PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns couldn’t sign Dwight Howard to patrol the paint. They didn’t have the assets to bring on Rajon Rondo to lock up opposing point guards, or Tony Allen to be the Kobe Stopper.
So the Suns did the next best thing – hired a touted defensive coordinator to make the most out of Phoenix’s limited personnel.
Since joining the Suns in mid-July, Elston Turner has been working toward erasing Phoenix’s reputation as a defensive doormat. With the 14-year NBA assistant and respected defensive mind in place, the 2011-12 Suns have a new commitment to the defensive end after ranking 25th in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage a season ago.
“In order to put yourself in a position to win a championship you’ve got to be able to guard and you’ve got to be able to do it consistently,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “I don’t know that we’ll ever be the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics or the San Antonio Spurs, but I don’t think those teams will ever be us offensively.
“We have to get to the point where consistently we know what we’re going to get night in and night out defensively and I think between Elston Turner and Dan Majerle I think we can get that accomplished.”
Turner arrived in Phoenix with a long list of defensive accomplishments. He coached under Rick Adleman in both Houston and Sacramento, and churned out some of the association’s top defenses as the 2003-04 Kings led the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, while the 2007-08 and 2008-09 Rockets ranked 2nd and 3rd, respectively.
But when Turner arrived in Phoenix and took a look at what he had to work with, it became clear the Suns were lightyears from becoming a defensive juggernaut.
“The rim protection didn’t seem to be as strong as it needed to be in this league,” Turner said. “Some of the scouting reports that all the scouts had said not being a physical team. There’s some teams when you see them on the schedule, you know you’re in for a tough night. That’s what we’re trying to do get to and eventually we’ll get there.”
Turner also noted that a huge part of the Suns’ defensive struggles came from their turnovers and poor defensive rebounding. Phoenix gave up the fourth-most offensive rebounds in the NBA last season. Combine that with the 12th-most turnovers in the NBA and defensive greatness becomes nearly impossible.
“When you give up points off of turnovers, 90 percent of the time it will lead to layups,” said Grant Hill. “Defensive rebounding, if you don’t complete the exchange 80 percent of the time those end up being putbacks or dunks. If we can limit our offensive turnovers and complete the possession, that’ll improve our defense tremendously.”
While the Suns aren’t exactly equipped with defensive experts on their roster, Turner said Phoenix has more than the right pieces to be a solid defensive team. From his perspective, defense is all about continuity and trust.
“No matter what system you put in place, the way the league is and the way the rules are, which is geared toward scoring, you’re going to need help,” Turner said. “The main thing is to develop chemistry where everybody’s helping each other, everybody’s responsible for everything.”
Josh Childress said Turner’s schemes are more simplified, which should lead to more consistency on the defensive end. Shannon Brown said with Phoenix’s new defense the Suns could be able to “scare a lot of people.”
The Suns have a long way to go in order to undo nearly a decade of porous defense, but with Turner’s new defense and Phoenix’s commitment to both sides of the ball, the Suns could be on their way to changing the longtime perception of Phoenix Suns defense.
“If we stick to it as a team and all trust each other as a team defensively, then people won’t be talking about the Phoenix Suns defense anymore,” said Ronnie Price, who Turner coached in Sacramento. “They’ll be saying nothing but good things about it.”
The Xs and Os
Under Turner’s direction the Suns will be more aggressive with ball pressure and traps, as well as changing up pick and roll coverages and rotations.
“There will be a lot more pressure and a lot of guys helping others as far as rotations, guys coming out of traps, rotating to other guys and everybody protecting each other,” Price explained. “That’s the biggest thing. We have our principles we just have to communicate it through.”
Turner said the ultimate goal is to “contain the basketball and trying to make guys shoot shots in the mid-range area with a hand in their face.”
Phoenix is hoping that the easy buckets at the rim, uncontested dribble penetration and wide-open threes that have characterized the Suns for so long will be a thing of the past.
- The Suns ranked 25th in defensive efficiency last season.
- They ranked 26th in defensive effective field goal percentage.
- They allowed opponents to shoot 68.3 percent at the rim, good for 28th in the NBA.