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Phoenix Suns know that talking on defense is key to success

The Phoenix Suns likely won't lead the league in offense this year, so to be successful the team will have to rely on its defense to win games. Tyson Chandler is ready to lead that change.

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns, as a team, were too quiet last year. The Morris brothers, Eric Bledsoe, T.J. Warren, Alex Len, Archie Goodwin all had the same thing in common: they almost never spoke up when the ball was bouncing.

Sure some of them barked to the officials too much between plays, barked at their coach on the sidelines, and said silly things at the wrong times between games. But when the play clock was running, most of them quieted down. Too much, it seems.

"As coaches, we can do preparation," coach Jeff Hornacek said. "On the court, we can be yelling things out. But when the players and teammates are talking to each other on the court, that's what makes a team good."

The Suns finished 13th in defense (in terms of points per possession allowed) in Hornacek's first year and 17th last year. Quite a feat, considering these young guys rarely directed each other to the right spots while the game was live. Starting centers Alex Len and Miles Plumlee were still learning the game themselves. Bledsoe and the Morrii just aren't directors out there.

Brandon Knight, acquired at the trade deadline last year, is quiet too. But compared to his teammates, he could be considered a chatterbox. With Milwaukee, he saw his team go from one of the worst defenses in the league in 2013-14 to one of its best in 2014-15.

"Communication was so key," Knight says of the Bucks, under Jason Kidd. "You're going to have breakdowns. You can either talk about it, or not talk about it. When you don't talk about it you probably give yourself a zero percent chance of fixing it."

Knight (22 years old most of the season) was a relative veteran in the starting lineup for the Bucks, who were also starting Giannis Antetokounmpo (19 at the start), Kris Middleton (23) and Jabari Parker (19). Coach Jason Kidd taught them that they had to speak up in order to make it work.

"For a lot of young guys," Knight said, as if he's not one of them. "They get so wrapped up in trying to do the right things that they forget to talk. So we gotta really force our young guys to really talk about the game, talk the game through."

That's still a work in progress. In a preseason game this week, veteran Ronnie Price was picked by behemoth Joshua Smith at one point (think: Garrett Siler) and he just looked at the young Suns defenders who should have yelled out to warn him before being leveled and held out his hands in a "what's with that?" gesture.

But the young Suns are making progress. T.J. Warren, who seems to prefer doing just about anything over talking, has been calling out help positions and rotations in preseason already.

"T.J.'s talking is getting better," Hornacek said. "He was so quiet last year and that's an emphasis for our whole team to try to communicate and talk more defensively and let everybody know where you're at."

Warren's not alone in the quiet room. Eric Bledsoe is the head of the snake, so to speak, as the Suns best point guard defender. But his play is exemplified more on effort than directing other players.

"We got a team full of aggressive guys on defense," Bledsoe says. "That's the way we will play this season."

The Suns will definitely be aggressive. Already evident in the first three preseason games is a heightened effort on dogged defense, and getting hands in passing lanes for steals. New center Tyson Chandler and Alex Len have defended the rim well on the back end in their short minutes.

But the Suns still have a long way to go to be a really good defense. And that's going to have to include a lot of talking and directing from anyone who's behind another Suns defender.

"You've got to build up that trust," Hornacek explains. "That if you go to help somebody that there's somebody there to back you up, and a lot of that is just by talking."

The court is not too big, but with the speed of the game you can't be surveying the court while your back is to the rim. Offensive players have the advantage of always going toward the goal, and facing each other the whole time. Defenders don't have that luxury. And with the need to make split-second decisions on fighting through the picks versus switching, any kind of communication helps.

"It's not like you have time to turn around and look to see who's there," Hornacek said. "You can hear their voice and know that they're in a position to help you. Our guys are doing better at that too."

Brandon Knight knows that it's not natural to yell out where you are all the time.

"Some guys go, well if you talk the other team is gonna hear what you're saying," he said. "Well, they still gotta stop you. So we gotta talk to let each other know what we're doing."

This is where Tyson Chandler comes in. Chandler, a former Defensive Player of the Year, is expected to be the leader on defense.

"What Tyson has already added is that talking factor," Knight says, on top of Chandler's rebounding and defensive positioning.

Chandler talks all right. He talks non-stop, to the delight of P.J. Tucker, and is trying to instill that habit into all the Suns, both on and off the court.

"He has shown that he will talk to everybody on the team," Bledsoe says of Chandler. "Everybody respects him. He definitely has that voice I feel like we've been missing."

P.J. Tucker was the only boisterous one in the lineup last season, but he spent most of his time just focusing one-on-one against the other team's best wing player. And being on the wing doesn't allow you to see the whole court and direct traffic. That direction has to come from the back line.

Chandler is excited to the play the role of wily, sage veteran, but he's still adjusting to it.

"I'm not that old," Chandler, 33, said with a chuckle. "I come from cracking jokes on Dirk [Nowitzki] and Jason Kidd and Brian Cardinal, and now I'm here and all these young guys are asking me questions and I'm like (looks behind him) who you mean? But I guess I'm that guy now, gotta fill that role and enjoy the process."

"Tyson makes us coaches feel younger," Hornacek quipped when Chandler was signed. "Because he's talking about players he played in the league with and we're like ‘wait, we played with those same guys and against those same guys'."

The coaches and players are all excited to forge a new identity on the defensive end this year. When defense at the point is lacking, Ronnie Price can come off the bench and provide that in spades. On the wing, P.J. Tucker is still ready to defend any big wing players, while Sonny Weems and Brandon Knight can keep up with the smaller, quicker ones. And on the back line, Chandler and Len will be the anchors of the defense.

But success won't come easy. In the first preseason game, the Kings scored on 8 of their first 10 possessions. Even worse, in the second preseason game the Jazz started out by scoring on 12 of their first 14 possessions. So the Chandler-led defense has a ways to go.

But the signs are there. The team has a scrappier mentality and an expectation to play well together. We will see if that comes to fruition or not in the next couple of months.

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