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The Phoenix Suns are laying the foundation to build a team identity around...defense?

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When was the last time the Suns had the potential for an impactful defense? The ingredients are starting to stew together beautifully.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When Mike D’Antoni revolutionized modern-day basketball as we know it with Steve Nash as his pilot over a decade ago, defense was never part of the equation.

Now, with former D’Antoni assistant Igor Kokoskov handling the keys, the script is beginning to flip in Phoenix. Offense still matters, but the backbone of this team is starting to be formed by pesky defense.

Trevor Ariza was expected to help kickstart this new trend, but it seems like Kelly Oubre Jr. was the missing ingredient instead. Since Ariza was traded on Dec. 15 for Oubre Jr., the 23-year-old wing out of Kansas has filled Ariza’s role and done even more.

From the time Oubre Jr. was inserted into the rotation at Boston on Dec. 19, the Suns rank No. 1 in deflections per game with 19.5. And their lead in this category continues to slightly widen each passing game, as No. 2-ranked Indiana checks in with only 17.6. With a nearly two-deflection lead on every other team, it’s hard to deny Phoenix is putting more focus into the defensive end as of late with help of their long-limbed switchable wing rotation.

Over their past 13 games, the Suns not only have built a wide margin of 20-plus deflection outings, but four of their main rotation players are featured within the NBA’s top 35 for deflections themselves. De’Anthony Melton, who plays the least amount of minutes of anyone on the list, leads Phoenix with 3.6 while Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, and Oubre Jr. all have averaged at least 2.7 per game the past three weeks.

Speaking of progress, Melton is looking like the game is slowing down for him way more recently. Even in a game where he didn’t make a single shot attempt, he was one of the most impactful players on the court from a playmaking and defensive standpoint. Melton finished with 10 assists, 4 steals, and 1 block on 0-for-7 shooting.

According to Basketball-Reference, Melton became only the second player in NBA history to have a game where he accumulated at least 10 assists, 4 steals, and 1 block while not making a field goal attempt. The other one was Draymond Green, who turned into one of the best glue guys in the league during Golden State’s epic rise.

“I think he was great, it was good,” Kokoskov said of his rookie point guard’s performance on Saturday night. “I checked the box score again at the end of the game, realized he didn’t make any shots, but he affects the game in so many different ways: defensively, his presence on the ball, activity, 50/50 balls, a couple steals in the first half, a couple rebounds, and then running the offense, putting guys in the right spots. For another rookie, it’s a very good performance on both sides of the court. So the fact that he didn’t score much didn’t really change his impact on the game. Melton was great tonight.”

Reminded of Jamal Murray lighting the Suns’ defense up for 46 points earlier this month, which included nine three-pointers made, Melton stepped up in a gigantic way on their home court. When Murray was guarded by Melton, he didn’t make a shot and had two turnovers. All of Murray’s four makes were against others, which speaks to the major progress we’re seeing out of the former USC Trojan this month.

“46 was way too much,” Melton said. “Anybody who comes in here and drops 46 on our home court, it’s kind of disrespectful. So we just took that mindset and we went out there and were aggressive so we just stayed after it.”

A quick reminder that Melton didn’t even play organized basketball last season due to the FBI probe at USC, which speaks volumes of how Melton’s plus defensive instincts have immediately translated to the pros. During his freshman season at USC, Melton had a 4.0 steal percentage. Now, two years later as a member of the Suns, it’s still right in line with his college production at 3.8 percent.

That’s the attitude and mentality the Suns hope to build off of, with Melton being one of the main pieces of the pie. With so much defensive talent and immense length in one place, it’s hard not to finally flip the tables. That seems to be the case when it comes to Melton and the Suns’ wing quartet.

“Following the game plan, being embarrassed last time that we played them, understanding we need a better start,” Kokoskov said postgame. “We had enough time to practice, we had two days to be ready for these guys. Simplify the game plan, which we didn’t change much. We didn’t really double Jokic. We were ready for that if we needed it, but we didn’t use it. I think the activity was there, voice was there, energy was there. You know you can’t talk basketball. You come with a game plan, you put it on the boards, the guys decide to play…From the game plan, to the film, to the court, there’s a long, long way, players play the game and win a game so that’s what it is. We showed up and played well.”

Even though there has been a 180-degree turn in terms of defensive hustle, it’s still not translating just yet into other team advanced metrics. During this three-week stretch with Oubre Jr. in the fold, Phoenix ranks 28th in defensive rating, allowing 113.4 points per 100 possessions.

This could be foreshadowing for an eventual turn of the corner. According to Roland Beech of 82games.com, who compiled all of this handy information in one place, hustle stats do eventually translate to future success in the win-loss column. This piece was from the 2017-18 campaign, but the main points still stand this year and moving into future seasons.

Phoenix leads not only in deflections since Oubre Jr. was brought on board, but they are No. 1 in steals per game, too, with 11.2. The Washington Wizards come in second-place with a mark of 9.8 steals.

Beech’s numbers from last season show that teams carry a 61 win percentage when they win the steal battle. For non-steal deflections, though, it falls off to 46 percent. However, if we were to stretch these figures over a full 82-game sample size, nine out of teams made the playoffs who were tops in deflections, while 100 percent of teams who finished in the top 10 in steals per game reached the playoffs.

Trust me, this team isn’t making a historic run the final 30-plus games to get into playoff contention, but this is indeed the aforementioned foreshadowing I was talking about when it comes to future success. For the Suns, 2019-20 could finally be the year when it flips, but who knew the main reason could be two critical defensive categories?

“We growing everyday. One day, we want to be there too,” Oubre Jr. said. “So, we not going to put somebody above us because it’s only us in here that are together and want to be great.”

If Oubre Jr. and Co. can buy completely into being defensive menaces for 48 minutes a game while utilizing their above-average wingspans on the perimeter, it seems like this could be a successful formula to building a sustainable contender around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.