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Suns’ defensive improvement hinges on Josh Jackson

If the Suns are going to climb out of the defensive basement, they will need Josh Jackson to become a plus defender.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns fans have watched the league’s worst defense for long enough. Lack of talent, lack of discipline and lack of effort have all been hallmarks of a losing team.

And losing they’ve certainly done.

I mean, you can’t celebrate your 50th season as a franchise without getting down by 50-plus in a game at least once, can you?

Over the last three of years of losing at a 73% clip, the Suns have sunk from the league’s fourth-winningest franchise all the way down to seventh. Think about that — it’s only taken three seasons OUT OF 50 to plummet the team’s reputation to depths never before experienced in its storied history.

These last three years, the Suns’ defense has ranked (per basketball-reference.com):

  • 24th (giving up 109 points per 100 possessions), followed by
  • 28th (giving up 112.2 points per 100 possessions), followed by
  • 30th (giving up 112.8 points per 100 possessions)

Over the last two seasons, the Suns have posted defensive ratings worse than ANY in franchise history.

Embarrassing.

Contributing to the problem has been hiring non-defensive coaches — Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson, Jay Triano and now Igor Kokoskov — but the Suns hiring offensive minded coaches has been the case throughout franchise history.

Mike D’Antoni will be the first to tell you that your team can be passable defensively as long as you have some good defensive players playing a lot of minutes, even without having a defensive focus.

The SSOL Suns were always middle-third defensively, and even finished better than league average twice under Mike D thanks to the exploits of minutes-leaders Shawn Marion and Raja Bell, along with contributions from Kurt Thomas and Boris Diaw as 4 of the top 6 in minutes per game.

They were much worse defensively after Bell and Marion left. It took historic offense from Nash, Stoudemire and company to overcome being 23rd in defense in 2009-10.

Only once in the past decade have the Suns been league-average or better on D, and that was in the WTF happened year of 2013-14, when Jeff Hornacek was a rookie coach whose only work history item on his resume was being a shooting coach for the Jazz.

That team finished mid-pack thanks to the efforts of a young Eric Bledsoe and veteran P.J. Tucker. But it wasn’t just those two, and Bledsoe missed half that season. Goran Dragic, the Morrii and Channing Frye were all passable defensively in their roles. Those were five of the top eight on the team in minutes per game.

How can the Suns build a defensive presence again?

Based on history, it appears that at least half of your top players in minutes per game must be good defenders or at least able to hold their own.

The best Suns defenses in SSOL covered for top offensive players Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

The one good Suns defense in the Horny era covered for the iffy Goran Dragic and Gerald Green, two of the top three scorers and minutes leaders that year.

What about 2018-19?

Taking a look at the Suns’ likely list of minutes leaders reveals only Trevor Ariza as a proven defender who will have to cover for two or three of Devin Booker, T.J. Warren and Brandon Knight in most lineups. Ariza fits the mold of Marion, Bell and Tucker as a veteran tough defender who can guard multiple positions for most of the game.

Ariza was a top player in minutes played on the Rockets last year (34 per game), with he and P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela helping the Rockets reach sixth in defense. And that’s a team coached by ol’ Mike D.

But he needs a partner on the floor for most of his minutes. Could that be Josh Jackson?

Jackson came into the league in 2017 as the highest-touted perimeter defender in his draft class, as voted by fellow rookies, analysts and executives.

This year, Jackson will certainly be among the team’s top six players in terms of minutes per game, a necessity if the Suns are to post a passable team defense.

Could Jackson and Ariza approach the defense posed by young upstart Bledsoe and veteran Tucker in 2013-14? Maybe. Sure.

Could the duo approach the defense provided by Marion and Bell from 2005-2007? It’s unlikely, but maybe. If Jackson makes HUGE strides and Ariza doesn’t suddenly get old like Tyson Chandler did, it’s possible.

Speaking of Chandler, he can provide solid rim defense and defensive “captaincy” on the court when he plays, but he likely won’t be among the top eight in minutes played this year. Neither will Shaquille Harrison or Davon Reed, for that matter.

Where could the Suns get defense outside of Jackson and Ariza among their top eight players?

Dragan Bender, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges all rank in the “good tools, no proof” category among those most likely to fit in the top eight in minutes played if they have good seasons.

Bridges comes into the league this year as one of the best defenders to come out of college, and was ranked by his rookie peers last week as the draft’s fourth-best defender. Combine his maturity, shot-making and intelligence with that skill, and it’s possible he could earn top-8 minutes next year.

Bender has the length, feet and intelligence to defend on both the perimeter and the block, but will have a hard time being among the team’s top eight in minutes played this season after the additions of Ariza and the draft picks.

Bender is not only a zero on offense, he was exposed late last year when his legs turned to rubber and opposing teams forced defensive isolations on him, repeatedly testing his confidence and bounce... and beating him. It was the first time in his life he’d played that much basketball, getting 25 minutes per game over all 82 games at just 20 years old. Yes, I’m still sitting on Bender island, but the island is lonely, and there’s a lack of natural resources to sustain life.

Ayton is an interesting case. He has the feet and bulk to defend well when he is directly involved in the play — either in pick-and-roll or at the basket. But he doesn’t play good team defense, doesn’t rotate well, and generally plays like he’s 20 years old and hasn’t had to try hard to be the best on the court before. At best, he’s Amare on D. Never an “OMGhessalltimebad” but never “ohhesrealgood,” either.

Fellow rookies actually mentioned him among of the draft class’s good defenders based on sheer size and athleticism, and frankly, he won’t ever be the worst in the game.

But the Suns won’t get out of the basement relying on Tony Buckets, Ayton, Booker and Knight to be good defenders.

They will only get out of the basement if Ariza and Josh Jackson show enough defensive moxie and awareness to cover for them, while Bender and Bridges show those skills off the bench.