The Phoenix Suns' 2023-24 season took a turn for the better on Friday night, with the return of Bradley Beal to the starting lineup. Playing in only his seventh game this season as result of back and ankle injuries, Beal looked rusty in having only six points.
Playing 30 minutes will have given head coach Frank Vogel reason to smile though, as will the seven assists that Beal managed to dish out. Getting to 16-15 before the turn of the calendar year - and after winning back-to-back games no less - is exactly what the Suns needed to have happen before a tough, five game homestand to begin 2024.
It is no secret the Suns have struggled on the defensive end so far this season - and when asked about it after the game - Beal did not shy away from that fact.
Right now the Suns sit 20th (115.6) in defensive rating, and to watch them play is to see a team that struggles to get stops much of the time. While both Kevin Durant and Devin Booker are more than capable on that end, asking them to turn in elite performances defensively each night while also trying to score 30 is a recipe for disaster.
The addition of center Jusuf Nurkic this offseason was designed very much with the offensive end of the court in mind, and defensively he can be slow on rotations and beaten to spots by better bigs. Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon have both been excellent for the group as well, but they do their best work when knocking down open shots from beyond the arc.
In the post-game interview, Beal summed up perfectly where the Suns are at defensively right now, saying;
"I’m just thankful that we are at full strength. We got all our guys back. It was a totally different team tonight. A lot more space, a lot more open shooting. Defense was a little bit trash. But you know, we’ll continue to get that better."- Bradley Beal
Beal is nearly right to say that the Suns are at full strength - but they are still missing Josh Okogie - a player who can certainly help on the defensive end. What Beal didn't address here, was the fact that a fully healthy Suns team isn't designed to be elite defensively. In fact you could make the case pretty easily that he is a worse defender than both Durant and Booker.
But while it is not clear how much better the Suns can get on this end - in their last 10 games they again sit 20th but with a worse rating of 119.4 - the game plan remains trying to outscore opponents when fully healthy. Given that they have had the best offensive rating in the league in their last two games (135.1), there is reason to believe that can happen.
Even if coach Vogel isn't sold yet on the idea of the Suns scoring 120-130 per game, his schemes alone on that end should be able to at least help his team improve a small bit on the defensive end to make up for this. Also not mentioned by Beal are role players like Chimezie Metu and Udoka Azubuike, two individuals who certainly give more on that end than most others on this roster.
Beal did go on to say that the spacing of the group in the win over the Hornets was great, while also pointing out that you can't guard everything an opponent has in their locker in an NBA. Both of these points are also true - and as long as this team at least tries on the defensive end - while continuing to pile up points on the other end, fans are going to be happy with the effort and output of this group.