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Suns have laid the foundation this offseason to build strong defense

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With De’Anthony Melton, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Josh Jackson, Phoenix has the ingredients simmering on a defense with immense upside built around modern philosophies.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Compared to other rosters in the Phoenix Suns’ past, this one will look more in the mold that fits the vision of how this league is heading. If you kept a watchful eye on this year’s NBA Playoffs, especially the Conference Finals, you saw the trends of what it will take to succeed nowadays.

Not only did Phoenix attack their two biggest weaknesses, defensive versatility and perimeter shooting, but they infused even more young talent onto their roster in the process. Undoubtedly, General Manager Ryan McDonough and Co. are betting on the 2018 Draft to make up much of their core around Devin Booker: Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton. What all four of those players have in common is off the charts upside coupled with either above-average defensive or offensive capabilities.

New head coach Igor Kokoskov now has the ingredients on the table to start implementing a defense built around switch coverages. McDonough himself was blown away by Ayton’s switching ability in his pre-draft workout, and he’s right because the 20-year-old Bahamian has nimble feet that could have him fit right into how Houston uses Clint Capela on ball screens.

It’s something I’ve hinted at for months, but now the proof is in the pudding that Phoenix is building their roster in the ways of Houston, Golden State and Boston. Wings on top of wings what provide shooting, defense or both. And even though the Suns initially hinted at not using Booker at point guard in only closing situations, they are creating multitudes of lineups that could feature him flanked by wings only on the perimeter. (ex: Booker-Jackson-Bridges-Ariza-Ayton).

On top of that, adding in someone of De’Anthony Melton’s skill set goes right in line with that idea. Melton, who was ranked No. 13 on my final big board, allows Phoenix to develop two point guards on the cheap for a few years until one is ready to take over. Elie Okobo’s shooting prowess could even work alongside Melton’s innate instincts defensively as a backcourt tandem off the bench.

Phoenix has length across the board, including what I believe is five long term starters (yes, I’m that high on Melton as you can tell).

  • Ayton: 7’5.5”
  • Bridges: 7’2”
  • Jackson: 6’10”
  • Booker: 6’8”
  • Melton: 6’8”

Just like James Harden was utilized in Houston, the Suns can now switch everything basically allowing Booker to always camp on the weakest defender. Stylistically, defenders like Melton, Bridges and Jackson could interchange on the top perimeter options. Melton could even check 3s in a pinch while Jackson and Bridges can guard 1-4.

If Las Vegas Summer League was any indication, Kokoskov’s defense will be one built around aggressiveness. The on-ball activity from July was something rarely seen with consistency under Earl Watson or Jay Triano.

Over the past three seasons, Phoenix has been terrible defensively. After capping it off in 2017-18 becoming the second team in NBA history to finish last in both offensive and defensive rating behind the Charlotte Bobcats, it’s apparent that they were in desperate need of an overhaul.

Meanwhile, once Kokoskov joined Quinn Snyder’s staff in Utah following the 2014-2015 campaign, the Jazz have climbed the rankings every year. From 8th in Kokoskov’s first season alongside Snyder on the bench all the way to 2nd helping Utah stun the NBA world without Gordon Hayward.

Suns / Jazz DefRtg Comparison:

2015-16: Suns - 26th / Jazz - 8th

2016-17: Suns - 28th / Jazz - 4th

2017-18: Suns - 30th / Jazz - 2nd

Utah and Phoenix have been going in opposite directions since 2015. Phoenix decided in Booker’s rookie season he was their franchise player and pulled the plug on competing until they stockpiled lottery talent around him while Utah continuously improved on both sides of the ball.

It would go a long way under Kokoskov if he as able to instill some of Snyder’s defensive tactics in Phoenix, and he could take even further with how much length and upside is available to him.

McDonough has consistently brought up teams like Golden State, Houston and Boston for how they wanted to rebuild around Booker over these next few seasons. What all three have in common is aggressive switches on defense and stockpiles of wings available to use. While obviously it’s not on the level of those three yet, the foundation has seemingly been laid this offseason adding in the likes of Ayton, Bridges, Melton and an extra year of seasoning for Josh Jackson, Davon Reed and Dragan Bender.

And if the Suns intend to keep around both T.J. Warren and Jackson long term, they have the depth at the forward positions to put together units that feature plenty of them. This season, we could see a lineup combination of Booker, Jackson, Warren, Bridges and Ariza. All five have the size to switch everything while it also answers one of the bigger questions for how Phoenix plans to defend modern offenses built around spread pick-and-roll nowadays.

Switching is the best counter to PnR attacks, and the playoffs provided another reason why.

In this example above, you can see why Ayton has the makings of filling a Capela-like role. Capela and Chris Paul kept switching off of Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neal to force no solid look to appear. It forced Ingles into a tough mid-range jumper over an outstretched Paul, allowing Harden, who’s camping near the basket, to snatch the rebound and quickly begin a fast break with numbers. Ayton’s foot speed, which could pass for a guard, will make this type of play reality early and often for the Suns.

Again, you see Paul and Capela switch here. This time, Capela takes Ingles from the perimeter while Paul sinks back to cover Derrick Favors. Ingles tried to blow by Capela, but once he realized there was no way this was happening, he turned around and fired the ball out of bounds. Length and speed are the main on-ball disruptors, and Phoenix should have plenty of those attributes to throw out against pass-happy offenses predicated around ball movement.

Even though he didn’t really showcase this at the University of Arizona, Ayton did in his 1-on-0 workout in Phoenix, impressing McDonough even further in the pre-draft process.

“One of the things that’s exciting for us about Deandre is that Arizona didn’t play switch coverage a lot, but when we had him switch and put him in his stance in the workout we said, ‘Oh, wow, this guy is going to be able at 7-1 with his length and strength to guard some smaller guys because he moves his feet well,’” McDonough said after Ayton’s introductory press conference.

Outside of Houston influences, we can see other exotic looks that could be accomplished by the Suns’ length defensively. Above, Golden State switches absolutely everything on the perimeter between Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, David West and Draymond Green.

The triple switch concept allows for Durant (Bridges) to hound the point guard while in halfcourt settings then Green (Jackson) moves Thompson (Melton) off his original switch of Aldridge to the perimeter.

Golden State’s length across the board allows them to do these types of things frequently. Now, sometime down the road (switching isn’t something you learn overnight, it takes plenty of communication from all five players), Phoenix can pull off something similar.

We now get to see some Boston concepts, which originated from Golden State. Brad Stevens is smart, though. Imitation is the best form of flattering. It’s paid off quickly for Stevens’ core.

Above, Al Horford (Ayton) is switched onto Jordan Clarkson, but Kevin Love leaks down into the paint creating a big mismatch on Terry Rozier (Melton/Okobo/Booker). However, Jayson Tatum’s (Jackson/Bridges) rover role near the rim keeping tabs on Rodney Hood in the corner allows him to help out. The Boston Scram Switch occurs while the ball is in mid-air. When Clarkson floats it to Love, Tatum runs over to get Love while Rozier flies over to Hood.

Throughout that sequence, Love never realized Rozier left him. This allowed Tatum to catch him by surprise and pickpocket him for an easy steal in transition.

As you can see from these four examples, Phoenix could commit fully to these types of modern concepts on both sides under Kokoskov’s tutelage.

Looking ahead at how Kokoskov’s scheme will be ran, I expect one that has the Suns firing close to 30 3s per game while also maintaining a top-notch aggressiveness on the other end.

Last season, Phoenix was not only the worst team defensively, but they also ranked dead last in three-point shooting, too. Kokoskov’s player development track record coupled by his history in Utah and championship experience from Detroit, plus other pit stops along the way, should be a major win for this young core built around it’s star shooting guard in Booker.

Slowly but surely Phoenix has put together the necessary pieces to craft a future contender around Booker. Plenty of two-way wings who can shoot and defend the lights out, while Ayton can anchor and switch out onto perimeter players when needed. Defensive versatility was gained in spades this summer and that only helps someone like Booker even further while he carries the offensive load alongside the rookie Bahamian big man.

Success won’t happen overnight, especially with a team that features only three players with playoff experience (Tyson Chandler, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson), but the bricks are starting to be laid on a successful foundation to build off. Plenty of focus will be on how the Suns score, but its defense could be one that’s unique enough to make opposing teams think twice on trying to solve their puzzle.