PHOENIX — Now and again, it’s healthy to get a little nostalgic. Well, maybe that’s only partly true.
Because as I went to search for the so-called defensive glory days of Suns basketball, I found out that 2000-01 — the last time the team had a top 10 defense in the NBA — wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Sure, Scott Skiles’ squad allowed just 92.3 points per game, but can anyone say that was a fun team to watch, let alone one that exuded any sense of title contender?
No knock on a 51-win team led by a blonde-haired Jason Kidd, a very young Shawn Marion, and a band of aging, misfit toys — Clifford Robinson, Tony Delk, Tom Gugliotta, Mario Elie and Penny Hardaway — but defense or no defense, that was one of the more uneventful seasons in recent memory. They won games, sure, but they lacked the type of foundation and balance to ever challenge the Lakers, Kings or Blazers of that era.
Flash forward 11 years, and things have certainly changed from 2001. Destiny’s Child didn’t survive. Harry Potter isn’t fighting the Dark Lord on the big screen anymore. Heck, even Big Bird has fallen on tough times.
The biggest change of all though, outside of the invention of basketball blogs like ValleyoftheSuns, is that the Suns over the last decade or so have become a welcome mat for opposing offenses. If you’re looking for a reason why three Western Conference Finals appearances in the 2000s didn’t end with trips to the Finals, there it is. Defense wasn’t sexy and trust me it still isn’t. It’s not going to make for a great highlight show and it wasn’t even that exciting to watch when the Suns had an upper echelon unit back in 2001, but if the organization’s current state of transition is going to gradually move toward title contention, defense will actually have to be at the top of the priority list — something in spite of the grandstanding done by the front office and coaches (past and present) has not been the case in quite some time.
Turning a page
In some ways the shift towards a defensive-minded mentality actually began before last season’s lockout, when the front office hired eight-year NBA veteran Elston Turner to become the Suns’ de facto defensive coordinator. As a player, Turner never became the offensive threat he was at Mississippi. In fact, the peak of his career in all honesty came during his rookie season when he posted career highs in points, assists and minutes played.
So why did he make it eight years in the NBA? Defense.
Despite limited playing time, Turner became a defensive stopper off the bench for the Mavericks, Nuggets and Bulls. He was an athletic guard/forward who had the length to be a presence on the perimeter and the speed to stay with slashing guards. It wasn’t an All-Star career, but there is a reason Turner still has a place coaching in the NBA. Defense.
During his first year in Phoenix, the Suns’ defense made notable strides. 66 games isn’t 82 games, but for the first time since the 2003-04 season, the guys in purple and orange held teams under an average of 100 points per game for an entire season. Under Turner, the Suns moved up eight spots in total defense from No. 29 to No. 21. Not every category showed such vast progress, but rebounding percentage, opponent field goal percentage, points per possession and three-point attempts and makes allowed per game all improved.
“I thought steps were made, but my hands were tied,” said Turner. “For me, it was a new team and a new system I was trying to put in. And because of the lockout, I had a limited time to do so. The lockout definitely benefited teams that already had defensive systems in place. All in all though, I thought we certainly improved.”
Turner is finally getting his wish to have a full training camp to implement his system, but there is a small caveat to his best laid plans. The Suns team that made strides defensively a year ago is a far cry from the squad being fielded heading into Opening Night on Oct. 31. There may be a lot of intrigue about Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson. But I think I can speak for all of us, when I say that intrigue is almost entirely from what they’ve shown — either in the NBA or in college — at the offensive end of the floor.
Three isn’t always a magic number
Even with the recent news that Channing Frye may be lost for the year, the Suns’ front court seems to be one of the few strong points at the defensive end. Leading rebounder and shot blocker Marcin Gortat is still in town. Markeiff Morris, despite a negative net production, will have plenty of opportunities to improve upon his post defense and rebounding numbers from a season ago. And though undersized at power forward, Luis Scola has averaged almost six defensive rebounds per game over his five-year career.
At small forward, optimism shouldn’t be as high.
There’s no way to easily replace Grant Hill. Aside from the intangibles and the locker room presence, at a time when the Suns showed very little desire to play defense over the last five seasons, he became the defensive plug on the perimeter. The moves to acquire Beasley and Johnson certainly help the team fill the void left by Hill’s absence on offense, but the former lottery picks haven’t exactly illustrated an ability to play two-way basketball.
According to 82games.com, the combination of Johnson and Beasley at the small and power forward positions accounted for the worst plus/minus of any Timberwolves lineup that played 100 minutes or more together. In fact, the team’s three worst lineups in terms of points allowed per possession all featured Johnson at the small forward position.
Look, I agree statistics only tell half the story. Johnson was one man of five, as was Beasley. But when discussing how they fit into the Suns’ lineup — whether it be the two or three for Johnson and the three or the four for Beasley — it’s important to figure out what position gives them the greatest chance to succeed under Turner’s system.
John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) has its fans amongst analysts and fans who cling to their beloved sabermetrics. Offensively it’s very thorough in terms of the factors calculated, but defensively it doesn’t do quite as good a job evaluating efficiency, because it only takes into account blocks and steals. With that said, it does give some kind of indication — how clear is really up to you — of what the Suns might be getting from their new acquisitions on defense.
Per 48 minutes a season ago, Johnson averaged 12 points per game and a PER of 7.0 at shooting guard. His opponent averaged 22.2 points per game and a PER of 18.1 (league average is a 15 PER). At small forward, those numbers still favored Johnson’s opponents, but the third-year pro was a point higher in his own production and allowed almost three points fewer.
Based on 82games.com’s analysis, Beasley also is a better defender at small forward. While he averaged more than a point per game more at the power forward position per 48 minutes, he also allowed almost three points more. His opponent PER was 17.7 at power forward and just 12.6 at small forward — the same as Grant Hill’s from a season ago. Now I am by no means saying Beasley is the next Grant Hill. That would first imply that I’m sold Beasley was ever taught how to play fundamental defense during his short stint in college or brief stays in Miami and Minnesota. And once again, I’m not sold. But it’s not hard to see that the former No. 2 overall pick runs into problems guarding bigger, stronger players on the block. If he’s an asset offensively at the four, he’s certainly a liability defensively.
Combine the statistical tendencies of Beasley and Johnson with the fact that Jared Dudley defensively is better suited at the three as well — one of the Suns’ top defensive lineups from 2011- 12 actually featured Shannon Brown at SG, Dudley at SF and Gortat at C — and it appears there is a lot of work to be done by Turner in the coming weeks and months to acclimate what can only be called a bunch of loose ends on the perimeter.
Yet for some reason he doesn’t seem too concerned about the drastic turnover.
“I don’t think it’s really a whole lot different from last year,” said Turner. “You still sit down and teach what you want to teach. And at least coming into this season, you have a longer period of time to get more in. I’ll actually be able to get more in this time around, because I won’t feel so rushed to teach on the go.
“The goal for any coach is to find a player’s strengths and find a way to hide their weaknesses. I don’t pay much attention to the stats or scouting reports, because I’ve been around a long time. I know most of these guys. Whether it’s their first year or not here, I know where they came from and what they did there.”
Youth, running and speed
The 2012-13 Suns team will not be the most competitive product put out by the organization in the past decade. It’s a reality we are all well aware of by now. It’s not necessarily even a point of contention these days, just the truth of trying to rebuild in today’s NBA. It was bound to happen, and now it finally has.
With that said, this year’s team (26.6 years) is much younger (including Channing Frye, but not training camp invites) than last year’s team (28.8 years), and far more athletic. That doesn’t translate to more steals or blocks or defensive rebounds, but in Turner’s mind, it equates to a quicker learning curve.
“To have a defensive mindset, all you need are the ingredients,” said Turner. “Can they run? Can they jump? Can they play with heart? If you have all of that, you can certainly be competitive at that end of the floor. I think we do, so I am looking forward to the challenge of working with these guys. And, I expect us to be a better defensive team than we were last year.
“Sure we have a bunch of new faces, but defense is all about confidence and repetition. Nothing I put in place this year will be squeezed into practice. It will be introduced and then reinforced with repetitions. That’s a big thing.”
Not time to panic
As the Suns usher in a new era of basketball, it seems Turner’s sentiments aren’t just his own. From the front office on down to the coaching staff, no one seems to be panicking about how the turnover could alter the team’s defensive game plan– not even a head coach without a guaranteed contract past this season.
“There isn’t any reason to panic, because we have a month to prepare these guys, and I think we have to take it step-by-step,” said coach Alvin Gentry at Media Day. “There’s no reason for us to think this is going to happen overnight, but when those 30 days are over we are going to be in a good place.”
Like Turner, Gentry doesn’t believe the new faces will take long adjusting to a new system. The Suns’ coach isn’t worried that a lack of familiarity will pose a challenge as the team tries to improve upon its team defense from last season. If anything, he says it’s important to keep things simple.
“The defensive part is not hard,” said Gentry. “You lock in, you guard your man, you rotate to the right spot and you rebound the basketball. That’s pretty simple. We are going to try and make another jump as to where we are in the league. It’s one of the things we plan to emphasize and one of things we would like to be real solid in coming out of training camp.”
There’s a common perception that a team can’t handle an up-tempo offense and still play fundamental defense. While that may be the case for the Suns over the past 10 seasons, other teams have managed to handle the balancing act just fine. In fact, the two representatives at last year’s Western Conference Finals — the Spurs and Thunder — both averaged over 103 points per game, yet surrendered less than 97 points per game, respectively. I’m not saying Gregg Popovich or Scott Brooks were running plays out of the Mike D’Antoni handbook, but those teams were getting up-and-down the court, shooting a bunch of threes and scoring at great efficiency. The Miami Heat team from two seasons ago may have fallen in the NBA Finals, but they managed to score 102 points per game and yet were ranked No. 6 in defense. And in 2009-10, of the top 12 defenses in the league, three teams were also ranked in the top 10 in offense, while seven teams averaged more than 100 points per game.
As Turner noted, these statistics and scouting reports only go so far. They serve as indicators, rather than the sole source of evaluation. Despite a precedent the team has set since 2000-01 to the contrary, there is no reason to believe Gentry’s up-tempo offense needs to be sacrificed in order to create a staunch unit at the defensive end. Simply put, this team has youth and a ton of raw potential and athleticism. It may not be a top 10 defense yet, but if the right defensive coach is in place and the ingredients are there, who’s to say we ever need to go back to the Skiles days?
What the players are saying
Luis Scola on the impact Elston Turner had on the Rockets’ defense as an assistant coach from 2007- 2011:
“For us, he was very important. We were a playoff team and our best part was our defense. He was a major reason for our success, and I hope he can bring that to Phoenix.”
Wes Johnson on what he can provide for a team that forced just 14.1 turnovers per game in 2011-12:
“I think my athleticism and length will be an asset for us. In college, I was able to get a lot of steals just by making plays in the open court. I hope to do that again here.”
Jared Dudley on what it takes to create a defensive mindset in an offensive-minded league:
“When you come out as a little kid, you don’t want to play defense. You just want to score. But you have to want to play good defense to be a good defensive team.”
Michael Beasley on his reputation of being a poor defensive player:
“You all know I have a lot to learn on that side of the ball. It’s definitely a process. If I play hard, my athleticism and the tactics I’ve learned over the years should help me bring a lot to the table.”