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Suns defense has actually been pretty good since big trades

The Phoenix Suns need good defense to survive the 2023 Playoffs

Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Since the Phoenix Suns (45-35) traded away two of their better perimeter defenders in Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, not to mention the always-missing Jae Crowder, in early February for All-Star Kevin Durant, there has been a lot of talk that the Suns sacrificed their defense and depth for the sake of acquiring a Top-5 NBA talent.

Durant’s understated defensive abilities will offset much of the loss of Bridges’s All-World defense, but trading three good defenders for one is bound to cut into the overall talent of the rotation.

Add in that Durant himself has only played in 8 of the Suns 25 games since the big trade, and you’re basically down three good-defending rotation players outright.

So, the Suns defense cratered in the face of those losses, right?

Nope. Between the Suns solid team defensive schemes and larger roles for replacement players like Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie and Ish Wainright, the Suns have actually done even better than treading water.

In the 25 games since the big trade, the Suns have produced a 112 defensive rating (ie. per 100 possessions, which levels out pace and equates to roughly a full game).

That 112 mark is tied with New Orleans for the 6th best defense in the league since then. Before the trade, over 56 games, the Suns posted a... 112 defensive rating, also tied with New Orleans, for 7th best defense in the league.

112 before. 112 after.

Same results before and after the trade? How is that possible?

There must be some easy excuse.

Good teams have been sitting their best players, like last night. Yes, some good teams have been doing that, like Denver sitting all their starters twice in the past week, but players have been sitting more often than ever this year. There’s no difference before the trade deadline vs. since. This excuse doesn’t hold up.

Well maybe the Suns have played bad offenses? No. The average offensive rating for the Suns 25 opponents since the trade is 114.4, just below the overall NBA-average (114.8) over the same timespan. So the Suns 112 rating is good, hence the 6th-best ranking.

Maybe offenses have gotten worse across the league since the February 9 trade deadline? No. They’ve actually gotten better, by another 1.4 points per 100 possessions.

Now don’t get this twisted. I’m not disparaging Mikal or Cam or Jae. I’m simply pointing out that the Suns defense has not cratered.

How can the Suns replace three good defenders making $37 million between them with journeymen making a fraction of that and not lose a beat? They didn’t, at least not on February 9. One of those guys, Jae Crowder, didn’t play all season. Another, Cameron Johnson, only played in 17 of the 56 games before the trade. So, in essence, the Suns really only traded one guy on February 9 who’d contributed to the league’s 7th-best defense before the trade deadline this season.

Still, the 112 per game seems high. Is that a lot worse than when Crowder, Johnson and Bridges played every night? Now you’re getting somewhere. A year ago, the Suns posted a 106.8 defensive rating during the regular season, ranking them the 3rd best defense in the league. This year’s Suns are giving up 5.2 more points per 100 possessions than a year ago.

Yet even that is not the whole story. This has been the greatest offensive season in NBA history, and the BEST defense (Cavaliers) is giving up 110.1 points per 100 possessions. Yes, the Suns overall defense has regressed this year, but every defense has regressed by 4+ points per game. Last year, 10 teams had a defensive rating better than this year’s best defense.

Still, defense and big-shot-making wins championships. It’s all relative to their peers.

The Suns made the Finals in 2021 by playing the 4th-best defense among the 16 playoff teams. But in 2022, they got knocked out in the second round by playing the 14th-best defense.

To win a ring, this team will need to lock down defensively so that Booker, Durant, Paul and Ayton can close it out in the 4th quarter. They will have to make big plays on defense, not just on offense.

With Durant in the lineup, the Suns now have a pair of 7-footers who can defend the rim. Durant averages more blocks and rebounds than anyone the Suns have put at power forward next to Ayton in years. He can also defend on the perimeter, with a 7’5” wingspan that matches Ayton’s.

We don’t know how the Suns will perform in the playoffs, but they are set up for major success.

Last year’s team was better in the regular season — 46 games over .500 better — but this year’s team looks better equipped come playoff time.

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