After a year learning the system, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek expects better defense from this year's team as they evolve into a more self-controlled defensive unit.
"Getting after it a little bit more," he says of the plan. "Quicker rotations. Last year, most of these guys it was their first year playing. When you start playing these teams over and over, you know what they can do."
The Suns last season were the league's second least experienced team. Late in the year as the Suns prepared to face the Spurs, Suns stat guru Cole Mikelson pointed out that Tim Duncan had played more career NBA minutes than the entire Suns roster put together.
Only Goran Dragic and P.J. Tucker had started a majority of NBA games the prior year (2012-13), and none of the major rotation players had been full-time starters for more than that. Add in a new coaching staff with new schemes and you've got the recipe for defensive disaster.
Yet last year's Suns played respectable defense. They finished 15th overall in points-per-possession allowed. Middle of the pack for sure, but the best defensive showing since the heyday of the mid-2000s. And this without their best perimeter defender, Eric Bledsoe, for half of the season.
The Suns actually held up okay without Bledsoe. They were 14th overall on defense in the half-season he played and 17th in defense in the half season he didn't.
"Defensively, we should be a little bit better," Hornacek said of this season.
He thinks a year of experience in the system will make the guys a lot more comfortable in the rotations, and in the options at their disposal during live action.
"To be a good defensive team, you have your rules and principles," he explained. "But when you're on the court, they should be able to do things on their own. When there's a "small" in and "big" out, try to invert that. Sometimes we are a little slow to do it, we don't do it as much as we can.
"You watch some of the top teams when they are in certain areas of the court they know to interchange and get up there even if it's not your matchup. We want them to do that."
A large portion of the Suns defensive success has to do with P.J. Tucker's dogged defense of the other team's best big wing player. Tucker missed the first three games this year, but the Suns once again held up okay without a key missing piece by helping each other out.
"We are pretty interchangeable," Hornacek said before the Lakers game on opening night, of the Suns defense on Bryant without the services of Tucker. "If Goran guards Kobe a few times and he's fighting and fighting, we give him the freedom to just say hey Marcus you take him this time and then go back to him the next play. It will keep us fresh defensively."
They stayed fresh indeed. While Kobe got his points, the Suns played effective-enough defense on him without requiring constant double teams, allowing the rest of the team to stay on their own man. The Suns led the game by 29 in the third quarter, and ended up winning by 20 in the final score.
In the second game, against the Spurs, the Suns scratched and clawed their way through a bad offensive game and ended up winning 94-89 with a 10-2 closing run in the final minutes.
Alex Len had a breakout game in the pivot and Eric Bledsoe piloted the defense from the point.
"Eric we give a little more leeway," he said of guys taking risks, jumping passing lanes, straying from their man. "As quick and strong as he is, when he takes a chance he usually gets it. Some other guys when they take chances they get it one out of every five times and it puts you in a bad position four of those times. We don't want to take it away from those guys, but if it happens once or twice we'll tell them don't take so many chances."
But there will always be letdowns. When most of your success comes from intense effort rather than natural skill set or Borg-like mentality, there will be games like the Utah debacle that left the team scratching their heads over how bad they played.
Hornacek foretold of games like that because he saw them last year too. In fact, I asked him about a quote from the Jazz coach after their preseason game in which coach Snyder said he only played rookie Dante Exum 11 minutes because the Suns' guards were so physical and aggressive and Exum wasn't ready to handle that. The Suns won that preseason game in Utah.
"We want all of our guys to do that," he said of being aggressive on every play. "If you just just let teams run their offense and swing it around, you're not going to be very good."
The Suns allowed the Jazz to do anything they wanted to do on Saturday night. After getting up 9-2, the Suns collectively turned off their focus and couldn't turn it back on. Maybe it was the first back-to-back of the year. Maybe it was a bad matchup. Or maybe the Suns thought it would be an easy win. Whatever it was, the Suns looked real bad. The 27-point loss was only "beaten" once last season by a 29-point loss to Golden State when a healthy Suns team failed to show up in Oakland.
The Suns need to have a lot more games like the ones against the Lakers and Spurs, and to hold these games like the Jazz no-show to a minimum.
Having P.J. Tucker back will help. Starting on Tuesday night, against the Lakers, the Suns full defensive arsenal will at least be at their disposal. Tucker fights and claws every single game. While some guys take nights off, as is human nature, Tucker appears to defy nature by showing up every time. He led all NBA wing players in rebound rate last year and expects to spend time not only on the perimeter this year but also as a fill-in power forward in small lineups simply because he can bulldoze bigger guys and get them off balance.