One thing that really bothered me in the first half of the NBA season was how wrong I was about the Phoenix Suns. Chris Paul and his team went into the All-Star break with a 24-11 record and a defense that was allowing only 108.2 points per 100 possessions. Opponents were shooting just 45.8% from the floor and 34.8% from 3-point range. Was Phoenix really this good defensively? I projected the Suns to have an average to below-average defense, but they were playing as one of the best in the league. However, since the All-Star break, the Suns have been a different team on defense — a worse team on defense. Over the last 34 games, Phoenix ranked 21st in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 112.5 points per 100 possessions. In non-garbage-time minutes, tracked by Cleaning The Glass, the Suns were 18th with a 113.3 defensive rating. So what changed?
Three things stick out when you analyze their numbers from the first half to the second. The first is rim defense. In the first half of the season, Phoenix allowed opponents to take just 33.3% of their attempts within 4 feet of the hoop, and they shot 63.7% on those attempts. In the second half, opponents were not getting to the rim any more than they were in the first half, but they were finishing at a 67.3% clip, much higher than what the Suns had allowed in the previous 35 games. There is no way to measure the quality of each rim attempt, but a universe exists in which they allow the same frequency of attempts at the rim, just of better quality for the opposition. Regardless, that needs to improve if a team like the Lakers is going to meet them in the first round.
The second statistic that really sticks out is the Suns’ inability to defend in transition. Phoenix is a half-court team. The Suns rank 24th in pace for the season (98.00), and 81.1% of their plays this season came in half-court situations. It was clear they were more comfortable in slow games, but when it sped up, things got ugly. After the All-Star break, Phoenix was dead last in defensive efficiency in transition, allowing opponents to score 138.8 points every 100 transition plays. Opponents added 3.5 points to their offensive rating through transition against the Suns, the 23rd-ranked mark in the league. To be fair, this has been a problem for Phoenix all season, but its defensive rating in transition was a full four points worse in the second half, which should be cause for concern.
Finally, opponents just shot the ball better against the Suns. Phoenix did not give up much more in terms of attempts from deep, but opponents went from shooting 34.7% in the first half to 37.0% in the second half. This might be just noise, but there is reason to be concerned too. Generally, when a team is poor on defense within 4 feet of the basket, it struggles to defend the corners. If opposing teams are having success getting to the rim, defenses collapse more often, allowing open shooters around the perimeter and more specifically in the corners. The Suns might rank fifth in opponents’ 3-point shooting overall, but most of that stems from giving up just 34.5% to above-the-break shooters. Phoenix ranks 24th in opponents’ shooting from the corners at 41.8%. Couple that with its 24th-ranked rim defense and you have a massive problem.
The Suns have been a fantastic story all season, and as a Chris Paul fan I have enjoyed watching him prove doubters wrong for the second consecutive season. However, when push came to shove with Oklahoma City last season, his team was eliminated in quick fashion in the first round. Now, with a potential series against the defending champions on the horizon, this might be another quick exit for his team. Struggling on defense is one thing, but when your team cannot defend in the three key areas of basketball, it does not bode well for title aspirations.
Having said that, I’ve been doubting Phoenix all season — so maybe I will be wrong again.