If the Suns want to make the playoffs, they will have to be one of the better defensive teams in the NBA.
So far this season, the Phoenix Suns defense is marginally better than last year in terms of points per possession, a measure that evens the playing field among teams that play at different pace. Last year, the Suns finished 15th in defensive efficiency. This year they are 11th after the first 16 games.
The Suns play at one of the league's fastest paces, currently ranking 4th overall, with 96.4 possessions per game. Last year, they were 8th in the league at 95.6 possessions per game. Not much difference, as you can see, but still an uptick. The Golden State Warriors play at the league's fastest pace (98.7 poss/gm) while the New York Knicks play at the slowest (89.7 poss/gm).
Measuring defense in terms of points per possession levels the playing field for better comparison of defenses. The Suns give up the 24th most points per game overall, but surrender the 11th fewest points per possession.
Frankly, if they would just stop putting opponents on the free throw line, their defense would be even better. The Suns are 24th in offensive rebounds allowed and 30th in free throws allowed. The offensive rebounds are a byproduct of playing a smaller lineup and being such a threat on fast breaks. In a pick your poison philosophy, opponents are sometimes selling out on getting offensive rebounds to limit the Suns transition opportunities.
It's the shooting fouls, resulting in free throws, that could be limited without changing the personnel.
"If you're a split second late, you're going to foul," coach Hornacek said. "Earlier in this season, we weren't even in that position to foul. A lots of times we looked at the tape and on the weak side our guys were way over. Now at least they are pinching in, they are at least in the vicinity. Now we just do a better job of getting there a split second earlier and we'll eliminate that."
"You need go-to guys defensively," Hornacek said of closing out games. "Last year it was P.J. in that role, sometimes he would be on even a guard at the end of a game. P.J. we can still do that. Eric [Bledsoe] is stepped up into that role where he can handle a guard at the end of the game. He can get over screens very well."
Bledsoe has the team's best Defensive Win Shares among the guards, and last year was by far the best point guard defender in terms of ESPN's Defensive "Real Plus/Minus", a new tool to determine defensive effectiveness.
The Suns are always going to play smaller than their opponents. Markieff Morris is slightly undersized at PF and Miles Plumlee is slightly undersized at C most of the time. The Suns like to go even smaller, too, with Markieff playing center to get more scoring on the floor. Only Alex Len has plenty of length, and even he isn't the thickest guy on the court.
For the Suns to make the playoffs, they will need to be a better defensive team. They have already negated the rebounding deficiencies by grabbing nearly as many total boards as the opponent (though both numbers are really high because of the Suns' fast pace). Now they need to limit the opponent's free throws that make it that much easier to score.
Watch the Suns' defensive rating this season. If they can get into the Top 10 consistently while maintaining a Top 10 offense, the playoffs should be eminently reachable.
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