The Phoenix Suns are a different animal than they were a season ago.
It’s not just that at the break a season ago, Phoenix was 24-11 and are 48-10 this season. It’s not just that a season ago, Devin Booker was an All-Star replacement and now this season was a lock – and MVP contender. It’s not just that a season ago, Phoenix struggled to provide Deandre Ayton with a consistent backup and now self-proclaimed savior JaVale McGee is providing relief – along with mid-season signing Bismack Biyombo.
The Suns have truly set themselves apart this season. Over the last 40 years, only one team has maintained a larger lead than the Phoenix’s 6.5 games for the best record in the league at the All-Star break: the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls at 7.5. That’s the company Phoenix is keeping.
To me, one of the biggest reasons why the Suns are taking this step is through disruptive defense, and that starts with the Point Gawd.
Paul leads the league with total steals at 108 on the season while playing all 58 games so far, but now will miss most (or all) of the rest of the regular season due to a thumb injury. He’s third in the “per game” category of steals with 1.9 per game behind Dejounte Murray (2.0) and Gary Trent Jr. (1.9). A season ago, Paul had “only” 1.4 steals per game, but an emphasis on disruption and his own budding comfort within the defensive scheme has led to the uptick. He’s also the team leader in deflections at 2.7.
Mikal Bridges leads a group of wings that don’t have a single slouch in that department either. His outrageous length puts him in positions to disrupt the flow of offense in a way that many others aren’t equipped for. Coupled with an especially pestering style of on-ball defense, he’s earned 1.2 steals and 2.1 deflections per game, and frequently has games like this:
We don’t talk enough about the job Jae Crowder does on this end as well. I get the sense at times that he’s known as just a “streaky shooter with good intangibles and locker room vibes,” but he’s really a force defensively. Out of everyone in Phoenix’s main rotation, Crowder contests the most shots at 6.5 per game (Bridges and Devin Booker are tied for second with 5.8), and is second on the team in deflections at 2.2 and steals at 1.3.
Booker’s ramped up defense has made a huge impact as well, garnering attention from established defensive dominators like Rudy Gobert:
When I watch some of these other teams like the Suns or the Warriors, those guys are a step ahead of us in terms of winning habits. They take every game personally. Devin Booker is playing his ass off defensively. I’ve been watching him compared to two years ago. Guys like that, they buy in, and you can tell they take pride in playing defense and stopping their man, doing whatever they can defensively to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture.
Over the final 16 games leading up to the break, Booker reached the 3-steal mark in three different games (18.75% of his games) after doing so just 20 times in the 434 career games (4.6% of games) before this stretch.
As a team, the improvements are even more clear to see.
Last year’s squad averaged 7.2 steals per game, ranking 19th in the league. That’s up to 8.5 this season, ranking 6th in the league. As for deflections, the Suns got their hands on 13.6 per game a year ago, just a measly 19th in the league. That’s up to 14.0 this season, ranking 14th in the league.
Overall, they force turnovers on 13.0% (8th) of possessions now as opposed to 12.4% (16th) a year ago. Those dividends are played out in defensive rating as well, which has gone from 111.3 (9th) to 105.9 (3rd). Phoenix, at the break, is the only team in the top 5 of both offensive (4th) and defensive rating, setting them up for a league-best net rating of 8.1, which is 1.2 higher than the second-place Utah Jazz at 6.9.
Much to the pleasure of head coach Monty Williams, I’m sure, Phoenix is a bona fide championship contender that hangs their hat on the defensive end. As Williams stated to TNT’s Chris Haynes during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers before the break, the defense is what fuels the offense, especially true during clutch time where the Suns are so good, with a clutch defensive rating of 93.1.
We will have to watch what impact the loss of Chris Paul has on the defense for the rest of the regular season, but by playoff time Paul will be back to lead the charge. The offensive problems that appeared during the playoffs last season can be neutralized by getting stops (and by avoiding fluke injuries), so as long as the Suns can keep up the defensive intensity down the stretch, they’re putting themselves in a great position to make another run at a title.