Last year, the Suns improved as a defensive team from prior seasons and achieved the goal of being a "good enough" on that end of the floor. They let the league's top-ranked offense carry the load all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
This season, with Amare Stoudemire's high percentage scoring gone and a load of talented, but not superstar, wing players, the Suns have adjusted their sights ... even higher.
The goal for this year's Suns team is to be great defensively. Yup, you read that right. Suns coach Alvin Gentry is preaching a mantra that goes something like this (as relayed by Grant Hill):
"For us to be a good team, we're going to have to be a great defensive team."
When I heard Grant say that, I had to ask again to make sure I didn't miss something.
"Grant," I asked, "you do or you don't have to be a great defensive team?"
"I think we will," he said. "I think that's the personality and make-up of this team."
I reminded Grant of what he said last preseason about making marginal improvement and being a mediocre defensive team.
"The difference is not major," Hill said a year ago. "Alvin (Gentry) talked about the difference between holding teams to 47% from the field and 45% is an extra three or four defensive rebounds. It's closing out to a shooter. It's little things like that that separate you from being in the bottom ten in terms of defense to being in the middle of the pack."
Grant responded by first insisting the Suns were better than mediocre defensively last season (statistically, they weren't**) and went on to talk about the emphasis this season.
"Maybe the same thing applies this year, but I'm brainwashed by Alvin (Gentry) to think that in order for us to be decent, we've got to be really good (defensively). I think there's a potential for that.
"I think everybody's gotten better and has the potential to be better. We've just got to work at it. It's about building that trust, knowing that if I help, somebody's going to help the helper," Hill explained with a totally straight face.
A Disruptive Game Plan
Just how do the Suns become a great defensive team?
Obviously, it starts with the roster, which has certainly improved on the perimeter with the addition of Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick and the continued development of Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic. But, as we've seen around the league, it takes more than having good defensive players to be a good defensive team.
You need a system, a plan.
For the Suns, the plan starts with a staple of all good defenses -- trust.
"I think if we really concentrate and focus on coach's principles, we'll be a good defensive team. It's just a matter of everybody getting on a string. Everybody helping when the other person is out of position. It comes with time. Slowly but surely we're getting there," newcomer Josh Childress explained.
That trust was something the Suns developed last season. It was evident in the effective use of the zone defense against the Lakers in the playoffs and it was a big part of last year's improved rotations.
But to go from last year's "mediocre" to this year's "great," it's going to take something more.
"It's not even getting steals and things like that. It's being disruptive," Hill said with the tone of a patient teacher.
"If you can force them to execute their offense four or five feet out of their comfort zone, that makes a big difference. If you can pressure the wings and all of a sudden they're getting the ball to their primary offensive threat on that play and there's six seconds left on the shot clock as opposed to 12."
Taking teams out of their comfort zone by getting into the passing lanes, pressuring the ball, making them catch the ball further from the basket, denying the post -- those are the things that Hill says are the next step for the Suns in becoming a disruptive defensive team.
An example Grant gives is taking away the pass that leads to the pass that's supposed to go to Dirk Nowitzki. If you do that, you can take that team's set play away.
This echoes perfectly what Alvin Gentry said after practice earlier in the week.
"Most offenses are initiated with a guard-to-wing pass and so we have to be able to take that away and then we have to keep the ball out of the painted area. If we have to front, we will, and three-quarter and things like that. We just have to be more attentive to the little bitty things as far as disrupting offenses," Coach said.
This is a change for the Suns. This is how Gentry plans on taking a Suns team known for its top-rated offense into a whole new realm of defensive greatness.
"Last year, we were kind of conservative," Hill said. "Now, I think the next step is if we can be more disruptive. If that includes steals and creating turnovers, great, but it's just trying to take a team out of what they want to do."
It's not there yet, but Hill, who is the vocal floor leader of the Suns defense, thinks they are making progress. The keys are having the right mindset and having the roster depth to play that way.
We know the depth is there, especially on the wings, who will be asked to work extra hard in this new scheme. The mindset is coming, as is the timing and trust.
"We're starting from scratch again with all the new guys. Our defense ... we're not the biggest team, so it's built on cohesion and understanding and we've got to find that if we're going to be a really good defensive team," Steve Nash said.
We can expect those things will continue to get better as the season progresses, but it remains to be seen if a team that's focusing on its defensive strengths, wing talent and depth can overcome its defensive liabilities, interior defensive depth and rebounding.
If Gentry and the Suns can pull it off and make this team great defensively, it will be one of the league's most historic extreme makeovers.
** The Suns finished the 2009-10 season 19th in defensive efficiency, allowing 111.4 points per 100 possessions and tied for 11th (with San Antonio) in opponents' field goal percentage allowed (.452).