CLEVELAND — In the true Western tradition, the Phoenix Suns always have shot first and asked questions later.
Coach Earl Watson wants to change that.
The Paul Westphal, Charles Barkley and Steve Nash teams — the Suns’ teams that went far into the playoffs — usually did it by running the other team ragged.
These Suns spent most of the first two days of training camp last month teaching and practicing defense, and Watson firmly believes that is the only way forward.
“In order to make the playoffs, we have to be top 10 defensively,” said Watson, specifically targeting field goal percentage.
“You can sneak in at 12 or 13, but your offense has to be great. We know that. The ultimate goal is for us to become a defensive team. Have grit and be nasty. Play with purpose. Because we all know defense gets you through the playoffs.”
In the final segment of the Suns’ three-hour practice their second day in training camp, Watson divided the Suns into three teams for a defensive competition. The first team that recorded four straight stops — not four straight baskets — was the winner.
A group that included Alex Len, Jared Dudley and rookie Tyler Ulis got there first, and there was a palpable feeling of satisfaction afterward.
The players, one of the youngest groups in the league, are buying in.
“As you know, defense is not the fun,” said Dudley, back with the Suns as a power forward/mentor.
“Offensive players get commercials on dunks. (Defense) is about will and toughness. You have to be able to develop chemistry and communication. Usually the young teams are the quietest teams. It’s the generation of the Instagram, the Twitter, where you are on your phone, you are not really talking a lot.
“It starts with Tyson (center Chandler) in the back line of the defense, he and Alex communicating, calling the pick-and-roll coverage out. The one thing I will say about Earl Watson. He will not let you slip up that department.”
The Suns immediately went to work on defensive techniques when camp opened. On Day 1, Watson set up stations that included drills on pin-down defense, pick-and-roll defense and post defense, and the players rotated through. Stations on Day 2 were set up for flare defense and side pick-and-roll defense. New assistant coach Tyrone Corbin has brought in some of the principles of the Utah style.
“It’s not just the word ‘defense,’” Watson said. “It’s how to defend. How to use teachings and how to attack with your hands and your forearms and your legs. Almost like teaching a kid how to shoot, breaking down the fundamentals of the shot, but defensively.”
The Suns are encouraged by the progress they saw in the final seven weeks of last season, when they were 9-15 after adjusting to the changes Watson implemented when he took over from Jeff Hornacek on Feb. 1. Among of the new techniques was trapping the ball more at the elbow.
The Suns finished the season 26th in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage, but they were 15th in the league over the final 24 games, even without point guard Eric Bledsoe the entire time and with only partial contributions from injured starters Brandon Knight and Chandler. They were fourth in defending the pick-and-roll, Watson said, during that time.
“Our goal is to build on how we finished last year,” Watson said. “Now, the positive is, we didn’t have a full roster. As we continue to build on that, we should be able to take it to another level.”
Point guard Bledsoe has shown he is capable off guarding both 1s and 2s. Chandler and Len are 7-foot-1 impediments at the rim, and both combo guard Knight and off guard Devin Booker are stronger this season, general manager Ryan McDonough noted.
“We can get into opposing ball handlers on defense,” McDonough said. “If they are guarding 2s, they are not overpowered physically. That will be huge for us.”
Compounding the issue last season was turnovers, and the resultant easy baskets that inflated the opponents’ shooting percentage. The Suns committed 16.6 turnovers a game, the most in the league. Part of it had to do with the push-it-up style they opened the season with, although the turnovers did not get out of control until Bledsoe, and later Knight, were sidelined and the Suns were left without an experienced point guard.
The Suns do not expect easy baskets to come as easily this year. Part of the new philosophy includes a decision to forsake the occasional offensive rebound in order to get back on the other end. Only a few players will be free to attack the offensive glass.
“We are not trying to win the offensive rebound war,” Watson said. “We have certain guys who can go. Everyone else has to get back. We want to build that wall.”
Recent history suggests stressing defense is a good plan. Golden State, for all its offensive notoriety, was third in the NBA in field goal percentage defense. San Antonio was fourth. Oklahoma City was fifth. Toronto was 11th. Champion Cleveland, with LeBron James, was 14th.
“For us, the goal is definitely the playoffs and for us to achieve that, defensively we are going to have to be good,” Dudley said. “We don’t have a star that you can give the ball to every single time.”