The Suns may have traded their status as the worst perimeter defense for the title of worst defensive team down low. Don't expect that transition to pay off.
In a league more focused on perimeter shooting than ever, allowing the highest shooting percentage from beyond the arc in the NBA last season was a death sentence for a Suns defense, that struggled across the board.
By replacing Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer with Jared Dudley, Dragan Bender, and Marquese Chriss, fans can expect a team that is nimbler on the defensive end.
While putting a stronger emphasis on speed and agility should help stifle the three-point shot, it will also result in opposing teams taking more shots inside, and hitting those shots at a higher rate. Leuer (and, to a lesser extent, Teletovic) handled minutes at center last season, something that none of the new players will be able to do.
Losing Leuer will spread the Suns thinner when trying to defend shots inside. Per NBAwowy.com, teams shot 4 percent better within three feet of the basket when Leuer was off the court. Replacing him with players that won’t be able to defend opposing centers will force Alex Len and Tyson Chandler to spend fewer minutes playing alongside each other.
|Who's on the court?
||Opp. FG% (0-3 feet)
When Len and Chandler played next to each other, opposing teams shot considerably worse near the basket. With only one (or neither) of them on the court, interior defense became an issue. With Leuer gone, they will be spending less time next to each other, and they will be getting less support from their teammates when they are split up.
If one of them suffers an injury during the season, things will go from bad to worse down low. Dudley is not qualified for the role of defensive anchor. Bender has the height, but lacks the strength to give his opposition much trouble in the paint. Chriss is the most athletic of these three, but his poor rebounding and constant fouling (he fouled out of 15 games last season at Washington) does nothing to inspire confidence in his ability to handle most NBA power forwards down low, let alone centers.
The Suns currently have fifteen players under contract, meaning no more free agents will be coming on board unless a roster spot is freed up through a trade, or releasing one (or both) of John Jenkins and Alan Williams. Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough has said that Williams is expected to stay on board (per Paul Coro of azcentral.com) and that the team isn't likely to make any meaningful signings or trades until the season is underway. Given that Jenkins' contract becomes fully guaranteed in late October (when the season starts), this would seem to indicate that he will also remain on the roster.
Given the lack of other qualified centers in Phoenix, Williams will likely be charged with the duties of a third-string center. While he earned a spot on the All-NBA Summer League First Team, his limited playing time as a rookie last season (he played 68 minutes over ten games) leaves plenty of room for skepticism. Could a team enlisting Williams for meaningful minutes be expected to compete in the NBA?
That question brings up an important point: this Suns team is trying to compete right now. Nobody expects home court advantage, but fans, players, and front office folks alike are hoping for postseason games in Phoenix. There is too much talent on the roster for an overhaul to make sense. With starting-caliber players and promising prospects at every position, a legitimate core is in place.
With that in mind, the team’s inability to defend inside and out will make life difficult for an organization fighting for a playoff spot. To make the next step into a future contender, one of two things will have to happen: Bender or Chriss will have to prove themselves capable of providing strong interior defense as a small-ball big man, or the team will have to find a power forward that can do so.
The problem with that is the limited pool of players to choose from that fill that role. If Phoenix can overperform, it is possible that a top free agent could be convinced to join in. However, of the players that could be available next offseason, only Paul Millsap or Blake Griffin could fill that role while pushing the Suns to a higher tier. A lot of things would need to go right for that type of signing to enter the realm of possibility.
If the team underperforms, it is possible that a high draft pick could lead to a player capable of improving the defense. While draft picks are not a safe bet, good ones can turn around a franchise.
With the roster as is, the team appears to be in a position to compete for one of the last playoff spots in the Western Conference. Without a versatile defensive big man, don’t expect expectations to change for Phoenix.