Within the past month, the Phoenix Suns have been featured in two contradictory series of articles. First, a few weeks ago, came the stories arguing that Phoenix's defense was underrated because of the fast pace at which the Suns play. In the last week or so, though, following Amaré Stoudemire's aborted comeback from microfracture knee surgery, those words have been replaced by columns arguing that Phoenix's defense is broken, leaving the Suns in big trouble.
As is usually the case, the reality of the situation is more complicated.
Because the Suns' run-and-gun style lends itself to so many more possessions than the average NBA game (according to KnickerBlogger.net, Phoenix averages 95.0 possessions a game, 1.4 more than any other team in the league), the only fair way to evaluate their offense and defense is on a per-possession basis. Offensive and defensive ratings measure how many points a team scores and allows, respectively, per 100 possessions. (I wrote in more detail about the value of offensive and defensive ratings for SI.com earlier this season.) Based on those measures, Phoenix finished 17th last season in the NBA in defensive rating.
Although the Suns' reputation for offensive excellence is well deserved, it was surprising to see Phoenix among the league leaders in defensive rating for the first two months of the current season, allowing barely more than a point per possession. But as the season has dragged on, the Suns have faltered at the defensive end of the court. Today they find themselves out of the NBA's top 10 in defensive rating, allowing 106.5 points per 100 possessions after Sunday's loss at Detroit.
What has gone wrong? Conventional wisdom says that the Suns' defensive fortunes soured when center Kurt Thomas went down with a stress fracture in his right foot in late February. Indeed, Thomas, who recently told Phoenix-area reporters he doesn't expect to play again until the Western Conference finals, certainly deserves much of the credit for Phoenix's defensive success early in the season. He's a strong position defender who was also the Suns' tallest rotation player before his injury. (According to 82games.com, Phoenix's defensive rating is 6.5 points better when Thomas is on the court.)