Phoenix Suns head coach, Frank Vogel has discussed the team’s plans for the upcoming season, particularly in terms of their defensive strategy and priorities, which align with the strengths and attributes of their players.
Vogel is known for his strong focus on defense, however, in his current role, he finds himself overseeing a team comprising three of the most outstanding offensive talents in the NBA.
The Suns are on a quest to secure their inaugural championship, a historic milestone for the franchise, and this pursuit will be spearheaded by the trio of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal.
Notably, Phoenix boasts a roster featuring ten players who maintained a shooting accuracy of at least 35 percent from beyond the three-point line last season, suggesting a high volume of shot attempts could be in the cards.
“I do think we’re more offensively talented than defensively talented,” Vogel said.
However, to win an NBA championship, the Suns must excel in their defensive efforts.
Vogel’s track record is impressive, having guided teams to the highest defensive rating in the league on three occasions since 2011, making him the leader in this regard during that timeframe.
In his initial two seasons as coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, his team achieved third and first rankings in defensive performance, showcasing his expertise in this crucial aspect of the game.
Also, Vogel’s coaching tenure has included mentoring players renowned for their defensive prowess, such as Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Anthony Davis.
He successfully motivated LeBron James, who, in recent years, hasn’t displayed the same level of defensive commitment as in his earlier career, and he also revitalized the role of former Lakers center Dwight Howard.
It starts with a BIG MAN
During his introductory press conference with the Suns, Vogel emphasized that his strategic approach revolves around a big man.
The Suns made a significant move by trading their former starting center, Deandre Ayton, for Jusuf Nurkic of the Portland Trail Blazers, who will play a central role as the primary pillar in Vogel’s system.
“He’s one of the guys on our team that should, most nights, be able to dominate his matchup with physicality,” Vogel said.
Nurkic may not possess the same level of natural athletic talent as Ayton, who is notably more gifted in terms of athleticism.
Nevertheless, he [Nurkic] is a substantial presence on the court, standing at a solid 7 feet tall and weighing in at 290 pounds. He will be a formidable force when it comes to boxing out opponents.
At 29 years old, during the 2022-23 season, Nurkic averaged 13.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Notably, in the 2021-22 season, he achieved a career-best with 11.1 rebounds per game, a statistic that would have ranked him 8th in the NBA if he had played enough games to qualify for league leader status.
Nurkic faced a gruesome left leg injury in the 2018-19 season, and since then, his defensive rating has declined. His ability to guard the perimeter won’t be as formidable as his presence in the paint.
Despite Nurkic’s claims that the leg injury doesn’t affect him, advanced metrics suggest otherwise.
According to Cleaning the Glass, his block percentage has ranked in the lower half of the NBA (52nd percentile and 24th percentile, respectively) among centers in the last two years.
In his second year in the league, he excelled, ranking in the 97th percentile in block percentage.
However, he still maintains an above-average ranking, above the 75th percentile, in steal percentage, indicating his effectiveness in the paint.
His defensive rebounding percentage has consistently remained above the 94th percentile over the past three seasons.
The Teams’ Physicality
After Nurkic, the Suns are expected to deploy Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu, who are better suited for the power forward position rather than center.
Vogel emphasized that Phoenix may not have the most imposing and physically robust team, and as a result, they will need to lean on the agility and length of their forwards to secure victories in defensive matchups.
“Really heavy emphasis on the boards,” Vogel said.
The Suns are likely to face challenges in rebounding when going up against teams like the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, and Milwaukee Bucks, among others.
These teams boast greater size and feature some of the NBA’s top talents in the power forward and center positions.
Regarding his approach during 5-on-5 practice sessions, here is what Vogel had to say.
“I’m watching the system more than anything, and just trying to give real-time accountability to the habits that we’re trying to build,”
Suns’ tone-setters ?
Beal, Booker, and Durant are the standout stars of the Suns, and their effectiveness on the defensive end will be crucial for the team’s championship aspirations.
During last year’s playoffs, Booker notably led all playoff participants in “stocks,” a combined statistic for steals and blocks.
According to Cleaning the Glass, his block and steal percentages ranked impressively in the 78th and 85th percentiles, respectively, for the previous season, including playoff games.
Additionally, he showcased his commitment to the game by ranking in the 93rd percentile in offensive rebounding.
Over the past two seasons, Booker has consistently performed above the 65th percentile in limiting opponents’ field goal percentage, a marked improvement compared to earlier stages of his career when his defensive ranking reached at best the 69th percentile on one occasion.
Vogel, in a recent statement, singled out Booker and Durant as his top defensive players during practice. Booker also responded to critics who questioned his defensive abilities.
“If you don’t know that by now (that he competes on defense), you’re late,” Booker said.
Beal’s defensive performance notably improved during the 2021-22 season, where he excelled by ranking in the 88th percentile among players in his position in terms of opponent points per possession and the 86th percentile in opponent effective field-goal percentage, as stated by Cleaning the Glass.
“We know we can score,” Beal said. “We want to be an elite defensive team and showcase we can do that.”
While Durant has not been accessible to the media recently, his defensive contributions throughout his career have been noteworthy.
He has consistently performed at an elite level in terms of shot-blocking, ranking above the 90th percentile among players in his position in six NBA seasons, with his most recent achievement in the 2020-21 season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
During his tenure with the Suns in the past season, Durant demonstrated exceptional defensive prowess, ranking in the 98th percentile in both opponent points per possession (-9.7) and opponent effective field-goal percentage (-4.6).
The teams’ Potential
Vogel has emphasized the importance of instilling a versatile on-court culture within the Suns, aiming to equip them with the ability to handle a wide range of situations.
In their previous three playoff appearances, Phoenix’s inability to adapt proved detrimental, making Vogel’s appointment as head coach an improvement over Monty Williams in this regard.
While the Suns may not possess many elite defensive players, with the exception of Josh Okogie, there is an expectation that forwards like Keita Bates-Diop, who boasts a wingspan of 7 feet 3 inches, along with Yuta Watanabe, Eubanks, and guard Eric Gordon, will bring a competitive edge to the team.
“I think that we have the potential to be great on the defensive end,” Vogel said…We have guys that really compete and are winners. We’re going to be a group that has a great scheme, a very intelligent defensive scheme that our guys will be very well-prepared for game to game. So I think our ceiling is very high for what we can be on the defensive side of the ball.”
Vogel highlighted the defensive priorities that the Suns have emphasized in their installations.
“Obviously, it starts with transition defense and finishing possessions,” Vogel said. “Get the defense back and get it set….Two-on-two coverages that try to keep us out of rotation will be a really big point of emphasis. We’re going to have a multiple-layered defensive attack, and we’re going to have a lot of things in our bag to throw at opponents throughout the course of an 82-game season that will help prepare us for the playoffs.”