The Phoenix Suns: Historically bad defense and culture problem

The Phoenix Suns: Historically bad defense and culture problem

Analytics

The Phoenix Suns: Historically bad defense and culture problem

After the 2016-17 NBA season passed without a single head coach getting fired, it took merely five days for the trend to end in 2017-18. Of course, we’re talking about Earl Watson and the Phoenix Suns.

Although he probably deserved a slightly longer leash this season – after all, that roster is nearly devoid of experienced talent – Phoenix made the right decision.

The Suns’ future hinges upon their young studs, namely Devin BookerJosh JacksonMarquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, building proper habits. And their absolute careless style of play thus far this year paints a worrisome picture for the future out in the desert.

Through four outings in 2017-18, the Suns have given up 124, 132, 130 and 115 points respectively. Granted, two of their opponents thus far (the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers) fancy themselves, at worst, playoff contenders.

Even so, struggling to slow down opponents is one thing. Setting records in the process is entirely another. Per Elias Sports:

“Yes, 386 points is quite a hefty total for a team to allow over a season’s first three games, and it is the highest first-three-games total allowed by any NBA team in the last 27 seasons.”

What’s more, Phoenix presently boasts a 114.2 defensive rating. That means, every 100 possessions, the Suns are giving up 114.2 points – or 1.14 point given up every single defensive opportunity.

If that sounds ridiculous, well, it is.

According to Basketball Reference, the most charitable defense in league history belonged to the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets. Their defensive rating that season was 113.9, meaning the Suns are well on their way to just breaking the long-held record.

If we take Phoenix’s defensive woes under a microscope, the picture doesn’t get much prettier. Of the 11 play-types Synergy tracks, the Suns ranks either below average or downright poor in five.

They don’t bleed points from anywhere as badly as they do when defending the pick-and-roll, however. Whether the plays end with a guard using a big’s screen to get a bucket, or the big diving to the rim and receiving a bounce pass for an easy finish – Phoenix doesn’t do an apt enough job of slowing down any of it.

Thus far in 2016-17, the Suns have given up 115 points in 109 possessions against both pick-and-roll ball-handlers and the roll men themselves. That amounts to an obscene 1.10 points per possession (PPP). Basically, when teams run such plays against Phoenix, they’re scoring a basket on every other attempt.

Unfathomable, but with efforts like this, it’s really not difficult to see why:

That’s the rookie Jackson, showing not a modicum of care as another rookie, Lonzo Ball, barrels towards the basket for the easiest layup of his young career. Jackson was drafted No. 3 overall in 2017 not because he was some efficient basket-getter who could afford to loaf around on defense. On the contrary, he was highly touted primarily because of his non-stop motor and supposed point-stopping potential.

For him to be already showing that level of negligence this early in his time as a professional is startling, and speaks to a much larger problem: the toxic culture being instilled in Phoenix. It was clear why Watson had to go.

But we shouldn’t just pile on the first-year contributor or his now-departed head coach, as the primary defenders in that play were two veterans: Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe.

The former doesn’t deserve to be part of a rebuild at this stage of his career, and judging by his effort this season, it would appear he agrees. And the latter has already (quite publicly) stated his displeasure with the franchise:

Despite Bledsoe’s straight-up hilarious attempt at a cover-up (the point guard reportedly claimed he was at the… hair salon when he sent the tweet), Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough has already stated the Kentucky product won’t be with the team going forward (transcription via ABC 15):

“We’re getting a lot of calls and I’ll return some of those calls when I’m done with [this presser]. This is a turning of the page. We’re just trying to change the culture and building a foundation for long-term success.”

Bledsoe is coming of an excellent campaign – one that saw him average 21.8 points and 6.3 assists in 66 appearances. It’s only logical that he already has a fair share of suitors after him, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers.

Usually, it wouldn’t be advisable for a team trying to turn the proverbial corner to trade away its best player. But the Suns are young and impressionable, and Bledsoe’s lack of want early this season was clearly starting to rub off on his teammates.

In their first game without him, Phoenix not only defeated the Sacramento Kings, they did so by merely allowing them to score 115 points. Progress!

The result may not have been that surprising, as Sacramento is a team in a similar situation to Phoenix – inexperienced and a ways away from even playoff contention – but it did seem to inspire a response from their future ex-teammate:

Wow is a pretty appropriate way to summarize the Suns’ season so far: a historically bad defense, a coach being fired after three games and a borderline-All-Star guard set to be traded.

But if the second two moves were made to shore up the issues with the first, as well as to start building a culture that will breed an eventual return to prominence, then they may not have been as reactionary as indicated by first glance.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.

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