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Suns deflect talk of basketball identity

The Phoenix Suns are getting better in some areas that appear to be long-lasting.

Phoenix Suns v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

When you are a near-franchise-worst 10-33 after more than half a season, there’s not a lot of good news to talk about. I mean, how much could have gone right if your record is so gawdawful?

Which is why we here at the Bright Side focus on the games within the game: player development, scheme development, offensive identity, defensive identity.

In this here article, I’m going to focus on a recent defensive identity being embraced by the young Phoenix Suns.

Since Kelly Oubre Jr. joined the team last month, the Phoenix Suns have led the league in deflections per game (18.2), meaning they get into passing lanes with their long arms to deflect opponents’ passes and disrupt their offense. Everyone’s getting into it, but Oubre, De’Anthony Melton and Mikal Bridges are the best, averaging 3-plus deflections each.

Those deflections lead to opponent turnovers, which has the Suns ranked in the top five among NBA over the past month.

The Suns overall defense is still quite poor (28th overall since 12/15 in points allowed per possession) but at least they’re making it interesting during long stretches where it seems every opponent possession has a block or deflection in it.

Silver linings.

Where the defense continues to fail them is that they are no where near league average on contested shots, meaning they’re better at defending in space than defending players shooting the ball. And topping on that, they can’t seem to secure the defensive rebound when the opponent does miss (dead last in defensive rebound rate in that same span).

This is what coach Igor Kokoskov was talking about with the water leaks. You plug one hole and another springs open. By playing small at four positions, the Suns leave all rebounding tasks to rookie center Deandre Ayton.

Ayton has been good (10.7 per game is among league leaders) and ranks in the top decile of all NBA players and top half of centers in defensive rebound rate, but he can’t grab them all. There’s usually 50-60 rebound opportunities per game. One player can’t track the ball to every bounce angle. Even the game’s best rebounders don’t grab more than 15 of those bad boys.

It’s the other guys around Ayton who just don’t have a nose for the rebound. Even among small ball guys, there’s no P.J. Tucker on this team for example. None of T.J. Warren, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre or Josh Jackson have the skills or desire to box out and establish rebound position to improve their chances of grabbing a missed shot.

So, the Suns are last in defensive rebounding and near the bottom of the league contesting shots. Hence their 28th-ranked defense since mid-December despite leading the league in deflections.

Now the better news. The Suns are somehow 5-9 since December 15 — not great, but better than they’d been — more because of the offense than the defense.

Since mid-December, the Suns offense has jumped all the way up to league-average, ranking 14th overall with 108-plus points per 100 possessions (roughly, a game) after posting a paltry 101 ppg the first two months of the season (28th ranked).

What’s improved? Their effective field goal percentage (eFG%, which gives extra value on 3s) has jumped from 22nd to 13th, while their true shooting percentage (TS%, which adds free throws to the eFG%) has jumped from 22nd to 11th.

The Suns are taking more free throws, making more of their threes and rebounding more of their own misses for easy putbacks and second chances.

Phoenix is also getting out in transition better, leading the league in points off turnovers (22.5 per game) since mid-December after ranking near the bottom the first two months. They’re still not great at finishing on the break, scoring just 16.5 points on fast breaks. So many of those turnovers are stopping at a half-court offensive set.

You see right now who the Suns are: scrappy, and willing to use their athleticism and long arms to get deflections and turn them into easy offense. But because they are undersized at 2-3 positions each night, they too often get outrebounded, outbullied and out-veteraned as the game wears on.

A blueprint you might follow for the best iteration of this kind of team is the Oklahoma City Thunder who employ the same roster model (wings and passing around the one big man), just with better and more experienced players to lead the league in defensive rating. The Celtics employ a similar model to great success as well.

Let’s see how the Suns can continue to evolve as 2019 unfolds. At least they are building an identity.