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Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Suns Defense

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 1/31/05

In "Every Play Counts,"'s Kevin Pelton focuses on one player or team in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original "Every Play Counts" at

When I first set out to do an Every Play Counts on the Phoenix Suns' defense, I wasn't concerned with the opponent. Any nationally-televised game that I could TiVo would do. Lo and behold, that game was Jan. 20 against the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant, which meant two days after it was played and a day after I broke down the tape, it gained a lot more significance when Bryant followed up his 37-point outing in Phoenix by dropping 81 points on the Toronto Raptors. My main goal is still to figure out how the Suns have made such a dramatic improvement on the defensive end of the court this season, but we'll also take a look at how Phoenix was able to, at minimum, hold Bryant in check.

As I've said in the past, the goal of Every Play Counts isn't so much to determine whether a team or player is successful or not as it is to determine why they succeed or fail. The first task is better done using a more long-term view, as one game is not a sufficient sample size. So let's start off by looking at what Donald Rumsfeld would term our "known knowns."

We know that the Suns were a below-average defensive team a year ago. Phoenix was 17th in the league in Defensive Rating, allowing 107.0 points per 100 possessions, and the Suns d was torched by the San Antonio Spurs, who averaged 108.2 points per game in defeating Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals four games to one. We know that the Suns prioritized defense over the off-season, trading forward Quentin Richardson to New York for veteran big man Kurt Thomas and signing perimeter stopper Raja Bell as a free agent. We know that Phoenix's plan to play Thomas at power forward was blown up when Amaré Stoudemire underwent microfracture knee surgery in October, moving Thomas to center and eventually Boris Diaw to power forward.

We know that the Suns have posted the NBA's fourth-best Defensive Rating thus far this season, cutting their points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.6. We know they've done this in most unorthodox fashion; looking at Dean Oliver's Four Factors, the Suns rank outside of the NBA's top 10 in effective-field-goal percentage defense (12), turnover rate (18) and defensive rebounding (15). Much of of their defensive success, then, can be traced to a single factor: keeping opponents off the free-throw line. Phoenix leads the NBA in this category, with opposing teams averaging one made free throw for every five field goals attempted against the Suns (league-wide, the average is about one for every four).

We know that the plus-minus statistics on this site single out two players as key to the Phoenix defense: Diaw and highly-regarded defender Shawn Marion. The Suns are 8.4 points per 100 possessions better on D with Diaw on the court, 4.0 better with Marion.

Got all that? Let's take a look at what I saw, starting with Dean Oliver's defensive statistics. To briefly summarize, the categories are FM (forced misses/blocks), FTO (forced turnovers/steals), FTS (missed free throws where the player in question committed the foul), DFGM (field goals defended/3-pointers) and DFTM (made free throws). "Team" refers to plays which were not defended by one specific player:

Name         FM/B  FTO/S  FTS DFGM/3  DFTM
Nash        5      1  /1       2  /1  
Bell       14      2        1  8  /4   3
Thomas      6                  1       4
Diaw        6  /1  1  /1       2       5
Marion      8.5/2  3  /2       8       4
Barbosa     1      1           1  /1
Jones       4
House              1  /1
Team        2.5    1           6  /1

To take the analysis one step further, I've calculated some composite numbers based on the raw data: effective field-goal percentage allowed, points given up, possessions defended, Defensive Rating (points per 100 possessions), possessions faced per 40 minutes and the percentage of possessions where I marked the player as providing "help defense."

Name        eFG%  Pts   Pos  DRtg Pos40 Help%
Nash        .357    5   8    62.5   8.9  .250       
Bell        .455   23  26    88.5  26.5  .038  
Thomas      .143    6   9    66.7  14.7  .222
Diaw        .250    9  11    81.8  13.8  .364
Marion      .485   20  21.5  93.0  19.5  .209
Barbosa     .750    3   3   100.0   3.9  .000
Jones       .500    8   8   100.0  33.3  .375   
House      1.000    2   2   100.0   3.3  .000
Team        .765   13   9.5 136.8
What stands out to me here? Well, the number of possessions faced by Bell leaps off the page. Traditionally, defenses are built from the inside out; the post players face the most possessions, guards handling only a few. The Phoenix defense was keyed by wing players Bell and Marion (who did see considerable time at power forward). In Bell's case, that's because he was defending Bryant (more on that later). In Marion's case, it shows his value as a team defender -- but also a certain weakness defending one-on-one. Big men Diaw and Thomas were both effective in terms of the possessions tthey did handle, and no one player was particularly victimized from the Lakers.

So what are the Suns doing so differently than everyone else? ESPN commentator Steve Jones mentioned their pressure, but the brief explanation I've heard of why Phoenix's defense improved after a slow start (a key to why I wanted to take a deeper look) indicated the Suns have been playing more man-to-man and eschewing trapping. I did see Phoenix "digging down" with a help defender coming to double-team the post on a number of occasions, but I wouldn't say they trapped a great deal more than other teams.

Instead, what I saw was in some ways the opposite. It appears to me that the Suns put less pressure on the ball than any other NBA team. With the exception of the Bell-Bryant matchup, Phoenix defenders were continually at least an arm's length away from the player with the ball. Suns defenders rarely ventured outside the 3-point line, which made me think of this wonderful explanation of Washington State University Coach Dick Bennett's "pack-line defense" I recently watched. The system calls for defenders to stay within an imaginary line two feet inside the 3-point line, and I saw Suns players doing something similar ... except for one enormous difference -- Bennett's system calls for heavy ball pressure.

In practice, what does the Suns' lack of pressure do? It makes Phoenix much better at containing the basketball than their peers. The Suns' defensive players, with the possible exception of Thomas, are notable for their quick feet. Playing a step off of their opposing number allows them to stay between them and the basket at almost all times, which forces opposing teams to stay on the perimeter and keeps them out of the paint -- which is, in truth, vulnerable because Marion is Phoenix's only shot-blocker. At the same time, by playing off their playerrs, Suns defenders -- who are, with the notable exception of Nash, very "long" -- are always in position to give help from the perimeter when one of their teammates is beaten. This is very different from the traditional NBA "funnel" defense, which directs all drivers towards a big man (or two), and explains why the Suns have more balanced help defense percentages than the Detroit and San Antonio defenses I looked at earlier this month.

The Suns' unorthodox style shows up a couple of places in the statistics. One, naturally, is in terms of keeping teams off the free-throw line. Not only does Phoenix's system keep teams out of the paint, where most fouls are committed, it also keeps them from being called for touch fouls on the perimeter under the new rules interpretations I discussed for last week. The other is in terms of opponent assists.

Earlier this season,'s Kelly Dwyer mentioned the Suns had the largest differential between their assists and their opponents' assists in the league. This led a reader to wonder, "What would a team do to ‘prevent’ opponent assists?"

Well, the answer is you don't let teams drive and kick, and nobody does that better than the Suns. Phoenix's opponents have assisted on just 44.9% of their baskets, which is not only the lowest mark in the NBA, it's the lowest mark in NBA history - and by a wide margin. The only previous team in NBA history to have opponents assist on less than half of their baskets was the immortal 1978-79 San Diego Clippers, whose opponents handed out assists on 49.5% of their baskets. (The Spurs would also break this record if the season ended today, allowing assists on 48.2% of their baskets. San Antonio and Phoenix finished 1-2 in the NBA in that order last season, indicating to me this reflects something meaningful and is not merely random.)

Something else I was looking for is whether the Suns tend to switch more picks than most teams, which would make sense given that Diaw and Marion are so versatile. This was a poor game to get a read on that issue, because the Lakers ran many of their screen-rolls with power forward Lamar Odom, and the vast majority of teams will switch these plays. I did see Diaw switch out onto guards a number of times in Sunday's Suns game against the Seattle SuperSonics, but overall it doesn't appear the Suns switch that much more than most other teams.

Where the Phoenix defense is vulnerable is the low post, which isn't surprising given that the 6-9 Thomas is their tallest rotation player and the 6-8 Diaw and 6-7 Marion often play together in the middle. To stop quality post players, the Suns are forced to double-team, creating open looks on the perimeter. As good as Marion is defensively -- and I would rank him with almost anyone in the league in terms of help defense -- he is often overmatched amongst power forrwards down low, which explains why his Defensive Rating was the worst of the Phoenix starters and why his opponent statistics don’t reflect an All-Defense-caliber player.

Now, let's look at how the Suns defended Bryant. What I've done here is constructed a traditional box-score (more or less) with Bryant's evening divided up into who was responsible for each shot/turnover:

Nash     0   .5  0   .5   0  0    1   0
Bell     9 21.5  4  9.5   2  2    2  24
Thomas   0  2    0  0     0  0    0   0
Diaw     0  1.5  0  1     3  3    0   3
Marion   2  5.5  0  0     4  4    0   8
Team     1  2    0  1     0  0    1   2
TOTAL   12 33    4 12     9  9    4  37

That's about as many shots as you'll see one player take against one specific defender in one game; Bell was on Bryant for all but a quick rest for the last three minutes of the first quarter, when Marion had the defensive assignment. (Bryant also sat out just over seven and a half minutes, most at the start of the second quarter.) For the most part, Bell did an exemplary job. He is an extraordinarily physical defender in the Bruce Bowen mold, frustrating offensive players into several technical fouls this season. Bryant joined that list, earning a T after Bell drew a second offensive foul on him in the third quarter.

Bell did a commendable job of turning Bryant into a jumpshooter and giving him few easy looks aside from a couple of scores in transition. Bryant shot just nine free throws, and those mostly came when he was fouled while shooting jumpers. Bell also drew a pair of offensive fouls on Bryant, and a recent study on this site indicates that Bell has drawn more offensive fouls than any other player in the NBA. (The Suns lead the league in this regard, which is probably related to their desire to contain the ball and play a step off ballhandlers. This enables Suns defenders to position themselves in front of the ballhandler and take charges when appropriate.)

At the same time, Bell's defensive statistics are somewhat mixed, and this game showed some evidence of why that's the case. Bell is not good about remembering to keep his hands up at all times, and Bryant was more than willing to shoot 25-footers without a hand in his face. He ended up shooting better than 40% on 3s against Bell, which is how he built up his point total despite shooting just 36.4% from the field.

One notable play showed just how much defensive attention Bryant was drawing even before hitting for 81. After Bryant twice hit jumpers on the left baseline on out-of-bounds plays in the first quarter, the next time the Lakers took the ball out of bounds under their own basket, not one, not two but three defenders went towards Bryant -- Bell; the defender on Lamar Odom, who picked for Bryant and the defender of the player throwing in the basketball. That gavve Odom a wide-open layup under the basket.

Mailing List

Back in the old Hoopsworld days, I had a mailing list that notified readers when my columns were posted. Now that I'm writing several different places, it seems appropriate to bring it back. If you'd like to join, please e-mail me at

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at

Also see Kevin's previous columns for
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
Valuing the Preseason
Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant
Comparing the 50 Greatest
Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Pick-and-Roll
Every Play Counts: Antonio Daniels
Every Play Counts: Detroit-San Antonio
The Value of Kobe Bryant

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