The words “Phoenix Suns basketball” and “defense” haven’t often aligned throughout the 54-year history of the franchise. Although there have been solid defensive players who have donned the purple and orange, the team generally is known more for its offensive exploits than its defensive prowess. From the Sunderella Suns in 1976 to Seven Seconds or Less era, with the high powered KJ and TC teams of the late-80’s/early 90’s in between, Phoenix is known for putting points on the board, not negating them.
The last time a member of the Phoenix Suns earned a spot on the NBA All-Defensive Team was in 2008. Raja Bell joined Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, Dwight Howard, and third-year point guard Chris Paul on the NBA All-Defensive Second Team that season.
The previous season (2007) Bell earned a spot on the first team, and became just the fourth member of the Suns ever to do so, joining Don Buse (1978-80) Dennis Johnson (1981-83), and Jason Kidd (1999 & 2001). The team has had plenty of Second Teamers, including Paul Silas (1971), Dave DeBusschere (1972-73), Dick Van Arsdale (1974), Dan Majerle (1991 & 1993), Cliff Robinson (2000), Jason Kidd (2000), and the aforementioned Bell.
Yes, we’ve had some solid defensive players come through Phoenix. Yet the Phoenix Suns are one of 12 teams that have never had a member of their organization win the Defensive Player of the Year award, an honor first earned by the Bucks’ Sidney Moncrief in 1983.
Perhaps in 2022, that will change.
Mikal Bridges has had another stellar defensive season for the Suns. His long arms and lateral quickness, finesse and deterrence, switchability and shut down ability have continued to develop throughout his fourth year in the NBA. His efforts should land him on the NBA All-Defensive First Team, ending the 15-year drought for Phoenix.
But could he make a push for earning Defensive Player of the Year? Slowly but surely, all of the pieces are falling into place that could result in Mikal hoisting the trophy.
Bridges is going up more than just the opposition’s best offensive player each night. If he is to earn the DPOY, he is going to have to overcome a bias that exists due to the nature of the award.
Since the NBA’s inception of the award in 1983, the majority of winners play center. 39 times the award has been granted and 24 times it has gone to a player who roams the paint and plays the five. Both Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace have won the award four times, with Mark Eaton and Rudy Golbert winning it three times.
It hasn’t been since 2017 that a wing player (Draymond Green) won the award. Rudy Gobert has won it three out of the past four seasons, with Giannis Antetokounmpo being the only player to dethrone Rudy (and I’m not sure if I’d classify him as a wing. Hell, I don’t know what to classify the Greek Freak as).
The DPOY, for the most part, goes to a player who rebounds and blocks shots. Gobert, for example, led the league with 15 rebounds-per-night last season while recording the most blocked shots (190).
If there is any chance for Mikal Bridges to earn the honor, the 124 voters that consist of sportswriters and broadcasters will have to adjust their way of thinking, as Mikal is currently 131st in rebounding (4.0) and 95th in blocks (0.5). One thing that is working is Bridges’ favor? The fact that…
The National Narrative is Changing
It’s not always the statistics, it’s the story. And let’s be real, the DPOY story has been the same song and dance for a few years now.
The advanced stats guys love Rudy Gobert. Like, really love. I’m sure they’ve already made their Valentine’s Day plans in hopes that Rudy shows up show they can shower him with their affections and bouquets of flowers.
Gobert typically leads in all sorts of advanced stats categories: help rim protection, block rate on contests, defensive rebounding per 75 possessions. Yes, Gobert is a quality regular season defensive big man (you like that subtle jab there?). He’s been awarded for it.
But the story is getting old and the voters will be looking to dish the hardware to someone else. It’s like the MVP during the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s. Michael Jordan could’ve and should’ve won it every time, but the story of his greatness became tired, so Karl Malone got a couple.
You’re beginning to see that narrative change and, due to the likes of talking heads like my new favorite pundit JJ Redick, that message is being perpetuated for all to hear.
It doesn’t hurt playing for the best team in the NBA, right? It worked for Rudy last year.
The “modern NBA”, which focuses its offensive attention on the perimeter, is still rewarding interior defenders? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t, but the time has come to reward a guy who has to chase all of these elite shooters around the court and shuts them down. In Mikal’s case…
The Stats are There
Mikal has proven that he can make some of the advanced stats guys salivate. When you start with his Matchup Difficulty (which, per BBall-Index is “an estimated degree of difficulty rating for the specific players a player had to guard, based on data capturing who guarded whom every second of every possession”...now that’s advanced), Bridges is in the 99th percentile.
He grades out as a B for passing lane defense, and A- for off-ball chaser defense, an A for ball handler screen defense, all while being in the 92nd percentile for defensive miles per 75 possessions. Mikal is currently 10th in Defensive Win Shares – an estimate of the number of wins contributed to a player due to defense – at 2.1.
In short? Mikal Bridges excels at guarding the elite perimeter players in the league. And who could forget his performance against Stephen Curry earlier this season?
Performances like those above add to the national narrative piece as well. You see the NBA’s darling Stephen Curry go for 12 points on 4-of-21 shooting and you have to wonder why. The casual fan will say, “everyone has off nights” while the more advanced observer will add “and it was because of Mikal Bridges”.
When you look holistically at the numbers, however, Mikal is as dominant as some of the big men in the league. That is why he must...
Seize the Opportunity
Per SportsBettingDime.com, Bridges currently has the fourth best odds to win the award at +2100. That is behind Draymond Green (+100), Rudy Gobert (+178), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+725). He might not be the favorite, but he is in the conversation.
The window has opened for Mikal of late as Draymond Green has been sidelined with calf soreness and a lower back injury. Green has had a stellar defensive season and assisted with the Golden State Warriors success. His absence has been felt as the team with the second best record in the league (subtle jab again) has gone 2-4, which could actually solidify his case for the award.
The Warriors have stated that he could be out additional time, however, stemming into February. Games missed could become a factor in the DPOY race just as it did in the MVP race last year for Joel Embiid. If Green doesn’t return for quite some time or does but lacks effectiveness, the door begins to open. Now is the time for Mikal Bridges to lock down a chance to win the trophy.
There are other players who are in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. Nikola Jokic will never repeat as the MVP despite keeping a decimated Nuggets team in contention. His defensive metrics have been incredible (#4 in Defensive Win Shares, #1 in Defensive Box Plus/Minus) and I could see him being rewarded for his efforts with the DPOY trophy rather than the MVP.
Regardless of the outcome, we should expect to see Mikal Bridges on the NBA All-Defensive First Team. He has earned the respect of his peers, yes, and now the media is coming around to the idea that this is the kind of player every team desires. Kudos to James Jones for locking him into a deal prior this past offseason.