Looking closely at the statistics related to the Suns defense this season vs. last season, the obvious things match the eyeball test. The Suns are generally okay (19th or better) at most aspects of defense except that opponents are making a ton of their jumpers. Where they fail as a team is on defending the spot-up and defending the Roll Man on the pick and roll.
But when you unravel the data even further, something new jumps out. Last year's best defender has become one of this year's worst.
Many of you think that Grant Hill was the Suns' best defender last year but the statistics say otherwise. In terms of pure success rate, Marcin Gortat allowed the fewest points per possession of any Phoenix Sun in 2011-12: 0.766 points per possession. Incredible, considering he defended in the highest conversion area on the floor.
Yet as Suns C Marcin Gortat makes headlines complaining about touches and his general role in the team's offense this season, he has inexplicably (and I'm sure to Suns head coach Alvin Gentry, inexcusably) allowed his defense to slip to awful levels.
Last year Gortat's defense ranked, per MySynergySports, in the 83rd percentile amongst NBA players in terms of "points per possession" allowed. He was rated as "excellent" overall and smartly was the Suns' most frequent defender. Of all plays executed against the Suns, Gortat was the defender of record on 768 of them (12%) - the highest rate on the team. It was mainly thanks to Gortat that the Suns finished 19th last season in points per possession allowed.
Flash forward to this season.
Still the Suns' most frequent defender of record, MySynergySports Gortat ranks Gortat as a "poor" defender overall. He is only in the 13th percentile amongst all NBA defenders, allowing more than a point per possession (1.023). Blech. As with last year, as Gortat goes so goes the defense.
Let's take a tabular look at the numbers. On the left are Gortat and Morris, year over year. On the right are their new wing men compared to a year ago (Frye vs. Scola, Lopez vs. O'Neal).
As you can see, Scola has actually been decent on defense. His results are comparable to Channing Frye, both being passable defenders next to Gortat. Same with swapping Lopez for O'Neal (O'Neal has not has enough defensive plays to rank in a couple of the categories yet).
Yet Markieff Morris's step backward is positively dwarfed by Gortat's giant leap into a chasm.
How do you go from excellent to poor in one season?
Has the defensive scheme changed so much that Gortat can put the blame there? I can't see how that's likely, but it's certainly possible I guess.
Now maybe you can see why Alvin Gentry brushed off Gortat's complaints about his role in the Suns' offense. He clearly stated over and over again that he wants Gortat to focus on his strengths first. Gortat needs to play strong defense before he can complain about expanding his role in other areas. He is the anchor in the Suns defense and needs to play like it.
And, you can see why Gentry benches Gortat in favor of O'Neal's excellent defense when the Suns need to get some stops to get back into a game or close out a game.
The good news is that Gortat clearly has the tools to do just that. He has been a quality defender for years. If he can revert to his normal form on defense, he will be in the game at crunch time and he will get his touches on offense.
It all has to start with defense. Just as Gentry said.