reverted back to last season's simplified concepts due the team's failure to cope with the complexity. This comes after a combination of the Robin Lopez injury after just ten games, the lack of defensive ability by some of the new players, the time it takes to learn the more complex schemes when playing with a lot of new guys, and the constant tweaking that progressively added more option like the strong-side zone the Suns tried out a few weeks ago.
"We're going back to what we did last year. We've got one way we play and that's the way we'll play...We know exactly where everyone should be in that situation and we're going to demand that they be there," Coach Gentry explained today after a lengthy practice session.
In that quote you see another advantage of playing the more simplified systems -- accountability. Channing Frye talked about this as well.
"For us, just being on the same page defensively, knowing exactly what everybody is supposed to do and where they're supposed to be, now we can hold people accountable. It is not like, 'I didn't know we were doing that this game or blah, blah, blah.'"
Grant Hill agreed that the change in plans makes things pretty straight forward, "I know I have to 'black' on screen and roll and I have to box out."
That's the game plan you can look to see but as Grant also said, game plan isn't everything.
"It's really a mind-set. We can change schemes all day. We can do this, we can do that, but if we don't change our mind-set it's all for nothing. I thought today was about changing our mind-set."
The mind-set change Grant is talking about means slightly different things to different players. For a smart, experienced vet like Hill it's just about being focused and mentally prepared for the defensive part of the game.
"We've just got to be more consistent," Hill said. "We've got to concentrate. We've got to take a little bit more pride. It's got to be personal. It's got to hurt when somebody scores on you or when somebody scores on us."
But as Channing Frye (and other players at various times) points out, it's not just about playing hard. Frye explained that you can tell someone to run hard down the hall and around the corner but if they don't know exactly where they are going they are going to hesitate. The key as he sees it, is to get everyone on the same page which frees them up to give max physical effort and not run around like "chickens with their heads cut off."
That's the direction the Suns are going in now and they had an almost three-hour long practice today focused entirely on the defensive details to try and get it right.
"We didn't play well and it starts with me and I take that responsibility," Gentry said about the overall team record, but he's still optimistic that the pieces are in place to get better.
"We're not as bad a defensive team as our stats say and we've got to make sure that we're playing that way and putting ourselves in a position to win games."
"I didn't need to study (the game film). I mean we played terrible, that's the bottom line. We gave up 123 points, it didn't need to be studied or anything. Obviously, we have to get much better than we played...In our case, we have a lot of work that we've got to get done and continue to do and that's why we spent a lot of time out here today and we'll continue to do that."
"I think it's just a matter of everyone taking a look at themselves, including the coaches. Everybody's responsible, it starts with me and we'll make sure the accountability is there."
"It's not a punishment thing. I don't believe in punishment. We do have to do what's necessary to get us ready to play. In the past we've been a team that's been able to get our work done in an hour, hour and half, and we've been successful doing it that way."
"You work until you get your job done. That's all."
"It's not too late to get back into this playoff race and overall we just want to play better and play harder."
Today's practice was tough, detailed oriented and "great for us".
"Nobody likes being embarrassed and nobody on this team like losing so we don't care how long we have to be out here if it's going to make us better and help us win we're going to do what's right."
"Any time you lose, you figure 'hey that's not working' so you've got to change it up. I understand that. I've been on teams that have been trying to figure out their identify defensively and I think our team likes this. We understand it and it's about effort and if we can get people moving and playing with some effort we're going to be great."
"Are we going to be the best defensive team in the league tomorrow? No. But it's something that we talked about as players and we've got to commit to it and we've got to stay patient."
"We've shown it at times. We've shown we can do it in stretches. Maybe short stretches, but we've shown we can do it. "
* Five Ways To Cover The Screen And Roll
1. Hedge and rotate
The big man who was guarding the screener jumps out and stops the ball handler from turning the corner. Ideally the ball handler will pick up his dribble. This requires full commitment and quick action by the big as they have to leave their own man and focus on stopping the ball. When the screener rolls to the basket the weak side help has to come over and prevent an easy pass and finish. When that pass is cut off, the players rotate back to their original assignments.
In this coverage the primary responsibilities are on the big man and the help defenders behind the play. This takes pressure off the guard (typically Steve Nash).
2. Show and recover
Here the big man quickly stunts out and tries to slow the ball handler just long enough for the guard but never gives up responsibility for the roll man either. This often leaves the defender in limbo as he ends up not showing hard enough to stop the ball but is still out of position to defend his man as he rolls to the basket.
Teams like Denver and Portland and Atlanta switch almost every screen and roll. This leaves a big man on the guard and the guard defending the screener. The Suns almost never do this.
4. Chase over screen, sag off
Here the guard follows the ball handler over the screen while the big man sags off and tries to both cut off dribble penetration and also stay in the passing lane to prevent a pass to the roll man. The Spurs do this really well with Tim Duncan. At least they used to.
5. Go under screen
Here the big man stays with the screener and essentially takes him out of the play while the guard goes under the screen. This helps deny dribble penetration and stops the screen man from rolling free to the basket. This gives the guard a wide open jump shot as he's left unguarded for a period of time. This works well against guards that can't shoot from outside or are just having a bad shooting night.
The Suns used this as a secondary option last season and probably will continue to do so again when the match-ups call for it.