DragonBlade: Phoenix Suns new Dragic/Bledsoe back court tough enough to defend bigger foes

Ronny Turiaf is bewildered by the thought of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe playing together in one backcourt. - USA TODAY Sports

Meet the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns starting back-court: Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. How will this two-headed snake fare on the defensive end? Hit the jump to find out.

First things first: credit for the "DragonBlade" nickname goes to none other than...DragonBlade (the artist formerly known as BringBackBarkley17).

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Much has been written about the Phoenix Suns' new starting backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Both are typically classified as point guards but have the versatility to play the off guard spot as well. They're athletic speed demons that thrive in the open floor and play tough, high-octane basketball. In fact, nearly a fifth of each player's total number of offensive plays were in transition. We can expect that number to rise in Jeff Hornacek's offense.

While we salivate over the thought of DragonBlade-led fast-breaks, we mustn't forget that there's this whole "defense" thing the Suns must play as well. There are many concerns about the success this new backcourt will have defensively, primarily because both players are point guards that may be undersized to play at the two-guard full-time. First and foremost, let's address this notion that the Dragic-Bledsoe back-court is "undersized."

The following is a list of the (projected) starting shooting guards for every Western Conference team, along with their heights, weights, and wingspans:

Western Conference Starting Shooting Guard Sizes
Name Team Height w/shoes (inches) Weight (lbs.) Wingspan (inches)
Monta Ellis Dallas 75.25 185 74.75
James Harden Houston 77.25 220 82.75
Tony Allen Memphis 76.25 213 81
Eric Gordon New Orleans 75.25 215 81
Manu Ginobili San Antonio 78 205 N/A
Randy Foye Denver 75.25 213 78.25
Kevin Martin Minnesota 79 185 N/A
Wesley Matthews Portland 77.25 220 80.25
Thabo Sefolosha Oklahoma City 79 215 86
Gordon Hayward Utah 80 210 79.75
Klay Thompson Golden State 79.25 205 81
JJ Redick LA Clippers 76.75 190 75.25
Kobe Bryant LA Lakers 78 205 83
Ben McLemore Sacramento 76.75 195 79.75
AVERAGES: 6'5.375" 205.429 lbs. 6'8.229"
Goran Dragic 6'4" 190 lbs. 6'7"
Eric Bledsoe 73.5 195 lbs. 6'7.5"

As can be seen above, the Suns' backcourt is undersized relative to Western Conference shooting guards, but not by much. Goran Dragic, the likelier of the Suns' two starting guards to defend opposing twos, is just over an inch shorter than the average shooting guard in the west and his wingspan is also only an inch shorter. On the other hand, Eric Bledsoe is significantly shorter than the average shooting guard but his phenomenal wingspan more than makes up for his lack of height. The biggest size-related weakness of this backcourt is in the weight category: the average Western Conference shooting guard is about 15 lbs. heavier than Dragic and 10 lbs. heavier than Bledsoe.

The average Western Conference shooting guard is about one inch taller, one inch longer, and 15 lbs. heavier than Goran Dragic.


Now that we've highlighted the physical differences between the Suns' starting guards and the rest of the starting two-guards in the Western Conference, let's turn our attention to analyzing the actual defensive abilities of Dragic and Bledsoe. The crux of this analysis will focus on their abilities to defend opposing off-guards. The stats used in this article are from last season (2012-13) and all advanced stats are courtesy of Synergy and Basketball-reference.com, unless otherwise mentioned. Explanations of any statistical terms mentioned can be found on this page.

Before we analyze Dragic and Bledsoe's off-ball defense, here are a few quick notes about their on-ball defense:

-Eric Bledsoe is a ball-hawk. When defending pick & roll ball-handlers (the most common defensive play for point guards), he held opponents to just 0.71 points per possession (PPP), which is a great figure. Dragic was a pedestrian defender of pick & roll ball-handlers, yielding 0.89 PPP.

-On the other hand, Dragic was better than Bledsoe at defending isolation plays, giving up a decent 0.85 PPP, while Bledsoe surrendered 0.93 PPP. Bledsoe's opponents actually shot a worse percentage on isolation plays (39.7%) than the players Dragic defended (40.7%), but the reason for his higher PPP figure is that Bledsoe fouled isolation players at a much higher rate (13.2% of the time compared to Dragic's 5.2% foul rate on isolation plays). Bledsoe is a very aggressive defender, which often gets him into trouble (we will see this later on as well).

-Both Bledsoe and Dragic are adept at playing the passing lanes and creating turnovers. Bledsoe's STL% of 3.7% was third highest in the league last year among those who played at least 800 minutes (behind Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul). Dragic's 2.5 STL% was good for top 20 in the league.

-Bledsoe is an unbelievably good shot-blocker for his size and position. Take a look at this list of players 6'8" and under (with at least 800 minutes played) ranked in order of BLK%. Bledsoe's 3.0 BLK% is third on that list, easily ahead of any other guard and even above like Kenneth Faried, Tristan Thompson, and Lebron James. Let's note once again that the dude is just over 6 feet. Wow.

Haven't had enough defensive stats yet? As I mentioned, the focus of this study is to analyze Dragic and Bledsoe's off-ball defense. I'll focus on three main types of plays: post-up defense, spot-up defense, and off-screen defense. I've watched hundreds of such plays and have noticed a few patterns in their defensive habits I will ultimately highlight.

Post-up Defense

Goran Dragic

One might think Dragic would struggle defending post-up plays, especially against bigger players. However, Dragic was very good defending the post last year and displayed strong defensive instincts while using his underrated strength. The sample size is a bit small - he defended just 34 total post-ups in 2012-13 - but Dragic held opponents to just 0.71 PPP and 37.9 FG% in this category, while not fouling even a single time. Let's take a look at two plays to see why he's so successful at guarding the post.

Goran Dragic defending James Harden post-up

1) Here, James Harden posts up Goran Dragic near the baseline. Note that Harden has about 25 lbs. on Dragic:

Dragic_def

2) Dragic manages to hold his ground and actually forces Harden towards the middle and actually away from the basket:

Dragic_def

3) Harden ends up in the middle of the paint and puts up a wild turnaround jumper, which Dragic contests. Result: missed shot.

Dragic_def

Eric Bledsoe

Although he wasn't quite as great as Dragic, Bledsoe also proved to be a good post-play defender in a limited sample size. In just 24 total post-up plays, Bledsoe yielded 0.79 PPP on 42.9 FG%, and had a pretty high foul rate of 16.7%. Because he's built like a tank and has a ridiculous wingspan, Bledsoe is actually quite capable of defending larger players in the post. However, his aggressive defense sometimes gets him into trouble in this category, as can be seen in the following play.

Eric Bledsoe defending Eric Gordon post-up

1) In this play, Eric Gordon (who has a 1.5 in. longer wingspan and weighs 20 lbs. more) posts up Bledsoe in almost the exact same spot as the Harden-Dragic play above.

Bledsoe_def

2) Unlike Dragic, who held his stance and forced Harden away from the basket, Bledsoe overaggressively attacks the ball and completely opens up the baseline for him.

Bledsoe_def

3) With a clear path to the hoops, Gordon attacks the rim and Bledsoe has no choice but to foul him from behind in order to stop the easy dunk. Result: foul

Bledsoe_def

Spot-up Defense

Goran Dragic

The raw stats will tell you that Dragic is an average spot-up defender. He surrendered 0.99 PPP on 40.7 FG% on 139 total plays. However, it should be noted that he played on a Phoenix Suns team that was absolutely abysmal on defense. Guarding spot-up shooters requires good team communication and strong rotations on defense, which the Suns definitely did not have. The following play illustrates this perfectly.

Goran Dragic defending Klay Thompson spot-up shot

1) In this play, Dragic is seen defending David Lee, who has the ball. The Suns' team defense is already in limbo here: both Luis Scola and Michael Beasley can be seen guarding the same player in the purple circle below. Jared Dudley is marking Klay Thompson but has to rotate to the top of the key to an open Steph Curry, which means that someone else (Gortat) needs to rotate out to the wing to defend Thompson.

Dragic_def

2) Due to a miscommunication, both Dudley and Dragic rotate to Steph Curry, who now has the ball and is about to swing it to Klay Thompson, who remains open because no one else rotated out to him.

Dragic_def

3) Dragic does his best to try and reach Thompson but he's too late. Notice how much ground Dragic has covered in this play from starting out on Lee, then rotating to Curry, then sprinting to Thompson. Meanwhile, Beasley is literally in the exact same spot that he was in when the play started. Terrible team defense resulted in this broken play and an easy open shot for Klay Thompson. Result: made 3-pointer.

Dragic_def

Eric Bledsoe

Defensive possession stats reveal Bledsoe to also be an average spot-up defender. Although he was on a much stronger defensive team than Dragic was last year, he gave up slightly more points on these plays: 1.02 PPP on 40.8 FG%. He actually defended a significantly greater number of spot-up plays that Dragic did (199 compared to Goran's 139) because he played a good deal of his minutes alongside Chris Paul. Bledose's off-ball defensive strengths are his phenomenal speed and athleticism, but he does often get caught watching the ball and sometimes ends up falling asleep when he's off the ball. The following play illustrates this weakness while also highlighting his remarkable physical attributes.

Eric Bledsoe defending Goran Dragic spot-up shot

1) Here, Bledsoe is seen defending his now partner-in-crime Goran Dragic on the near side of the court while PJ Tucker has the ball at the top of the key.

Bledsoe_def

2) Bledsoe gets caught watching the ball as it moves on the far side of the court and doesn't notice that Dragic is sliding over to the corner.

Bledsoe_def

3) The ball swings cross-court and lands in the hands of the open Goran Dragic. Bledsoe actually does a very good job of running back to contest the shot but he's just a fraction of a second too late as Dragic gets off his shot. Result: made 3-pointer.

Bledsoe_def

Off-screen Defense

Goran Dragic

This is a definite area of weakness for Goran Dragic's defensive abilities. For some reason, he seems to have trouble fighting through screens to get to his defender and his struggles are most apparent when he's dealing with off-ball screens. On plays that he defended guys coming off (off-ball) screens, Dragic gave up 0.98 PPP 42.1% shooting. Once again, it's important to note that clear team communication is absolutely essential for good defense, and this is especially true when defending screens. Dragic's troubles defending screens might have been accentuated by a lack of help from his teammates. In any case, the following play showcases his off-screen defensive issues.

Goran Dragic defending Chris Paul off screens

1) In this play, Dragic is defending Chris Paul at the top of the key while the ball is in Willie Green's hands on the far side of the court. Paul will force Dragic to chase him through a series of screens.

Dragic_def

2) Here, Paul has made his way down to the baseline and is getting ready to go through another screen as he goes back up near the top of the key, already having created a bit of separation between Dragic and himself. Meanwhile, the ball has rotated to Blake Griffin on the left elbow.

Dragic_def

3) Paul makes his way to the right elbow and has a wide open shot after receiving a pass from Griffin. Dragic gets caught on a Deandre Jordan Screen near the free throw line and finds himself not several feet away from Chris Paul. No chance. Result: made shot

Dragic_def

Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledose is an even worse defender off-screens than Dragic. Playing on a much better defensive team last year, he surrendered 1.08 PPP on 45.8 FG% to players coming off screens. To find a reason for his surprisingly bad off-screen defense, we can once again look at his overaggressiveness and tendency to watch the ball and lose track of his man. The following play is a great example of this weakness.

Eric Bledsoe defending Lou Williams off screens

1) At the beginning of this play, we see Bledsoe covering Lou Williams very well off the ball at the top of the key.

Bledsoe_def

2) As Williams slides over to the right wing, Bledsoe decides to leave him and aggressively attack the ball, which is promptly passed to another Hawks player.

Bledsoe_def

3) By the time Bledsoe realizes his man is wide open and runs after him, Williams slides back up to the top of the key and hides behind a screen set by his teammate, which Bledsoe can't get around. This play is a direct result of Bledsoe leaving his man to instead try and steal the ball when he really didn't have a great chance to. Result: made shot.

Bledsoe_def

Conclusions

Having gone through a lot of data and screencaps, it's time to summarize the findings (essentially a TL;DR section):

1) Both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are good overall defenders. They have strong physical attributes that enable them to defend well and both provide great effort and hustle out on the floor. However, they definitely have some weaknesses that will be tough to hide as they play alongside one another.

2) Eric Bledsoe should primarily defend opposing point guards, while Dragic should defend shooting guards. Pick-and-roll defense is one of Bledsoe's fortes, mainly because it's an area that is well-suited for his aggressiveness and tenacity. On the other hand, Dragic is better at defending players in the post, spotting up, or coming off screens, which enables him to be a better defender of opposing two-guards than Bledsoe.

3) However, there will be some instances where Bledsoe is better suited to defend the opposing team's shooting guard and Dragic the point guard. Specifically, Bledsoe should defend opposing twos that are better slashers and drivers than shooters. For example, when the Suns play the Dallas Mavericks, I believe Dragic should defend Jose Calderon while Bledsoe marks Monta Ellis.

4) The backcourt's "lack of size" will not be a big liability. As mentioned above, the average starting shooting guard on a Western Conference team only has about a one inch advantage in wingspan over the Suns' starting guards. The biggest difference is in weight, but both Dragic and Bledsoe have proven they can defend the post well, albeit in a limited sample size. In any case, there are very few two-guards who post up well in today's NBA (Kobe, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson are the only ones who come to mind). In fact, as Jacob's recent shooting guard rankings revealed, that position is currently the weakest in the league in terms of overall talent, which should bode well for the Suns' two-headed point guard experiment.

5) Defending spot-up shots and plays off screens will be the toughest task for this backcourt. The analysis revealed that defending players coming off screens is the one defensive area in which Dragic and Bledsoe both struggled the most last year. In the former's case, poor rotations and lack of team defensive discipline and communication might have been the issue. For the latter, overaggressiveness and ignoring his man in favor of chasing the ball has been a recurring problem. The new coaching staff will need to address both of these issues in order to maximize this backcour's defensive potential.

6) Defensive success is largely based on the team, not the individual. More than offense, defensive cohesion requires a team to be on the same page, with all five players giving maximum effort and buying into the team's system. This was a huge problem for last year's Phoenix Suns team, which struggled mightily with rotations, individual defense, effort, and basically all other important facets of basketball. A player's defensive statistics rely heavily on the success of his team's defense. For example, one might think that Kevin Martin is a great off-ball defender based on his 0.85 PPP allowed overall and 0.83 PPP allowed off screens in 2012-13. However, it must be understood that his defensive success was largely a product of the OKC Thunder's team defense (in 2011-12, he surrendered a much higher 1.09 PPP off screens on a worse defensive team, the Houston Rockets).

Since they are such a young (and not very talented) team, the Phoenix Suns will most likely struggle with team defense this year, which will trickle down and hurt even good defenders like Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. It's important for this coaching staff to instill strong defensive principles into the entire team. In an interview with me last month, new Defensive Coordinator Mike Longabardi recognized that this would be no easy task:

"Teaching defensive values will be a day-to-day effort. There's no magic wand to immediately get there...We're going to have to get consistent effort. We know that there are going to be some nights that we might lose because we're overmatched with talent. But the important thing is to give effort and see progress."

This is an important step for a new coaching staff with a young, inexperienced team. Although the team's overall defense may struggle this season, I think Dragic and Bledsoe will prove to form a successful starting backcourt on both sides of the court. They will have their issues, especially against teams that boast shooters with good size (the Warriors, for example, with Klay Thompson), but I do believe the uniqueness of this pairing's versatility will result in a net success in the backcourt. At the very least, they'll be an exciting duo to watch.

2013-14 is the year of the DragonBlade.

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