This is going to be a very different Phoenix Suns squad that takes the floor to kick off the 2023/2024 season. Compared to last year at this time, gone are the Wonder Twins Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Gone too, is the venerable “Point God” Chris Paul. In are Bradley Beal and Eric Gordon, along with a reshuffled supporting cast.
While new Suns Head Coach Frank Vogel is known for preaching defense, and has already stated that he wants his Phoenix club to play “scrappy” basketball, the Suns will be looking to play heavy minutes from some guys known for almost entirely for their offensive abilities.
Perhaps the single biggest change (other than the loss of Bridges, which the Suns already lived with during last season) will be the addition of Beal and subtraction of Paul.
CP3, though aged, remained a strong defender for the Suns last season. His defensive metrics ranked top 3 on the team in multiple categories, including continuing to lead the team in steals.
Beal, (who I have to assume will indeed be in the starting five alongside Booker as the other guard) has a much less storied defensive history than 9X all-defensive team Chris Paul. He was statistically one of the weakest defensive players on the Washington Wizards roster last season, and that’s been the case for most of the past four years.
The effect of this could be that Devin Booker will be forced to shoulder more responsibility for guarding shifty basket-attacking ballhandlers. Booker is a vastly-improved defender from just a couple of seasons ago and he no longer creates a defensive liability for the Suns as he once did. But while he has made himself into a solid presence on that end, I think most objective people would agree he is not the kind of elite versatile wing defender that can glue together potentially shaky first line of defense.
In fairness, it’s also possible that Beal will play better defensively under Vogel’s direction and when inspired by being on a team that is aiming for a championship as opposed to playing for a consistently below mediocre Washington squad that hasn’t advanced out of the first round since 2017.
I think the good news either way, for we Suns fans, is that the evidence for needing a top 5 defense to win a championship is fairly sparse. I know it is a well-worn adage (in all sports) that “defense wins championships,” but the nature of basketball is such that offense and defense are extremely connected.
The bottom line is efficiency, regardless of how it is achieved. Both teams are going to have a roughly equal opportunity to possess the ball, and the team that more efficiently uses those possessions to score points will win. Whether you do it more by making your opponent’s offense less efficient or your own more so doesn’t ultimately matter.
Let’s take this most recent playoffs, for example. The Denver Nuggets won the whole damn this by averaging 119.5 points per 100 possessions during the postseason, a full 2.3 more than the next highest Boston Celtics. They achieved no such dominance on the defensive end, yielding 110.8 points per 100. This was still a very good performance, third-best among playoff teams, but it was less than one point per 100 better than the Lakers or Grizzlies. The Nuggets won because they outscored everybody.
The Suns can do this too. Booker, Kevin Durant, and Beal represent a trio of scorers that when healthy are all extremely challenging to stop. Eric Gordon represents at the very least an upgrade from last season’s bench scoring options, and while he is definitely diminished at 34 years old he can still score the ball efficiently and create his own buckets.
With the right system and role players in place, the Suns can take a step backwards on defense and still be legitimate contenders. This season may well be their last best chance to finally win the franchise’s first NBA Finals championship.