Coaches in basketball normally talk about defense being infectious. There’s really no proof of whether or not this is true, but the Phoenix Suns are probably the closest thing you’re going to get to that theory this season.
The Suns went from having the 23rd best defense in the league last season to having the fifth best defense in the league so far this season. The changes in coaching and philosophy have been extremely beneficial to the Suns and should continue to be going forward. Their moves in the offseason have been very conducive to their early success.
New Suns GM Ryan McDounough made the move for Eric Bledsoe earlier this offseason and that move has totally panned out for them. He’s playing like a max level point guard so far this season and, if these early returns are any indication, he’ll be paid like one in this offseason. They also traded for Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green from the Indiana Pacers when they moved Luis Scola. That move has proven to be a success for them also, because Plumlee has been one of the best rim protectors in the league so far this season.
Now, it’s still early, but their defense is absolutely stifling. The most important offseason move that they made this season may have been acquiring assistant coach Mike Longabardi from the Boston Celtics. His main purpose has been instilling some of the defensive principles that the Celtics have used over the last few seasons–including when some from when defensive genius Tom Thibodeau was there.
Because of that, the Suns defense has been playing on a rope and keeping them in most of their games. Eric Bledsoe’s spectacular performance has normally given them the edge in most of their games at the end. And, even though it’s early, I wouldn’t call this defense a fluke. They’ve got all of the tools available to have a solid defense right now. Eric Bledsoe is one of the top defenders in the league at the point guard position, PJ Tucker has been extremely solid this season and Miles Plumlee has also surprised many.
Because of a loaded front court, the Pacers found Miles Plumlee expendable. They already had the rim protection of Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi did a solid job in backing him up last season. Plumlee was only a rookie at the time and didn’t really have a spot in the rotation outside of garbage time play. The Phoenix Suns saw something in him and the rest is history.
One team’s trash essentially became another team’s treasure, and what a diamond he has been. According to NBA.com’s STAT VU player tracking data, the rim gets attacked 11.0 times per game when Miles Plumlee is on the floor. Those shots are only converted 4.4 times per game, so opponents shoot 39.8% at the rim while Plumlee is protecting it. Of players with at least 8.0 opponent field goal opportunities at the rim per game, Plumlee ranks third in opponent field goal percentage. He’s only behind Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert.
Plumlee has been astounding as a defender and has proven to be a golden prospect for the Suns. Because of his presence on the back end of plays, the Suns defenders know that they have a safety net if they get beat on defense. That’s the reason why they play very aggressively on the perimeter.
In the video below, the Blazers run one of their more productive plays. They stagger Damian Lillard off of staggered screens from out of the corner after he hands the ball off to Nicolas Batum. Batum gets a screen from Lamarcus Aldridge as he passes to Robin Lopez and then cuts into the lane.
Lopez passes to Wes Matthews on the wing. Matthews is in perfect position to read the defense off of the Batum cut. Bledsoe switches onto Batum when he hands the ball off to Lillard in the corner. Because of his length and quickness, Matthews doesn’t pass the ball to the slashing Batum.
Goran Dragic does a great job in staying with Damian Lillard as he navigates through the staggered screens. He stays tight on Lillard and doesn’t allow him an easy path through the screens.
Once Aldridge gives his screen he pops to the baseline. However, his man is able to stay with him on the pop and the pass is taken away. Because Dragic is so tight on his man, Lillard tries to shake him and that disrupts the smooth action of the play. Matthews isn’t able to get the ball away on time and he’s forced to take a dribble to try and make the pass an easier one.
Once Lillard makes the catch, he only has one option. That option is to try and drive by Plumlee. Plumlee sets up and takes away any easy driving lane by sagging back into the lane.
As the play continues to develop, Lillard runs out of real estate and is forced to drive right into Plumlee. Dragic is sagging behind the play ready to bother any pass that comes Lopez’s way. Because of that, Lillard is forced to try to go into Plumlee’s chest and shoot the ball in an effort to draw a foul.
Of course, there was no call. Plumlee did an excellent job of staying straight up and not bailing out the offense with a foul. The way that the Suns played team defense on this possession was practically picture perfect. They’ve been doing this to teams all season long with their new defensive system and concepts.
They’re primarily a team that is going to sag into the lane and allow you to shoot out of the middle. There’s going to be pressure from the perimeter in the passing lanes and as you navigate through screens. The Suns perimeter players trust their defense and don’t try to cheat very often by going under screens and then trying to catch up.
While it’s still early, the Suns defense has shown some very promising signs. If they keep this up, they’ll probably move into the top three in terms of defensive efficiency. In either case, their improvement on defense has been breathtaking and extremely fun to watch.