Suns coach Jeff Hornacek gave a quick interview to Sirius XM Radio last Friday, and made a couple of comments about the team he's been coaching for two seasons.
"The last two years for us," Hornacek said. "Was about letting these guys develop and figuring out what they can do. We let guys get outside their comfort zone and maybe it was a little individual to see how they can grow as players.
"Our offense guided our defense."
Indeed, until the last month of his second season, Hornacek orchestrated a 10th ranked offense versus a 17th ranked defense in 2015-16. In his first season, he pieced together a 7th ranked offense against a 13th ranked defense. Neither combination was good enough to push the team into the playoffs. Neither team had a go-to offensive player or an All-Star, though Goran Dragic came close to both (20 points per game, 3rd Team All-NBA).
By adding several new role players and balancing the roster, the Suns clearly believe they will be able to create yet another Top-10 offense this season. That's questionable considering the combo of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight have not proven they can drive a well-run offense over time, but Hornacek has supreme belief that the players and coaches can devise an effective scheme.
Entering his third year, Hornacek is now thinking more about the other side of the ball. That helps when you've signed the franchise's first ever one-time Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler.
"This year it's going to be reversed," Hornacek told XM Radio. "We know what kind of players you are, and you might have to sacrifice part of what you can do to make this team better and get us to the playoffs."
Young players don't sacrifice unless they see veterans doing it. The Suns believe that the additions of Chandler, Teletovic, Weems and Price will go a long way to showing the kids how to carry themselves as professionals.
Sacrifice, by the way, means putting out effort on the less-fun side of the court.
"And that's gonna start with defense," Hornacek said. "Weak side help, all that stuff we were probably not as good as we should be will really be emphasized."
We've heard this one before. Suns head coaches have said this before every preseason in franchise history. Only Scott Skiles really meant it, I think.
And frankly, if push comes to shove, Hornacek won't pick THAT hill to die on.
But the Suns have not added a center as defensively talented as Tyson Chandler since maybe... geez, I don't know. Clifford Robinson was a brilliant defensive power forward. Jason Kidd a wonderful defender at point guard. Raja Bell was great on the wing, as was Shawn Marion.
Chandler and Len in the middle give the Suns a chance to really have a strong defense this year. And Hornacek doesn't want to waste that opportunity.
No more 'my bad' on most defensive possessions, and then trying to 'make it up' on the other end. The team will be expected to have good habits all game so that the final minutes will be executed well. Rotations will be key to deciding close games and coming out on top more often than not.
The Suns defensive rating the last two years was 13th and 17th, in terms of points per possession. Not bad, but not great. Even better, their defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in the last 5 minutes of games was a respectable 10th in the league.
But that's where the good news stops. Their defensive rating in the last TWO minutes of games dropped all the way down to 25th.
Think about that. Their defense collapsed in the final two minutes so often that they negated everything they'd done to that point. This is more than buzzer-beater losses. This is failure to corral key rebounds, allowing the opponent to get 2-3 cracks at the key basket in the closing seconds. This is failure to stop the dribble-drive and kick out by not properly rotating to the right man on defense.
Having a former Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler, a perimeter bulldog in P.J. Tucker and an airtight Eric Bledsoe on the court probably does allow the Suns to improve their defense. Adding Alex Len to the second unit can help solidify their rebounding and rim protection as well.
If Hornacek could actually get these guys as a whole to play a Top 10 defense this year, struggling on offense might not be such a killer anyway.