Forget last night's blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets, the real problem was illustrated on a white board that's been hanging in the Suns locker room since early in the season. The board lists 16 NBA teams with their 10-game average for defensive field goal percentage.
The number one team on the board is the team that's held its opponents to the lowest average shooting percentage over the past ten games. The teams are listed in order from 1 to 15 with a spot available for the Suns. When the board first went up early in the season there were 15 teams and then the Suns with the rank number of about 29 next to their name.
Then the Suns got serious about playing defense. There was the famous three-hour practice on December 30 after getting stomped at home by the 76ers. The defense improved and the Suns moved up on that board until at one point they were hanging around second or third. Think about that, for a portion of the season the Suns were in the top five of all NBA teams in defensive field goal percentage.
Last night that board showed the Suns back in the high-20's (27 I believe) and that was before the game. That means over their last ten games, the Suns have slipped all the way from the top of the NBA back to the bottom in defense.
Here's the numbers in more detail and a look at three distinct portions to the season so far:
Season 1 - Defense Optional
- In their first 30 games the Suns had a 13-17 record (.433 win %)
- During that time they allowed opponents to shoot .491 from the field
- League average is .457 so .491 is really, really bad. It's only happened one time over a full season since 1995 (2005-06 Raptors)
- In their wins the Suns held teams to .476 shooting
- In their losses .502. So even in the games won, the defense was still below league average
Season 2 - Defensive Juggernaut
- In the next 23 games, the Suns really turned up the defensive pressure with teams shooting just 44.2%
- The Suns went 14-9 (.609 win %) during this stretch
- In wins the Suns held teams to just .412 which is better than the NBA-best Bulls season average of .429
- Even in losses opponents shot .478 which you will note is almost exactly what they gave up in wins during the first 30 games
- The defense had not only improved, it improve to a near-elite level
Season 3 - ???
- Starting with the loss to the Mavericks before the All-Star break, the Suns are on a troubling trend
- Over the past 10 games the Suns are 6-4 but have allowed the defensive FG% to jump up to .485
- In the four losses, the Suns gave up .516
- In the six wins the Suns gave up .464 which is once again, worse than the league average and much worse than the .412 allowed in wins during the previous 23-game stretch
- The schedule in these ten games plays an important role as well. The four losses came to the Mavericks, Celtics, Thunder and Nuggets who are all playoff teams
- The wins came against five sub-.500 teams with the only "good" win coming against the Hawks and in that game they gave up 48.1 percent shooting to a team that had played the night before
To recap....Opponents' FG%
- .491 in the first 30 games
- .442 in the next 23 games
- .485 in the last 10 games
With Nash banged up and Channing Frye
on the shelf for a couple of weeks, the Suns have no choice but to play defense over their final 19 games like they did during that stretch from December 31 to February 15.
The question is, how good were the Suns during that strong defensive stretch?
There were a lot of games against teams that had played the night before and/or had significant injuries. When you look through the list of games won during that stretch you can make excuses for the other team in a lot of them.
We will know in just a few more weeks, but right now it sure does look like this Suns team is good enough to beat the bad teams but not good enough to compete with the better teams in the league unless they catch some lucky breaks.
And now, the breaks are going against the Suns with the injury bug predictably hitting Nash who has carried this team for so long.