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Suns miss Tyson Chandler’s ability to cover perimeter defensive woes

Memphis Grizzlies guard Vince Carter (15) shoots against Phoenix Suns center Tyson Chandler (4) in the second quarter during an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
LISTEN: Earl Watson, Suns head coach

When Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal dissected the Suns’ defense for a career-high 42 points Monday, it continued a trend only exacerbated by center Tyson Chandler’s absence following the death of his mother.

Nine of Beal’s 22 shots came at the rim. He made seven of those and drew fouls to get to the line 11 times. It was, in part, more evidence of the defensive dropoff for Phoenix without Chandler.

Before the center left the team, the Suns ranked 16th in the league by allowing opponents 102.9 points per 100 possessions. In eight games since (Chandler did make one appearance), they rank 25th with a 109.5 opponent offensive rating since Nov. 7.

Kellan Olson explained all the covering up Chandler excels at before the year, and so far his bounce-back season appears to be happening. Regardless of Chandler’s presence, the Suns have one problem.

That they don’t have a consistent perimeter defender to their name only becomes more clear when a jump-shooter like Beal doesn’t need to rely on only jumpers to score 42 points.

It was a safe bet Monday that the Suns rolling out a three-guard lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker would not be too much a detriment to the defense when it came to matching up with small forward Otto Porter’s thin frame.

But Beal carried Washington throughout by blowing by and, mostly, rubbing Knight and Booker off screens before point guard John Wall, Bledsoe’s assignment, rose up from a poor shooting evening to put Phoenix away. Wall, a drive-and-kick savant, also had 15 assists.

While Booker and Knight are known defensive liabilities regardless of their effort, Bledsoe has been an elite disruptor before knee injuries struck. He’s been far from his old self on the defensive end.

The Phoenix point guard has a Real Plus-Minus of 0.02 this year, an average net coming from an impressive 1.40 rating on offense and equally disappointing minus-1.38 on defense. In stark contrast, he was the third-best rated point guard in the league during the 2014-15 season with a 1.85 defensive RPM.

Bledsoe is allowing his opponents to hit 52.4 percent this year, or 8.7-percent above their collective season average, according to NBA.com. Of players who have played 10 or more games, Bledsoe allowing such above average shooting is the 12th-worst mark in the league (Knight and Booker, for what it’s worth, actually have held their opponents below their season averages).

All of that comes with caveats galore.

— Players who defend the toughest scorers happen to appear on the ugly end of such statistics. Tracking data is an inexact science; maybe Bledsoe is covering for blown assignments and getting tagged in his advanced box score. The Suns have seemingly faced a never-ending line of elite point guards to start the year, and Bledsoe has expended energy carrying a big offensive load.

— Tracking data is an inexact science; maybe Bledsoe is covering for blown assignments and getting tagged in his advanced box score.

— The Suns have seemingly faced a never-ending line of elite point guards to start the year, and Bledsoe has expended energy carrying a big offensive load.

But when your supposed best defensive player is allowing blow-bys to begin games against the best competition, there’s room to be questioned.

Bledsoe has time to improve, and injury recovery is a fair reason for his struggles.

Team-wide, communication breakdowns have occurred too often in transition. Help hasn’t come where it needs to on pick-and-roll coverages. Screens have been equivalent to brick walls.

Opponents have shot 38.6 percent from three against the Suns, third-best in the league, and Phoenix has proven soft in defending the corners. Those shots usually come via ball movement to beat rotations. Related or not, the Suns are allowing an awful 43 percent from three since Chandler’s injury — Marquese Chriss moving into the starting lineup and T.J. Warren’s absence due to illness could have something to do with it, too.

On the plus side, the Suns have done well by allowing the 10th-fewest three-point attempts per game — adjusting for their fast pace leading to more possessions, the figure is even more impressive.

What happens when the Suns have run players off the three-point line is not so good.

Phoenix gives up a top-10 two-point field goal percentage to opponents, who are hitting 49.5 percent.

With or without Chandler, teams have thrived in the midrange and when hunting open threes. And as a team, Phoenix is second-to-last by allowing 39.1 percent shooting from greater than 15 feet for the year.

What does all that say? At a glance, it’s is a problem stemming from those aforementioned communication and rotational breakdowns, especially in pick-and-rolls. Limiting Phoenix more, forwards like Dudley and Tucker, while savvy, have no chance to stay in front of the NBA’s best guards off switches. Ditto for the young Chriss.

With two true centers, Len and Chandler, in the fold as well, the Suns’ defensive versatility isn’t as strong as they’d like to admit, especially with the most intriguing player in that realm, rookie Dragan Bender, playing sparingly.

The Suns have perimeter defense problems. Until they’re fixed, relief can come most quickly with Chandler returning to cover up those breakdowns.