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Preseason talk by Phoenix Suns about defensive identity remains just that — talk

The team ranks at or near the bottom of the NBA in almost every defensive category

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

We’re placing an emphasis on defense his year.

That seems to be the recurring theme of every Phoenix Suns training camp, and 2016 was no exception. Head coach Earl Watson, getting the opportunity to run his first training camp as a head coach, sold the idea of defense first like a salesman with seven kids to put through college.

“The ultimate goal for us is to become a defensive team and have grit and be nasty and play with purpose,” Watson told reporters before the season started. “Defense gets you through the playoffs. And we have great, unique guys who can guard multiple positions.

“We know for us to achieve something special, which we will, we have to be a really solid defensive team.”

Now, many coaches have echoed those words over the years, but it seemed to carry more heft this year coming from Watson. After all, he made his name as an NBA player on the defensive end of the floor and brought in Tyrone Corbin from the Utah Jazz as an assistant coach to install some of Utah’s defensive principles. Then there was the improvement shown in Phoenix’s defensive effort after Watson took over for Jeff Hornacek last season. Combine all that with a roster returning to health, expected internal improvements, and the addition of veteran influences, and there was real hope the 2016-17 Suns would be that scrappy, young defensive team every coach seems to promise.

Yet here we are in mid-February with our scrappy, young defensive team bobbing listlessly in the water. The Suns rank 29th in points allowed (112.6), 28th in opponent field goal percentage (.473), 30th in opponent 3-point percentage (.389), 27th in opponent free throw percentage (.788), and 30th in fouls per game (24.9).

Huh. Remind me again, what was this team focusing on?

But the problem isn’t just that the Suns have been horrendous defensively this season; the problem is that they have been horrendous defensively on a historic scale.

Their 112.6 points allowed average? That ranks seventh worst in franchise history and worst since 1987-88. Their .473 opponent field goal percentage? That’s 11th worst in franchise history and worst since 1994-95. Their 24.9 fouls per game? That’s 10th worst and worst since 1987-88. And both their opponent 3-point percentage and opponent free throw percentage will represent new all-time worsts for the franchise if they hold — not to mention that their opponent 3-point percentage would rank 14th worst in NBA history and their opponent free throw percentage would rank 10th worst in the league since 1970-71.

And there’s more. The Suns have allowed 120 or more points 16 times this season and 130 or more points five times. Both those totals lead the NBA this season while ranking T-11th and T-10th in franchise history respectively — and there are still 26 games to play!

It can’t even be argued that these Suns are attempting D’Antoni defense (i.e. defense through offense) since they allow 1.058 points for every point they score. That is worse than every Suns team but 1968-69 (1.079), 2012-13 (1.067), and 2015-16 (1.065).

For as bad as the Suns have been defensively overall, though, they actually aren’t terrible at defending the paint, allowing 43.8 points per game in there (18th in the NBA). The flip side is that means they allow 68.8 points outside the paint, which is last in the NBA.

Phoenix’s biggest defensive issue is that their perimeter defenders struggle to consistently keep their man in front of them. On screen actions, they can usually be found trailing their assignment around the pick instead of fighting through it, which forces the defense to shift in order to address the threat of whoever now has a free run at the hoop. Invariably, this opens up someone else for an uncontested shot, as Phoenix also ranks near the bottom of the league for contesting shots.

Constantly exposing the defense in this way also leads to foul trouble, as fouls are the last resort of a broken defensive stand.

The question then is why is Phoenix struggling to defend one of basketball’s most fundamental plays when defense was such an emphasis going into the season? Really, it is difficult to see any improvement season over season despite all the reasons listed above that were supposed to translate into tangible defensive progress. Young players learning the ropes doesn’t suffice as an explanation because Eric Bledsoe has been as culpable as anyone this season. Injuries haven’t been an issue either. Nor has discord in the locker room. So what is it?

Perhaps the problem is coaching, perhaps personnel. (Probably both.) But what is obvious is that Suns fans were sold a bill of goods — again — regarding defense. The Suns are set to play game No. 57 of the season tomorrow, and as it stands, they are no better defensively than they were going into game No. 1.

At least Watson was correct when he said the Suns would achieve something special. We are all witnessing arguably the worst defensive team in nearly a half century of Phoenix Suns basketball.

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