Suns Rising: Rebounding And Defensive Success Are Two Different Animals

Hopefully, this won't make your head hurt.

I signed up for Synergy Sports this morning to help answer a question that's been brewing in my mind. I keep hearing how the Suns' rebounding will suffer with Turkoglu and Warrick taking over for Amare and Lou at the PF position. That's certainly true.

But does poorer rebounding mean the Suns' defense will be worse?

No. At least, not necessarily.

Contrary to popular belief, your number of rebounds does not directly correlate to your defensive success. And, the Suns defense should actually be able to IMPROVE this season, despite the rebounding issues.

Want proof? You got it (thanks to Synergy Sports).

Take a look at the rankings of the 8 Western Conference playoff teams in 2009-2010:

2009-2010 Ranking
WC Seed Def RR Off RR Pts/Play Pts/Poss
LA Lakers 1 9 7 6 5
Dallas 2 15 26 8 12
Phoenix 3 29 8 15 19
Utah 4 5 13 12 11
Denver 5 25 19 15 16
Portland 6 7 4 15 13
San Antonio 7 4 13 8 9
OKC Thunder 8 16 3 1 8

Description of the columns:

  • WC Seed: playoff seeding in the 2010 Western Conference playoffs
  • Def RR: the rate at which a team rebounds the other team's missed shots (those not grabbed are offensive rebounds for the other team)
  • Off RR: the rate at which a team rebounds their own missed shots
  • Pts/Play: an advanced stat taken from SynergySports.com, the number of points scored on each play (offensive rebounds do not count here)
  • Pts/Poss: the number of points scored on each possession (this one takes offensive rebounds into account). This is generally called 'Defensive Efficiency'.

This table is a great illustration that Defensive Rebounding prowess does not directly correlate to a team's defensive success

There seem to be 2 parts of overall Defensive Efficiency: initial defense (resulting in a shot attempt, shooting foul or turnover) and second-chance defense (otherwise known as defensive rebounding).

A team can be good at defensive rebounding, but that doesn't matter if the opponent makes a lot of shots. In other words, you can't rebound a shot that goes through the hoop. Conversely, a team can mitigate their rebounding deficiency by playing better defense before the shot even goes up.

Initial Defense is the 'Pts/Play' column in the above table. As you can see, the Suns were tied for worst in Points Per Play among playoff teams. But being middle of the pack (15th) overall in the entire league helped them make the playoffs, despite being the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA.

Second-chance defense is the prevention of offensive rebounds to extend the play. The Suns were very bad at preventing these, proven in their 29th-ranked 'defensive rebound rate'.

Defensive Efficiency - the 'Pts/Poss' column in the above table - takes both initial defense and second-chance defense into account.

The Suns initial defense ranked 15th, second-chance defense ranked 29th, resulting in an overall defensive efficiency (pts/poss) of 19th. Being the second-worst defensive rebounding team hurt the Suns, but not as much as you might expect.

Take a look at OKC and Portland. Portland was a much better defensive rebounding team than OKC (4th vs. 16th), yet finished with a worse overall Defensive Efficiency (13th vs. 8th) because Portland's initial defense was poor by comparison to OKC (15th vs. 1st).

So what does this mean to the Suns?

This: If our favorite team is going to struggle to rebound the ball, they can offset some of that with better initial defense.

Let's break down the Suns' initial defense.

Play - Ends in FGA, TO FTs %Time League Rank on pts/play
Overall 100% 15
Isolation 13.1% 27
P&R Ballhandler 9.1% 30
Post-Up 10.6% 7
P&R Roll Man 4.3% 13
Spot-Up 19.3% 4
Off Screen 3.6% 12
Hand Off 2.4% 22
Cut 8.5% 5
Offensive Rebound 6.4% 14
Transition 12.5% 11
All Other Plays 5.7% 20

Spot-ups were a big part of the Suns defensive scheme

These numbers are quite illuminating. If you thought the opposing team was shooting A LOT of open jumpers last season, you were right. In fact, spot-up jumpshots comprised 19.3% of all plays, by far the most common result of a play against the Suns defense. The Suns schemed for it. They WANTED the other team to take jumpers.

And they were pretty good at defending it (ranking 4th overall in fewest points/play on spot-ups). Sometimes, a good defense is forcing a contested spot-up or inducing the opponent to have their worst shooter take the open shot. Being left open for a jump-shot is a lot of pressure, especially if you're not a great shooter.

The Suns excelled at this type of defense last season, a primary component of the 15th overall ranking in initial defense.

 

The Suns really sucked at guarding the man on the perimeter with the ball

While the Suns were great when the ball was passed to a spot-up shooter (or into low post - 7th overall), they were absolutely horrendous when the primary ballhandler kept it for himself.

A whopping 22.2% of the time, the opposition's play ended either in an isolation (13.1%) or pick-n-roll ballhandler talking the shot or driving to the basket (9.1%). If the Suns couldn't force the dribbler to give it up, they were in deep trouble. Deep trouble to the tune of 27th overall against the 'iso' and 30th against the 'p&r ballhandler' plays. Ouch.

This indicates a couple of things: (1) the Suns played passive defense against the ballhandler to protect the paint against the roll man, and (2) the Suns did not have a lot of good individual defenders. Our best on-ball defender, in terms of numbers last season, was Dragic - though he was much better defending iso's than the p&r ballhandler, while Steve Nash was the opposite.

This isn't just about guards either. The Forwards contributed to the poor defense against isolation plays.

Replacing Leandro Barbosa's perimeter minutes with Josh Childress (as well as a couple of Amare's minutes) should be able to help in this regard. Childress had a reputation as a good on-ball defender, as well as a good help defender, while Barbosa was poor at both.

(SynergySports has only posted 2009-2010 numbers, so Childress' numbers are unavailable)

 

Warrick and Turkoglu replacing Amare and Lou

Hakim Warrick and Hedo Turkoglu (replacing Amare and Lou) are a mixed bag at best.

Listed is their overall ranking in each major defensive situation, against the rest of the NBA players (roughly 450-500 players).

 

Lou Amare Hakim Hedo Boozer Bosh Gasol J Smith Varejao
Overall 204 95 280 339 95 170 147 353 204
Isolation 253 259 10 51 35 16 177 232 63
Post-Up 141 157 294 51 149 114 187 197 157
Spot-Up 47 47 29 296 131 252 81 296 81

Edit: this table has caused a lot of angst, which is my fault. I am not showing you the distribution, only the ranking. Next time, I'll show more details if you want.

Lou has a worse overall points/play ranking than Amare (204th vs. 95th) because, while both are bad at defending isolation, Lou had to do it a LOT more often than Amare (27% vs. 16%). So, Lou's final pts/play numbers are a little worse than Amare, hence the lower ranking.

Josh Smith, despite his defensive rep, is worse than anyone on here. That's not a mirage. Unfortunately, it seems that his team forced him to defend something he's terrible at defending, a lot more often than ever before: spot-up jump shooting. Rather than being under the basket, Smith spent a lot of time on the perimeter last season. Smith gave up 1.08 points for every jump shot taken against him. 1.08! That's terrible. What's even worse is that he had to defend this type of play more than 34% of the time he was doing anything.

So, Amare's fault were hidden, while Smith's were exposed.  Kudos to Gentry on that.

 

Hakim and Hedo are better against isolation (they are more mobile in space, I guess), but much worse than the two Suns they replace in either post-up or spot-up situations. I'm guessing Turkoglu's numbers in these areas are throw-away. His post-up defense numbers are on a small sample size, and the Suns' scheme should improve his spot-up numbers significantly.

I threw in numbers from other well-known or recently-desired PFs for comparison. Amare and Lou were far and away better than the field in spot-up defense, so I have to attribute some of that to the Suns' scheme. And they were by far the worst in isolation defense.

Since isolations, by design, are scheme-free, would we assume that Lou and Amare were just bad fits in that area? Or does the Suns' scheme somehow make matters worse on iso's? They certainly ranked near the bottom overall in that area.

Feel free to infer whatever else you want to infer from the numbers posted. Is Amare really a better defender than those other guys up there? Maybe not, but the numbers are the numbers. If nothing else, they show relative comparison to each other though each team's defensive scheme must play a part.

 

Summation

The Suns can be better defensively this season, despite the potential rebounding deficit, if they focus on improving their initial defense (plays ending in shots, free throws or turnovers).

On the perimeter, the addition of Childress and continued improvement from Dragic should allow them to turn up the heat on perimeter defense (increased steals?) and be better at isolations and pick-n-rolls. Any improvement on defending iso's and ballhandlers would be a huge boon to the overall numbers.

The Suns' post-up defense should not suffer, as long as they put Lopez or Frye on him while pairing Warrick/Turkoglu against the face-up guy. Only teams who play 2 post-up players at the same time would give the Suns trouble (Lakers). But then, how many teams besides the Lakers even have two 6'9" and taller post-up players in their lineup at the same time?

Given the problems the Suns are likely to have in stopping second-chance points (ie. defensive rebounding), they will need to improve their initial defense from 15th overall to somewhere around 10th or higher.

And if you look at the numbers, and the guys the Suns brought in, this goal is reachable.

Go Suns!

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