Much of the talk during training camp and early in the preseason revolved around the Phoenix Suns' renewed defensive focus. With Tyson Chandler, Ronnie Price, and Sonny Weems replacing more offensive-minded players like Gerald Green, the emphasis appears legitimate.
Still, four out of the five members of this year's starting lineup were with Phoenix last season when the Suns surrendered 103.3 points per game, better than only four other teams (per possession, which is adjusted for pace, the Suns were 17th out of 30). And with those players returning to their roles once again this season, there are legitimate questions about whether this team as constructed can ever be a very good defensive team.
Can Jeff Hornacek and his staff engineer the remarkable defensive turnaround necessary to make Phoenix a legitimate threat in the Western Conference?
It all starts in the middle
Of all the moves Phoenix made this summer towards shoring up a leaky defense, acquiring Tyson Chandler was the most significant. He will be counted on to call out defensive schemes, get teammates in position, and generally provide veteran experience from the back line that this team sorely lacked. However, Chandler will need to be more than an on-court coach for the Suns to succeed; he will need to both direct the defense and become a wall when opponents drive to the basket — something he's familiar with.
Last season with the Dallas Mavericks, opponents shot 57.9 percent against Chandler around the basket, which is far from an elite percentage. For comparison, opponents shot 53.7 percent against Anthony Davis, 51.8 percent against Tim Duncan, 51.7 percent against Rudy Gobert, and a silly 45 percent against Andrew Bogut. Even Marcin Gortat held opponents to 54.2 percent at the basket.
So why does Chandler have a reputation as an elite-level defender? It's because numbers will deceive you if you let them. Chandler's numbers fell victim to a porous Dallas defense that had Monta Ellis, J.J. Barea, and Dirk Nowitzki among others sending a steady stream of opponents at Chandler and leaving him out to dry.
Many of the shots taken against Chandler in the paint were attempted by players other than his primary defensive assignment and were taken when he was three feet or farther away.
Of shots Chandler defended within three feet of his opponent, he held them to 42.8 percent, better than the likes of DeAndre Jordan (46 percent) and on par with the likes of Duncan (43.7 percent) and Gobert (41.8 percent). But when a player must constantly clean up the mistakes of the perimeter defenders, his defensive numbers are bound to suffer.
The first line of defense
Having an interior presence to challenge opponents at the basket helps a defense tremendously, but it cannot be used as a crutch for perimeter defenders. A shot blocker cannot be used effectively if he is constantly being pulled out of position by drivers who beat their man. As the first line of defense, the perimeter guys must hold their own. One mental lapse will break the set and send the entire team scrambling for the remainder of the possession. As the strongest perimeter defenders who draw the toughest defensive assignments, Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker will need to be on point all season.
With all the excellent point guards in the NBA today, every day will be a challenge for Bledsoe. However, even modest defensive improvement over last season would place him in the conversation for an All-Defensive selection.
Last season, Bledsoe held opponents to 42.9 percent shooting, and while his 3-point defense was somewhat lax (37 percent), he stifled opponents around the basket (57.6 percent) due mostly to his strength and ability to recover for blocks. By comparison, last season's All-Defensive point guards Chris Paul (42.4 percent overall, 35.9 percent from 3, 62.8 percent around the basket) and John Wall (42 percent overall, 34.3 percent from 3, 61.9 percent around the basket) put up numbers very similar to Bledsoe's. If Bledsoe can tighten his defense a bit more, his strength, speed, quickness, and athleticism will put him in the upper echelon of defensive guards in the NBA. For a player who already ranked 13th last season in steals and was tied for fourth in blocks among players 6-6 or shorter, that's scary.
Tucker, meanwhile, will once again be tasked with defending the LeBron Jameses, Kevin Durants, and James Hardens of the league — a task he performed admirably in last season. Tucker held his opponents to 44.2 percent from the field last season, with a paltry 30.5 percent clip from beyond the arc. His one weakness came around the basket, where opponents converted at a 66.5 percent rate thanks to Tucker's shortcomings with regards to height and athleticism. Given that Tucker will not be going through an early-30s growth spurt, the combination of 7-1 centers Chandler and Alex Len will need to dissuade opponents who look to exploit Tucker's lack of height.
Outside of his struggles with taller players at the basket, however, Tucker's numbers from last season compare favorably to other acclaimed wing defenders, mirroring those of LeBron James (32.6 percent from 3, 43.8 percent overall) and outclassing Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard (37.8 percent from 3, 45 percent overall). Sure, Tucker surrendered 40 and 33 points to Harden in two games last season, but he also held Harden to 38.3-percent shooting over the season series.
Great players will score. That's what they do. It is Tucker's job as a defender to make them work as hard as possible to do so. In that regard, Phoenix's resident bulldog is one of the best.
Between Chandler, Bledsoe, and Tucker, the Suns have reason for optimism regarding the defense, but as was stated earlier, everyone must pull his weight for a defense to function properly. That means Brandon Knight and Markieff Morris will need to up their defensive games this season or risk compromising the entire operation.
Knight is a study in what adherence to sound defensive principles can do for a player. While in the defensively disciplined Milwaukee system under coach Jason Kidd, Knight held his opponents to 42.4 percent from the field. Over his 11 games in a Phoenix uniform, Knight' percentage jumped to 46.7. One hopes that drop-off can be attributed to his adjustment to a new team and will be rectified by a more consistent defensive game plan and greater familiarity with Phoenix's strategies.
However, there are still areas of concern regarding Knight. While his opponents' 3-point percentage last season was better than Bledsoe's at 35.1 percent, he allowed opponents to shoot a horrific 71.6 percent around the basket. This is likely due to his lack of strength in fending off the offensive player once they reach the hoop, and at under 200lbs, Knight is just as prone to being bullied under the basket this season. Once again, the chore will fall to Chandler and Len down low to compensate for Knight's diminutiveness. Before that point, though, it will fall on Knight to do everything possible to keep his man in front of him, using his length and quickness to harass his opponent rather than trying to out-muscle him.
As for Morris, he will also need to show more pride in his man-to-man defense. He allowed opponents to shoot 46.8 percent against him, with that jumping to 63 percent around the basket. Even more confounding, however, is how his opponents got their numbers. Opponents shot 50.7 percent against Morris when he was within three feet of them as opposed to 44.1 percent when he was three feet or farther away. As counterintuitive as it may seem, offensive players actually shot better against Morris when he was guarding them closely.
Morris' rebounding may be sub par and his rim deterrence scant, but he was fourth in the NBA last season for steals per game among players 6-10 or taller, which hints at a defensive player better than what has been on display. Morris doesn't have long arms or athleticism to lean on defensively, but he can't control that. However, he can control the effort put forth to deny his man the ball or to beat him to a spot. If Morris can take pride in stopping his opponent this season, it will go a long way towards closing one of the few defensive holes left in the starting lineup.
What have we learned?
Chandler, Bledsoe, and Tucker will be the defensive stalwarts of the starting lineup, but after them, there is a pretty sharp decline. Knight has proven he can be a solid system defender, but he can't rely on the system alone to bail him out. And Morris will need a dramatic improvement in his one-on-one defense to keep the rest of the defense from having to hedge towards him to help.
The Suns are on the right path. They are talking more on defense and have shown glimpses during preseason of the hard-nosed defensive team they can be. But ultimately, defense comes down to desire and attention to detail. We will see whether these Suns will prove different than past incarnations in that regard.