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Top 5 Defense: Dissecting what makes the Suns elite defensively

A franchise that is historically known for boasting an exciting offense has an identity most fans aren’t used to. What’s that, you ask? Defense.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns are 25th in blocks per game (4.3), 27th in steals per game (6.5), and 29th in deflections per game (12.5) in the NBA, yet they boast a defense that sits in the top 5 on nearly every advanced metric out there.

While the general counting impact stats such as stocks (steals + blocks) can be telling of how good an individual player is defensively in most cases, they clearly aren’t the deciding factor when it comes to team defense and results.

There are pillars towards building an elite defense, and James Jones is the master behind the plan through his calculated additions over the past 18 months.

The Culture

First and foremost, establishing a culture where accountability and trust are present is paramount when talking about building a defensive identity as a team.

Chris Paul and Jae Crowder are two vocal leaders on this side of the floor. Leading by example is far more valuable than having a veteran such as Jared Dudley or Tyson Chandler trying to teach younger guys these habits from the bench.

“If you’re not talking, you’re not playing defense.”- Doc Rivers.

T-A-L-K-I-N-G! Communication is easily the most important element of team defense and if you listen closely to this year’s Suns team in contrast to teams in the past, the constant chirping on that end of the floor is night and day.

I love this video below because there were only 1,400 fans in the stands and you could hear the constant communication clear as day. Deandre Ayton has really taken a leap forward as the anchor not only physically, but vocally.

It also helps when you have players eager to learn such as Mikal Bridges, Jevon Carter, Cameron Johnson, Abdel Nader, and Cameron Payne. Throw in a feisty competitor like Devin Booker into that culture of players who are giving it their all on this side of the floor, and it becomes infectious.

The last factor that culminates all of these things together is depth. The Suns' bench unit comes in and keeps the defensive intensity at a high level, whereas many teams around the league see a significant drop-off when they turn to their bench unit.

The Numbers

Here’s my quick take on defensive metrics and statistics: individually, they are mostly garbage and can easily be skewed by factors outside of a player’s control. Collectively as a team, they can be misleading and inflate the weak link’s numbers if they are surrounded by an elite defense that masks them.

That being said, these numbers combined if used as a general storyteller rather than the end-all-be-all, can be helpful in determining whether or not the defensive success is sustainable or not. It can identify strengths and weaknesses collectively and indicate if there are any outliers or areas that teams should be concerned with.

Here’s a quick glance at some of the most important phases of the game from a defensive perspective:

  • Opponent Assists Per Game: 1st (21.9)
  • Opponent 3 Point Percentage: 2nd (34.3%)
  • Team Defensive Rating: 3rd (108.9)
  • Opponent Points Per Game: 3rd (107.1)
  • Opponent Points Off Turnovers: 3rd (14.9)
  • Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 5th (75.1%)
  • Opponent Field Goal Percentage: 8th (45.8%)
  • Opponent 2nd Chance Points: 10th (12.1)
  • Opponent Points In The Paint: 10th (45.9)

These many phases of the game such as controlling the glass, contesting shots, limiting turnovers that lead to easy buckets, and controlling the paint are ultimately the little things that add up over the course of the game to wins and losses.

They are in the top 10 in all of these categories, hence why they don’t need a ton of steals or blocks to have an impactful defense. Attention to detail is everything, and when you win in that many phases of the game, it leads to success.


Suns leaders in defensive rating league-wide?

(min. 15 minutes per game, 15 games played aka rotation players)

  • Dario Saric: 1st— 96.8
  • Cam Johnson: 11th— 102.3
  • E’Twaun Moore: 17th— 103.7
  • Jae Crowder: 41st— 105.9
  • Cam Payne: 43rd— 105.9
  • Frank Kaminsky: 48th— 106.0

Do you notice a trend here? The Suns' bench unit has six players (technically five if you identify one of Crowder, Johnson, or Kaminsky as a starter on that never-ending carousel) that are in the top 50 in the entire league in defensive rating.

This goes back to my culture rant above, and why the depth makes them so deadly. They come at you in waves for 48 minutes defensively.

Having an individual stud like Mikal Bridges certainly helps with scheming the adds to the versatility, but this defense goes much deeper than that. It’s a collective effort that should be directly attributed to the two men that put this together: Monty Williams and James Jones.