Phoenix Suns defense a barometer of success during Nash era

The Phoenix Suns' defensive efficiency dropped to 25th in the NBA this season. The team has not reached the postseason in the Nash era when below 20th. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Phoenix Suns' defensive efficiency dropped to 25th in the NBA this season. The team has not reached the postseason in the Nash era when below 20th. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

PHOENIX — In what seems like an annual offseason ritual, improving defensively ranks right atop the Phoenix Suns’ list of summer goals.

Although the Suns did play a solid stretch of defensive basketball in the middle of the season, for the most part they were pretty horrid on that end of the floor.

The Suns got torched during the first leg of their season featuring Hedo Turkoglu at the power forward spot and they were very bad down the stretch as well, culminating in an effort that saw Phoenix yield 107.4 points per 100 possessions, 25th in the NBA just ahead of such defensive juggernauts as Golden State and Minnesota.

“We have to continue to get better defensively,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “I was a little bit disappointed this year because I thought we took a step back from where we were last year defensively, and we’ve just got to get better in this area.”

Defense has been Phoenix’s Achilles’ heel throughout the Nash era, but there’s been a distinct difference in this team’s defensive efficiency during the five seasons of the last seven in which the squad reached the playoffs and the two it sat home. With the offense as elite as it has traditionally been (aside from this season), the Suns just needed to be a top-20 defense to be a solid playoff team.

They were similarly abysmal defensively in 2008-09 when teams ran circles around the Nash-Shaq pick-and-roll combo. That squad ranked 25th in defensive efficiency just like this year’s by giving up 108.5 points per 100, making it a defense so bad that the league’s best offense was in the lottery.

When the Suns’ defense has been average or just a bit below average, the team has reached the playoffs. They ranked 19th in defensive efficiency in 2009-10, 17th in 2007-08, 16th in 2006-07, 19th in 2005-06 and 20th in 2004-05.

None of those defenses were particularly great but last year’s in particular got stops when necessary and all of the defenses were overall good enough to allow the Suns to take off on the special run they enjoyed this decade.

Gentry’s stat of choice is defensive field-goal percentage, and it paints the same picture defensive efficiency does.

This season the Suns allowed opponents to shoot 47.2 percent from the field, making this by far their worst such year of the Nash era.

The Suns ranked last by a decent margin in this department to begin the season, and at that point Gentry cleaned the slate by posting whiteboards in the locker room denoting Phoenix’s ranking in defensive field-goal percentage for the season as well as in its last 10 games. This provided the team with a short-term goal that wouldn’t be weighted down by their early season struggles.

The Suns ranked in the top 10 during some of those “last 10” stretches but not enough of them, finishing 25th in this category right above the Knicks and the Cavs.

Phoenix ranked 22nd in defensive field-goal percentage when the team missed the playoffs two years ago but otherwise has been solid for a squad not known for defense.

They ranked 11th last year at 45.2 percent — quite the sizable decrease for one season — 13th in 2007-08, 14th in 2006-07, 17th in 2005-06 and 14th in 2004-05. You don’t need to go to MIT to understand the correlation between these stats and winning and thus the necessity for Phoenix to at least be around average defensively.

Further exacerbating the problem is that the Suns were even worse at corralling defensive rebounds, especially until Marcin Gortat started playing major minutes. With Hedo at the four to start they year they ranked at the bottom of the league in this category by a good margin but finished third to last by getting to 71.6 percent of the available defensive boards. Only Washington and Golden State were worse.

Going forward Gortat solves some of these problems as he ranked seventh in the entire NBA in defensive rebound rate (getting to 27.4 percent of the available defensive boards) and traditionally has been one of the better players in the league at this stat. But he certainly needs help for the Suns to climb in the rankings.

As for how to fix these issues, aside from potentially acquiring a stellar defensive player or two Gentry wants to see the Suns improve their defense against dribble penetration — a mantra he’s been repeating since taking over as Phoenix’s head coach — as well as their weakside rotations.

President of basketball operations Lon Babby joked that the Suns started to change their defensive culture by giving away tacos when they hold opponents under 99 points just like they do when the team scores 99 points (I think he was joking at least).

Babby spoke of the need to alter that perception because teams walk into US Airways Center thinking they will be able to score at will, as Jason Terry verbalized during a TNT game last January.

“I just think this franchise has been so wildly successful as an offensive juggernaut that you can say you want to play defense, but at the end of the day the notion was, ‘Oh, we can always outscore everybody,’” said Babby, who sees improving defensively as the team’s top offseason priority. “I’m not sure that that’s true anymore given our personnel, and given the pressure we’re now putting on Steve offensively we’ve got to get better defensively.

“But hopefully I won’t be talking about this again a year from now, we will have made progress, and I think we did make progress. From the beginning of the year we made a lot of progress, it’s just we’re still not quite good enough.”

  • Kevin

    It seems clear to me that we need a true PF to help Gortat and to help secure rebounds. I think a good possible draft choice would be Marcus Morris (Kansas) and he could be available by our time. He’s got Amar’e type arms and has some range too. If we are lucky and willing to spend some cash. Another FA pick up could be Kris Humphries who is a great rebounder and shot blocker. We could pick up Aaron Afflalo from Denver and get a solid defender and great shooter. We could go for J-Rich again but it seems management traded him with the intent of going on without him. Pietrus, Childress, Hill and Dudley are already good defenders. Lopez, Warrick and Brooks are definitely a liability. If we find a better PG that could help. Here is a list of FAs for next year:

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    In order to sign all of those guys, you’re going to have to remove the same amount of guys, if not more.

    Also, can’t go another year with so many small forwards, and if Nash is indeed remaining, Dowdell is probably the best guy coming off the bench because he is the most contract friendly which allows the team to make other moves.

    But yeah, you can’t just start looking for guys to sign without getting rid of what’s here first while also making sure it actually works system wise.

    As for that dribble penetration problem the coach and those upstairs keep talking about:

    As long as we’re in an era of Nash, that is going to be something that will continue to be an issue, because you simply cannot avoid it. He cannot stay in front of anybody as an on-ball defender.

    The only way to ease that, at all, is to compliment him with a defense-capable shooting guard. That way you can just switch that guy onto the driving threat and Nash can hide for more games out on the edges.

    At the same time, if you are still making a run with Nash you cannot sign any 2-guard as a go-to scorer if he is terrible on the defensive end or it’s game over for the Suns. That narrows the list of guys who fit the description needed significantly.

    JMZ is the perfect solution, but he’s not a go-to guy. that leaves the 3 and the 4 as target destinations, and from a GTG standpoint, those are slim pickings [without a trade] in terms of finding that guy.

  • Kevin

    I don’t see how you can’t sign someone like Aaron Afflalo when you dump Vince Carter’s huge contract. Also, I could see a trade for Pietrus and Lopez for a good piece.

  • Michael Schwartz

    @Kevin It’s not necessarily that simple. As things stand (considering a $4 mil Vince buyout) the Suns have about $50 million committed in salary for next year. If the cap were to be the same as this year, they’d have just under $8 mil to spend on somebody. But we have no idea where the cap will be or what kind of exceptions teams will have or anything else under the new CBA, not to mention the Suns will have a lottery pick to pay as well as Grant Hill. So while in theory they should have a bit of room, we just don’t know yet.

  • Tony

    I think this is the only time I have ever agreed with Babby in that teams playing the Suns come in with an attitude that they will be able to score at will and their confidence is sky high against the Suns. It’s amazing how many players whom are injured return against the Suns because they expect a relatively easy game to regain their form. The only way to change that is with prolonged success, but the Suns need to bring in a tough defensive minded pf, especially since Frye is likely going to be the starting pf next season as well. Warrick has to go, he’s not big enough or defensive-minded enough to bring that kind of defensive effort the Suns need.

    Concerning the article, the Suns offense is no longer a top five in the league. As such, even if the team slightly improves defensively, it won’t make up for the loss in offensive production. Of course more defense is always a good thing, but with the lack of talent on this team and the fact that currently they have no go to scorer, a few more defensive stops will be negated by the Suns inability to score, especially in the 4th quarter.

  • Tony

    Rich, Dudley is not quick enough to guard most opposing starting 2 guards. I can’t tell you how many times he was beaten off the dribble. He’s not a 2-guard anyway, he’s a sf. The Suns are not going to improve defensively with Dudley starting at sg. Furthermore, he has a bad habbit of playing off his man to try and provide help defense, but allows his man to get wide open and hit jumpers. I like Dudley a lot, as a solid 6th man playing the 3, but it amazes me how many people ignore his mistakes defensively and the fact he simply isn’t quick enough to stay in front of most sgs.

  • Steve

    We’re a long ways off from fixing ourselves offensively or defensively. I would lean toward fixing the defense before fixing the offense, but that would likely involve removing Nash from our squad. Since that’s not extremely likely, I think the Suns are going to try to fix the offense. The challenge there is that I don’t know if there are a lot of pieces that can contribute offensively through FA. That means we might have to trade, which brings an endless amount of possibilities, and the biggest challenge there is that we have nothing valuable to offer….

    I’m just talking in circles, and I’m majorly distracted at the moment. Basically, I’m bummed because the Suns are pretty much doomed for next season. It’s going to take a miracle to get us back into the playoffs next season.

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    @ Tony – thank you for making my point crystal clear. You were absolutely flawless in your execution of actually defending and helping me make my point.

    Dudley actually does defend rather well. Going back to last season, when he was paired off the bench with Dragon, they were devastating. He was very effective this year when coming off the bench with Dowdell yet not as effective when paired with Brooks because he presents the same defensive challenges as Nash.

    With Nash, however?

    Those habits / trends of his only really surface when he is constantly having to keep an eye out on whoever Nash is guarding. That has always been the case and will always be the case as long as Nash is at the 1.

    The problem gets magnified whenever Nash is paired with another guard who is terrible at defense (Carter) and even more so when paired with a big man who either cannot move [Shaq] or gets torched as well especially in PnR situations [Hedo].

    I don’t care what you, or any other fan says in regards to the Suns needing to get better on the defensive end. The writing is, and has always been on the wall.

    As long as Nash is installed, our guard and dribble penetration defense will be below average at best because no matter the situation, the other guys out there must tend to Nash.

    Babby and Sarver want to keep him around, fine. The offensive production may or may not be stellar because that’s what he does.

    The defense will forever be suspect because of him, and if the other positions on the floor aren’t looked after defensively, the Suns ‘D will be, well, see this season.

  • Abhijit Bordia

    J. R Smith anyone…??? He is a free agent next year.

  • Artur Mascarenhas

    Bits from Leandrinho interview to Folha de Sao Paulo, biggest brazilian newspaper (loose translation)

    “I am bothered with so much losing. When I played in Phoenix, we won a lot, I got used to. I went to a losing team with younger players and no stars. Nobody wants to be defeated.”

    About coming back to Phoenix:

    “I miss it a lot, but I cant say I am coming back [to Phoenix]. Lets see if things improve in Toronto. I am waiting to see who will join the team in the offseason”

    About his injuries:

    “I played without condition in Turkey (the World Championship). When I go to the hoop, if I stumble on a defender on mid-air , fall and hit my hands hard on the floor, its a setback. I have to stop and get a full recovery. Torontonian doctors explained the situation to Magnano (brazilian national team coach)”

    He is expected to get cirurgy and take six months to recover.

    He is putting Chicago Bulls at the finals against Dallas (?) or Oklahoma (?!)

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