Last night felt like a low point in the season for the Phoenix Suns. On a night that was supposed to be one of joy and celebration as the organization honored one of its greats by inducting Shawn Marion into the Ring of Honor, the current team reminded us that “joy” should not be in our vocabulary.
The emotional rollercoaster began four minutes into the game when Bradley Beal went down after landing on the foot of Donte DiVincenzo. He was clearly in pain and, after hitting his free throw for the foul that occurred, immediately went to the locker room. It didn’t take long for the Suns to declare him out for the remainder of the game,
A mere 28 minutes over two games into the Big Three, the reset button was pushed. It’s a theme the Suns have been fighting all season long.
3⃣Suns Big Three (so far):— PHX Fans (@PHXFansAZ) December 16, 2023
Game 1 - Beal hurt
Game 2 - Booker hurt
Game 6 - Booker returns
Game 7 - Booker hurt
Game 9 - Beal returns
Game 11 - Booker returns, Beal hurt
Game 17 - Durant hurt
Game 19 - Durant returns, Booker hurt
Game 20 - Booker returns
Game 21 - Durant hurt…
Following Beal’s departure, the Suns went back and forth with the Knicks as they attempted to absorb the loss that occurred in the first quarter. With 4:27 left in the third quarter, the Suns appeared to have avenged their downed teammate en route to a victory on Shawn Marion Night. They were up 93-83 following the conversion of an and-1 by Grayson Allen.
All was right in Phoe—
The Suns were outscored 56-29 from that point forward. Jalen Brunson, who had already cooked the Suns for 27 points in two-and-a-half quarters, would score 23 more points and achieve a career-high 50 points. He didn’t miss a three-pointer, going 9-of-9 from beyond the arc. The Suns gave up 139 points in a regulation loss.
One thing has become clear: the Suns’ defense sucks. I don’t know how else to phrase it, so I’ll stick with what 9-year-old me would’ve said. Continuity, schmondtinuity. Defense is a philosophy downloaded to players that involves attitude and effort. Whatever “defensive-minded” head coach Frank Vogel has downloaded isn’t defense. The file is corrupt.
When Frank Vogel was handed the keys to the team, he brought with him a reputation. He is a coach who had faced the same situation Phoenix was in before the start of the season: they were a team that had overhauled its roster. He’d had to deal with the same situation in Orlando and Los Angeles and had proven that he could guide the ship.
In his first season with the Lakers in 2019-20, he was instrumental in coaching a team with the third-best defensive rating in the league, and that team eventually won the title. Bubble or not, the Lakers were a solid defense all year long. They too had to navigate injuries and a roster overhaul.
When Mat Ishbia and James Jones brought Vogel to Phoenix, the hope was the same thing would happen. He’s coached superstars. He’s installed effective defensive schemes. He’s won.
25 games into the 2023-24 season, the Suns are one game above .500 and are chilling with the 20th-ranked defensive rating in the league.
You may say, “But John, you noted above that this team hasn’t had consistent playing time from any of their Big Three throughout the season. This ain’t on Frank.” And you’d be right. I’m not naive enough to pin the Suns’ defensive struggles on one variable. It’s a perfect storm of crap that is hitting our windshields. And it stinks.
Some consistencies are occurring in front of our eyes, night in and night out, that are foundational issues, however.
Miscommunication seems to be the standard operating procedure. Just take this possession in which both Devin Booker and Keita Bates-Diop shade to guard the offensive force that is Isaiah Hartenstein rather than guard Jalen Brunson.
Could this be because Booker and KBD haven’t had enough time to learn each other’s defensive tendencies? Well, the two have played 181 minutes of basketball together this season, so I’ll let you be the judge. Had the script been flipped, if Devin Booker was initiating the offense, you best believe the Knicks would have blitzed him versus sagging off.
It’s fundamental. The Suns never pressure three quarters of the court. The Suns rarely box out correctly. The Suns rarely double a player who is shooting the lights out. Remember all of the double teams Vogel chose to deploy against Brunson? Me neither.
Meanwhile, teams are picking up Devin in the parking lot, which leads to a couple of turnovers each night.
Something needs to change.
“We have guys that really compete that are winners,” Vogel said in the postgame presser. “We’re going to be a group that has a great scheme, a very intelligent defensive scheme that our guys will be very well-prepared from game to game. So I think the ceiling is very high at what we can be on the defensive side of the ball.”
...and I don’t know if it’s going to happen.
I like to think that I’m a realist with a pinch of optimism and a smidgen of positivity. But 25 games into a season? It’s rare to see a team completely change course, especially defensively. We love Brad Beal, but when he returns, it’s not like it’s Jrue Holiday being reinserted into the lineup.
Let me give you solid reasoning as to why I’m becoming pessimistic. Here are the Frank Vogel-coached team’s defensive ratings through 25 games and where they ended:
My point? History says it’s not going to get better. In seven of his ten seasons, the team’s defensive rating has gotten worse. Phoenix is the worst 25-game start from a defensive rating standpoint in his career. Who knows where it will finish?
The fundamentals are non-existent at times. Not picking up players in transition, not putting a body on someone, not communicating switches. Jalen Brunson eviscerated Phoenix by taking advantage of a team that has more holes than an Afghan rug.
Am I calling for Frank’s head?
It’s your turn to not be naive. You cannot move on from Frank Vogel, not at this stage of the season. You have to ride out the poop storm. You have to allow him the opportunity to scrape the shit off the windshield. But the work that lies before him is extremely challenging.
And with an owner who has itchy trigger fingers, Frank may be on the hot seat.