The Phoenix Suns are playing with a defensive spirit this season that's unusual for the franchise, and the results are already showing with a top-10 defensive rating (per basketball-reference.com). Players are buying into the scheme, and the mindset of the team seems tougher than ever.
But are the Suns really playing better defense this season? Or does it just look like it?
In fact, the Suns are giving up the same number of scores per game (38.6 vs. 38.4) on the same number of field goal attempts. Even broken down, the Suns are surrendering the same number of threes (8.0 vs. 7.7) and twos as a year ago.
But their defensive rating is better (9th vs. 17th per basketball-reference.com) and their points allowed per game is down by two points (101.0 vs. 103.3).
Maybe the league has regressed on defense?
No, the league scoring average this year is the same as a year ago (100.5 vs. 100.8), so it's not like offenses have improved across the board. Teams are taking more threes than ever, but not scoring any more than they did a year ago. That's the butterfly effect. You change one thing (three point attempts) and it naturally affects other areas.
The Suns are just giving up fewer freebies.
Last year, the Suns were 4th-worst in the league, allowing 24.8 free throws per night. This year, the Suns are allowing only 22.9 attempts (13th best). You might think that's not much different, but when the league average point differential is 0, giving yourself a +2 in that area makes a huge difference.
Add in that opponents are shooting a low % on FTs (69%) against the Suns, and there's your difference.
But what about the rest of it? What about the improved rim protection they were supposed to get with Tyson Chandler? What about being one of the league's best rebounding teams (4th overall)? What about Eric Bledsoe and Ronnie Price dogging opposing points guards, and the Suns being 8th in steals this season?
It's all about a change in style.
A year ago, the Suns were ultimately effective on defense by being highly aggressive on opponent shots. They blocked more shots last season, but as a result committed more fouls and gave up more second chance points.
Remember watching the Suns successfully defend the shot, but pulling your hair out over giving up the offensive rebound?
This year, the Suns are grabbing those defensive rebounds because they are less interested in blocking the initial shot. Maybe that's the Tyson Chandler effect. Chandler used to be one of the better shot blockers in the league while also being a great rebounder and defender. These days though, at 33, he appears more interested in deterring shots and grabbing rebounds than going for the highlight reel block.
As a result, the Suns are allowing teams to take the shot - 22nd in field goal percent allowed - but ferocious in grabbing that rebound if they miss - 4th in defensive rebound rate.
It's a bend-but-don't-break defensive style that's pretty effective so far.
I expect the coaches will ramp up their efforts to increase the Suns' aggressiveness on the initial shot without going so far as to regress in other areas. It's a tough balance, though. Being more aggressive on the shot gets you going away from the basket, which takes you that much more out of rebound position.
Still, you'd think that a rotation containing Tyson Chandler, Alex Len, P.J. Tucker, Ronnie Price and Eric Bledsoe could be more effective on opponent shot attempts than 22nd in the league (FG% allowed) without giving up ground in other areas. That's just effort to get into their legs more on the shot attempt. Jimmy Butler made some great shots in the 4th other night, but he also got to rise up to take those shots.
"When a guy is rolling," Hornacek said of the Suns defense on Butler. "You got to be up into his legs. You can't give him a little space and let him think about going up for the shot and waiting for your hands to go down and then he just rises up and shoots it."
This style - allowing the shot in order to grab the miss and run - was a staple of the mid-2000s Suns. No one called the SSOL Suns a defensive juggernaut, but they always allowed one of the lowest free-throw attempt rates in the league and ranked mid-pack (partially) as a result.
The Suns are more fun to watch this season than last. Part of that is fewer stoppages in play to watch the opponent shoot free throws. Instead, they are grabbing the rebound or taking the ball out quickly to get back down the court. The Suns are third in pace this season, much faster than a year ago and that has helped their offense. It's easier to score in early transition offense, before the defense gets set.
Enjoy the flow of the game, folks. That's by design.