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Phoenix Suns employing Hack-a-everything strategy this season

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Their 25.7 fouls per game is the team’s highest average since 1985-86

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Little has broken the Phoenix Suns’ way this season, culminating in a 7-17 record as we prepare to enter the dead of winter. For those who suspect the Suns’ foul problems can be categorized as another thing gone wrong, though, take heart. That is going according to plan.

“I think it’s just our style of play is unknown,” Suns coach Earl Watson said to Paul Coro back in the beginning of November when Phoenix was averaging close to 30 fouls per game. “So once we establish our style of play and teams that come here realize we’re a physical defensive team, I think it just kind of goes with the territory. As these guys grow up through the league, they develop identities, and that carries you throughout games.”

With the Suns continuing to foul at a significant clip as the calendar flipped to December, Watson remained steadfast in yet another interview with Coro. “We have a young group,” Watson said. “We have to set the tone and set an identity how we want to play for now and moving forward. Being aggressive is the way we have to play.”

Watson is basically the Bizarro Mike D’Antoni in that regard. Where D’Antoni actively encouraged his Phoenix teams not to foul in order to keep the game moving, Watson is advocating fouling as a means to an end — namely, a defensive reputation.

To that end, the Suns are following the plan to a T. Through the first 24 games, the Suns have committed 616 fouls — the most by any team over the first 24 games of a season since the 2008-09 Milwaukee Bucks committed 617.

Phoenix leads the league with an average of 25.7 fouls per game, easily besting the second-place Memphis Grizzlies (23.8). But saying they are leading the NBA in fouls doesn’t quite do it justice. According to basketball-reference.com, if their average holds up for the entire season, it would…

  • be the highest for a season since the 2005-06 New York Knicks averaged 26.3.
  • be the highest for a season by Phoenix since the 1985-86 Suns set the franchise record with 27.6 fouls per game.
  • be the sixth-highest average in franchise history.

So yes, the Suns are indeed fouling at an impressive (troubling?) rate, with a league-high seven games featuring a Sun fouling out (including four consecutive over the last four games).

But is a high foul rate necessarily a bad thing? The short answer is no, it’s not. The long answer places a few caveats on that no, however.

It is true that committing a low number of fouls isn’t a surefire method for success. After all, the 2012-13 Suns committed 20.6 fouls per game but were anything but successful. But one of the fundamentals of basketball says the fewer easy points a team allows its opponent, the better the odds are of that team winning, and the data bears this out. From the 2004-05 season to the 2015-16 season (using the beginning of the Nash/D’Antoni style revolution as a starting point), there are 360 team seasons to examine, and of those 360 seasons, only 18 saw a team average 24 or more fouls per game. Out of those 18 teams, only seven finished with a record of .500 or better and none took place after the 2007-08 season.

In other words, only two percent of the time has a team not posted a losing record since 2004-05 while fouling at least 24 times per game. That is not an encouraging stat.

But what can be learned from the teams that did win while hacking their opponents to death? Well, let’s start with the most successful of the group — the 2007-08 Utah Jazz, coached by Jerry Sloan.

The 2007-08 Jazz were 54-28 that year, falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals. Despite what their foul rate of 24.0 would suggest, those Jazz were not an especially potent defensive team. They were, however, an extremely efficient offensive club, ranking second in the NBA in field goal percentage (.497), tenth in 3-point percentage (.372), and second in assists (26.4). That efficiency allowed them to average 106.2 points per game despite a pace of just 93.2.

A similar story emerges when examining the second most successful team of that group of seven — the 2006-07 Utah Jazz, coached by Jerry Sloan. (Beginning to see a trend?)

The 2006-07 Jazz won 51 games and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals while fouling 25.2 times per game because, once again, they were extremely efficient on the offensive end, ranking second in the league for field goal percentage (.474) and assists (24.7).

The regimented, utilize-the-entire-shot-clock offense that defined Sloan’s teams compensated well for the free points they surrendered on defense via fouls, allowing the Jazz to consistently get good looks at the basket. And while neither team could be considered elite defensively — certainly not with Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur playing up front — their defense was gritty enough to keep them around the upper half of the league for opponent shooting.

While Watson is a Sloan acolyte, his vision for the team’s defensive identity sounds more similar to that of the third most successful team on the list — the 2004-05 Chicago Bulls, coached by Scott Skiles.

Skiles’ team went 47-35 that year and made the playoffs, but it wasn’t on the strength of its offense, which ranked in the bottom third of the league that year. It was because of its stellar defense that ranked second in the NBA for opponent field goal percentage (.422) and first in opponent 3-point percentage (.334).

Sloan and Skiles ultimately account for five of the seven teams to have had .500 or better records since 2004-05 despite a high foul rate, and the different reasons for their success ultimately point in the same direction. A team can commit fouls on a regular basis and still experience success, but it has to make up the difference somewhere. The Jazz made up the difference by destroying opponents with offensive execution. The Bulls made up the difference by suffocating opponents when they weren’t at the charity stripe.

Both the Jazz teams and Bulls teams had an elite skill to lean on while fouling. The Phoenix Suns do not. The Suns rank 20th in the league for field goal shooting at 44.3 percent and 22nd for 3-point shooting at 33.4 percent. Meanwhile, they are 24th in opponent field goal percentage (46.0) and 29th in opponent 3-point percentage (39.0). None of those numbers are good enough to compensate for committing a league-high 15.3 shooting fouls and allowing 29.7 free throw attempts per game — a -3.8 disparity on the season.

The Suns aren’t good enough yet to improve their standing in the wins column while surrendering 23.3 free points per game, so they seem destined to languish as long as their foul rate remains sky high. But there is another danger Watson and the Suns would do well to keep in mind. Committing fouls on defense can earn a team a defensive reputation across the league over time, but it can just as easily result in players earning a reputation as foul prone amongst the referees.

Already, Marquese Chriss averages 6.8 fouls per 36 minutes, with Alex Len not far behind at 5.8 per 36. While they have earned plenty of those fouls, there seem to be an increasing number of times when their reputation influences the whistle. Watson must take care to impart to his players that the context of their fouls is equally as important as merely being physical.

A defensive team is not afraid to take fouls, but lazy defensive players pick them up when they reach instead of moving their feet or overcommit instead of being in the correct defensive position. If the Suns are intent on taking their fair share of fouls and then some this season, they need to be sure they’re taken with purpose, not as a shortcut.