When Monty Williams was named head coach of the Phoenix Suns, their defense was due to get on a better track if for no other reason than his history of competency there.
But five games into this young season, the Suns sit at 3-2 record-wise and sixth in Synergy’s half-court defense efficiency metrics. A small sample, for sure, but the revelations from film prove some of the summer’s adjustments to this roster are creating a meaningful and lasting change. That’s allowed the Suns to beat the Los Angeles Clippers, to take the Denver Nuggets to overtime on the road and drop a 96-95 contest to the Utah Jazz–three of the league’s top groups.
Why is such a development worth noting this early into the campaign?
This was supposed to be one of the bottom two teams in the league (along with the Charlotte Hornets).
While there’s a lot of time for the bottom to still fall out, perspective and history matter, and the changes in Phoenix’s approach are drastic in a short amount of time. A year ago, they finished 29th in defensive rating and were dead last a season prior. They have been 25th or worse each of the last four seasons and haven’t been a top-half defense since the 2006-07 campaign.
While those early Mike D’Antoni (and some Alvin Gentry) squads were filled with scoring firepower to the point they could produce despite their defense, it’s been a while since Phoenix faithful have seen anything resembling organization on that side.
Less than two years ago, this was par for the course:
Now they’re playing with some noticeable hustle and grit.
Coaches love to praise teams that are “first to the floor”, giving up their bodies for possessions and loose balls whenever able. Such a sacrifice demonstrates a winning mentality, a desire to nail the details and the importance with which they play every possession.
They’re great teammates and doing all the little things to form a collective identity. This is what the 2019-20 Phoenix Suns look like so far:
Rejuvenated and playing together, the Suns are funky and skilled on offense but driven by their defense and built around three defensive anchors: DeAndre Ayton, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky. (Yes, it’s almost hysterical to include Frank The Tank, but bear with me a moment.)
While all three have different traits, their collective overlap comes from their lack of a strength defending away from the hoop. Baynes is great with angles but doesn’t have elite footspeed. Kaminsky is even slower and has been torched at the 4, so a move to the 5 with more permanence would impact him well. Cleaning the Glass estimates the Charlotte Hornets gave up 117.2 points per 100 possessions with him at the 4 last season, as opposed to only 108.2 when he was the 5.
Of course, the defense is built around Ayton, who is in the midst of a 25-game suspension that was handed down after opening night. It’s a shame we won’t get to see him gel with this group while they fight for nearly a third of the season without him. Even in night one against the Sacramento Kings, Ayton displayed some fantastic verticality and protection of the rim:
Schematically, the Suns are dropping back in pick-and-roll coverage while chasing over the top with their guards. Phoenix’s slower-than-Ayton bigs drop far below the level of the screen and protect the basket.
Guards go over the top of the screens, chasing ball-handlers away from the three-point line and into the mid-range, where they force mid-range jumpers. In the middle of the floor, guards are instructed to force a player to a side, likely done based on the formation or the individual. When it all comes together, it protects those bigs from committing unnecessary fouls and encourages lots of challenged mid-range attempts:
Ayton, is a vertical rim challenger thanks to his size, leaping ability and the sheer intimidation he can provide as guards are funneled towards him. He’ll weaponize this scheme when he returns, provided everyone is still as dialed in as they are now. (Lengthy losing streaks can do a lot of damage to a team’s defensive chemistry, so Phoenix will certainly benefit from hovering around .500 until he’s back.)
Baynes uses angles and high-IQ to take away passing lanes, then sticks his brick wall of a chest out and lets guards bounce off him.
Rim protection can be safely broken down into two categories: charge or challenge. The challenge is what we talk about obsessively for bigs: How well do they jump with verticality, block shots near the basket and reject or deter any easy looks? Rim protection can also be done by sliding in and taking a charge, which not only negates the basket but charges a personal foul to the opponent. For the more grounded NBA players that can’t athletically challenge those shots at the rim, becoming a great charge-taker is a great option (ex. Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova, who is arguably the best at this).
That’s where Kaminsky has been both different and great. He does a great job of retreating during penetration, daring the ball handler to bury himself closer to the baseline before coming to a decision. If he attacks to feverishly or dumps down a pocket pass to a rolling big, Kaminsky is there to take a charge. Watch the two clips below to see how he retreats and steps over to contest with his chest square:
In addition to ball screens, the Suns have been trying to deny dribble handoffs from a big to a guard by face-guarding the guard and sagging off the big. The point is to blow up the designed play, strand that big man on an island, where he may not have a live dribble and dare him to become a jump shooter.
Even if the Suns don’t succeed at blowing up the handoff, it works in the same coverage as a normal ball screen. The big is dropped in help, and the guard then slithers over the top. Continuity of coverage is important for a team, particularly when they are trying to develop some semblance of an identity:
Williams’ scheme just makes sense: Let the bigs stay lane protected, keeping them out of harm’s way while using perimeter length and peskiness to funnel teams towards the waiting bigs.
Through five games, the Suns have been top-five per Synergy in defending both the ball handler and the roller, ranking second against handlers. That comes against teams with dynamic bigs and guards, such as the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings, along with producing a 20.4 percent turnover rate.
The schematic fit is vital to this early success, but tactics alone don’t win games.
The credit for Williams and his staff revolves around how they’ve both inspired a group, and some applause should be directed to General Manager James Jones for prioritizing defensive personnel with their new additions. Both point guards in Ricky Rubio and Jevon Carter are able to cut off the head of the snake as excellent defenders who both apply pressure and have high-IQ.
Rubio’s savvy insulates star offensive player Devin Booker. The two are an excellent duo on both ends, and Rubio has shot it just well enough to not be a complete offensive liability when the ball isn’t in his hands. This gives Booker more room to work with, and Rubio’s passes are notorious for finding the right guy at exactly the right time to score.
Another great development has been the defense of Carter, the second-year pro from West Virginia. His physicality and frame is hard to account for at the point guard spot. For a bruiser, he does a good job wiggling through screens and keeping guys in front. If he needs to, his lateral quickness is so great that he can stop and challenge a pull-up jumper.
His defensive highlights have been noticeable and vital to the Suns’ success on that end, and Carter is quickly becoming the lifeblood of their second unit:
Phoenix is home to one of my favorite sleepers in Kelly Oubre Jr.
Early this summer I wrote about Oubre and his massive potential thanks to his elite defensive length, supreme athleticism and the open floor he’s played with since joining the Suns. A closet breakout candidate, Oubre is not only emerging as their third option on offense but a dependable wing that can stop the best player on an opposing team.
Why is that so important for this group in particular? It saves the assignment and the onus from falling on Booker, a noted lazy defender when his offensive responsibilities pile up.
Oubre is so long and quick that he can guard 2 through 4 without much difficulty. Booker’s strength allows him to guard up a tad. Williams and his staff can now tinker with matchups based on the opponent, and that’s due to Oubre.
Discipline has also always been the shortcoming with Oubre, however. He’s so naturally talented that he can gamble in passing lanes or lunge at steal opportunities yet still make up for misses because he’s so long. But great defenders know when to sit down and guard and when to take those risks, limiting the mistakes and the burden on teammates to have to move.
Oubre’s started to settle in a bit more early in the season and become reliable in those instances.
More than anything, watching Oubre play defense is damn exciting. When he gets steals, they are with flare and usually from great individual defense. When he isn’t, he’s challenging jumpers and getting the defense to take the shots he wants them to take:
He’s also learned to control those wild closeouts so that he contains the drive and doesn’t put his teammates in a tough situation. Oubre has started to close out with balance and length instead of aggression—a fine line to walk, but one that vitally saves the Suns from scrambling with their help rotations:
When Oubre subs out, the Suns don’t lose their defensive aggression due to Mikal Bridges flanking Carter and Baynes in the second group. Bridges has the same go-go-gadget arms as Oubre, and while he’s nowhere near the same fluid athlete, he can contest shots from behind due to his length.
Most players are taught to play situational offense, meaning they know how to react to whatever defense they find. The lanky Suns go over the top of screens and handoffs, so that engages a teaching point drilled into the brains of good scorers.
They start to play angles and keep the defender on their hip, not ceding the slight advantage gained when going over the screen before the defense. As the game of cat-and-mouse goes into effect, the offense slows down and is more driven by angles than by speedy rim attacks.
Due to the insane length and high-IQ of Bridges, scorers struggle with their hostage dribble to keep him at bay. Instead he rides their hip, gets his hands up and is able to avoid fouling as he maneuvers his way back in front:
The missing piece here is, of course, Booker himself.
Nobody is expecting him to take the leap from where he’s been early in his career to First Team All-Defense. Progress is worth celebrating, though not worthy of expunging the history that earned Book’s reputation. If Booker can get to a league-average level and simply be a neutral defensive presence, there’s some hope for sustainability with this group in Phoenix.
Thus far, Booker’s held up his end of the bargain. He’s defending with more verve and aggression, locked into schemes and scouting reports. His willingness to move his feet through screening action and not lay on screens has been a pleasant surprise:
Jones and the entire front office structured their offseason to flank Booker with enough defensive personnel to give the team a chance. Williams and the coaches have also seemingly flipped some switch internally within Booker to push harder on this end. The culture and identity will fall into place as their best player allows it.
Even if the Suns don’t set the world ablaze and push through the whole season for a playoff spot, we can celebrate the progress that the core is taking thanks to their newfound desire to sit down and guard.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of October 31, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.