The Defensive Revolution in Phoenix
I wrote last week about the Phoenix Suns start and while I spoke at length about their impressive offense and new offensively philosophy, I would be remiss if I didn’t dive further into a key cog in the Suns success — their defense.
Defense always seemed like a dirty word in Phoenix, during the heyday of The Mike D’Antoni/Steve Nash-led Suns the stigma of “no defense” always followed, “call him Mike Antoni because there’s no D” and so on. These criticisms weren’t completely unfounded, in the four full seasons under D’Antoni the Suns averaged 107 points allowed per 100 possessions. You could argue it didn’t cost them many games because they averaged 113 points scored per 100 in that span, but that’s a discussion for another day.
There always seemed to be an uncomfortableness in the play-style of Phoenix, an idea that this score-first, defend-second mentality wouldn’t work in the playoffs and the Suns would need to get better on that end. It led then-Suns General Manager Steve Kerr to acquire a well past his prime Shaquille O’Neal. The idea of trading Shawn Marion for Shaq to upgrade your defense is again a whole new discussion as is the Suns’ woeful management during this period.
In the years since D’Antoni, the Suns have gotten worse at defense including an astonishing 111.6 points allowed per 100 possessions in 2008-09 and an unimpressive 108.1 last season. Enter Mike Longabardi.
You may have never heard the name, I’ll admit I hadn’t before last week but you’re going to start hearing the name a lot more. Longabardi is listed as merely an Assistant Coach on the Suns team directory, listed two coaches down from newly hired head coach Jeff Hornacek but he’s much more than that. He’s the Suns defensive guru. A man who spent several years as an Assistant Coach at the college level, years as a video coordinator with the Houston Rockets before becoming the understudy of current Chicago Bulls frontman Tom Thibodeau.
With the departures of Thibodeau and eventually Lawrence Frank, Longabardi assumed the role as Defensive Coordinator for the Celtics in 2011-12, leading the Boston defense to 2nd in defensive efficiency and 6th the following year before taking the lead defensive job with the Phoenix Suns under new General Manager Ryan McDonough.
What has happened in Phoenix isn’t so much a resurgence as a revolution. The Suns, the team that could never play defense are not only “playing” defense, they are one of the top defensive teams in the game. They currently rank 5th with 99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions alongside defensive juggernauts like the Chicago, Indiana and San Antonio. The 99.6 mark is the lowest for the Suns since 1999-2000 (99.0) and 2000-01 (98.0), the last seasons under Scott Skiles.
That Longabardi is getting his message across while having one of the league’s youngest teams (average age: 25 years old) is doubly impressive. The numbers are jaw-dropped, the Suns are holding opponents to 52% shooting from the restricted area (trailing only Chicago and Indiana), they are throttling corner threes (28.2%) and simply not allowing other teams to get comfortable defensively.
The term “revolution” may be overstating what Longabardi and the young Suns are doing because we’ve seen this all before, everything they are doing has been done before, recently even. To their credit, if you’re going to steal, you may as well steal from the best.
“For all of us, myself included, this is all new…and we’re buying into it. We’re basically running into a long, dark hallway and Coach tells us to go right or left.” – Channing Frye
Let’s look at some examples of Phoenix’s defense against Portland and Brooklyn last week and their direct influencers.
In this first clip, we see Miles Plumlee (one of the NBA’s biggest surprises) displaying a very Marc Gasol/Joakim Noah-esque level of defensive awareness when Blazers center Robin Lopez sets a screen on Eric Bledsoe, which should have created space for dynamic Blazers guard Damian Lillard.
Lillard is stifled immediately as Plumlee stands back slightly, sticks with Lillard and forces him baseline. Bledsoe leaves Lopez and begins to double Lillard alongside Plumlee before Miles falls back to avoid any open looks for Lopez. Lillard is left in no-mans land so he sends it back to LaMarcus Aldridge and attempts to setup essentially the same play instead looking to go to the paint. While he gets there pretty easily (Channing Frye doesn’t rotate quickly enough — remember this for later!), the Suns defense completely collapses on Lillard including Plumlee, who forces a bad layup.
And now, game 2 of the Western Conference Finals between Memphis and San Antonio. Look familiar?
The ideas used in this defensive play are what you’ll get from Chicago and San Antonio quite often, much like in Chicago, you’ll also hear Longabardi screaming “ICE!” as the play develops reminding his defense to force the ball-handler baseline.
The Bulls are perhaps the best at forcing the ball-handler baseball, I found this clip fascinating as they stifle two plays in one possession using the “ICE” principle.
I mentioned Plumlee earlier, but I can’t stress enough just how important he’s been to the Suns defense this year. His individual DRTG sits at 97, 2nd best of the Suns key rotation players (Marcus Morris – 96). Like Noah in Chicago, the system works to perfection when you have a center that can hang with guards on switches and pick and rolls.
Here’s an example of Plumlee more than handling himself against Lillard, waiting for Bledsoe to recover. Lillard could have had an easy path to the basket (remember this!) but Plumlee’s lateral quickness stymied any chance.
Hat tip to Mike Prada who did a great piece on Noah as “the one man zone” this preseason but you see a lot of Noah in Plumlee. In this particular clip, Noah hangs with the much faster Wade although Noah sticks with him all the way into the lane and into the paint.
Here’s a clip from the Brooklyn Nets game on Friday where the Suns and Plumlee again show great recognition of pick and roll. Bledsoe immediately ICEs the pick, trying to send Shaun Livingston away from the Nets’ Mason Plumlee (PLUMLEE OVERLOAD!), Livingston cuts back towards the pick but Miles sticks with him until Bledsoe can recover. The duo briefly double Livingston before Plumlee falls back to defend his brother who is streaking towards the post. The second Plumlee (Nets) gets the ball, the Suns swarm forcing the ball out of bounds.
Let’s play a little game here:
How do you think this possession ends?
- Pull-up three-pointer
- Five passes leading to a blocked hook shot from the post recovered by a player streaking baseline for a contest put-back.
If you guessed option three, congrats! The size, speed and versatility of the Suns defense is on display in this clip. They were helped by some questionable decision making from Wesley Matthews but the recoveries, closeouts and one-on-one defense shown is impressive.
In the interest of fairness, I will discuss a few of Phoenix’s defensive miscues and ways they can improve. This first clip shows Markieff Morris who, while a good defender, goes way too deep in his pick and roll help, allowing the faster Lillard to blow by him for a relatively easy layup.
Compare this setup to what we saw earlier with Plumlee:
I’ve hinted towards it throughout this piece and now it’s time to talk about it. If you watched this game you probably know what I’m talking about and it’s the game-winning layup from Lillard. Similar to Morris’ breakdown in the last clip, Frye comes way too far out and doesn’t react quick enough to Lillard’s move. Whereas Plumlee kept his body towards Lillard, Frye is completely and literally turned around with his back to a streaking Lillard. P.J. Tucker is a little late to react, as is Morris.
This is more a testament to the stellar three-point shooting of the Blazers and a great lineup implemented by head coach Terry Stotts. Morris didn’t want to leave Batum wide open from the corner nor did Tucker want to leave Matthews. This was a perfect scenario, IF the pick and roll defense broke down, for Lillard to drive in for a clean layup and as it were, the game winner.
I don’t want to call it a revolution because it’s been here for years, but it’s been great to watch the Suns executing defensively in this early season. The Suns will have the benefit of a light offense schedule over the next few weeks as they’ll face less-than-stellar offenses including a sub-100 ORTG Charlotte team and mediocre offensive teams in Sacramento (x2) and Orlando.
The true test for this defense will be November 25 against the league’s best offense in Miami, I will be extremely interested in how well this system works against the Heat. We’ve seen San Antonio and Chicago give Miami fits and while there’s a definite talent discrepancy, the system is in place.