EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Kevin Durant’s defensive ability opens up new possibilities for Suns
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns return from the All-Star break with work to be done and Thursday’s practice reinforced that.
Head coach Monty Williams labeled it as probably Phoenix’s longest in-season practice. It included scrimmaging. Devin Booker spoke afterward with two scratch marks on his arm, and when asked about it, pulled a, “You should see the other guy!” for an apparent blow to Ish Wainright under his eye.
That tone was set three days prior. Booker and Kevin Durant were right back in the gym on Monday.
Durant has been ruled out of Friday’s first game back against the Oklahoma City Thunder and it has been reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that road games on Sunday or Wednesday are a more accurate target.
Every game Durant gets over 20 regular season games left to pick up the system and develop chemistry is critical. But it’s also important that he’s getting practice (and scrimmage) time to package together his base understanding of the Suns’ system and language.
Most of that comes on the defensive end, where the biggest shift will come in terms of how Phoenix plays with Durant. The offense will incorporate more sets featuring Durant but its core DNA will not change.
Lots could change about the defense. No Mikal Bridges defending Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Ja Morant and so on is the crux of it and has been, rightfully so, the most spotlighted element on that end of the floor
But Phoenix is working with more possibilities now.
“It’s the thing that I kind of not laugh at but I always marvel. You have to be really, really good on the offensive end to be a defensive player like Kevin and nobody talk about it,” Williams said Thursday of Durant. “It just speaks to how good he is on offense. He’s a really good defender. The thing that I always watch with him is when he closes out to a smaller guy, bigger guy, he always has his stick hand up. And he moves his feet and tries to stay in front and he just competes.”
Speaking to the contests Williams is talking about, Booker provided the perspective of being the guy trying to score on Durant. Some of the time in the gym earlier in the week featured some 1-on-1 bouts.
“It’s always tough because he can give you a little bit of space and you feel like you have room to shoot and he can still get a good contest on it or get a finger on it,” Booker said. “It’s really tough to score on him.”
To Booker’s point, Orlando’s 7-foot-2 Bol Bol got to learn what it’s like to have his jump shot blocked.
Here are a few more examples of that ridiculous mobility surprising people and ending in a block or a strip with Durant’s smart hands:
At a (listed) 6-foot-10, Durant forms a twin towers frontcourt alongside fellow seven footer Deandre Ayton. Ayton’s 7-foot-6 wingspan and the 7-foot-5 length of Durant is tons for opposing ball-handlers to think about when they get in the key.
That’s the thing. Durant, for the first time in the Williams era, gives them a weak-side rim protector. And a darn good one at that.
Defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim is not a tell-all for how good of a rim protector a player is but of the 35 players that defend at least five shots per game at the rim, Durant ranks 10th in DFGA% at the basket, 56.1%, per NBA.com.
Durant averages twice as many blocks per game (1.5) than Ayton (0.7). Ayton is very good at his job as an anchor but a consistent shot-blocking presence joining the ranks is one of many under the radar aspects of the trade that benefits the Suns.
As an example of what this can do, given Ayton’s prowess in switching out and marking ball-handlers, the Suns could switch more knowing Durant can still handle the basket.
“We hope so,” Williams said of how Durant’s rim protection could help the Suns. “I think once he picks up some of the rotations on the back side which can be a little bit different once you’ve been in other organizations. It takes some time to pick it up but his length and his willingness to rim protect is something that we haven’t had.
“Most of the time, when you think of rim protection, you think of a 5. It’s rare that you think of a guy that can play 3, 4, 2 who can close out and block shots and contest shots but can also go to the rim and stop guys from scoring at the rim with hard contest or even blocking shots.”
Williams emphasized that once the rhythm of the base defense is there for the new players, that’s when wrinkles begin, and he said he will have an open mind about them based around the players involved.
The defense as a whole could be as simple as the Suns replacing a signature feature (Bridges’ all-world perimeter defense) with another (two great rim protectors).
Of course, it’s never that simple. The latter is more scheme based whereas Bridges defending the best player is scheme proof.
Therein lies the challenge for Williams and his staff.
After Durant’s first NBA season, he spent the next two in Oklahoma City getting coached by the legendary Ron Adams, one of the most heralded assistant coaches in basketball. Adams spent time improving defenses on contenders like the mid-2000s Chicago Bulls, those early Thunder teams, the Bulls again in the early 2010s and since 2014, the Golden State Warriors dynasty.
Williams credited Adams for giving Durant a “defensive base” to work with.
I was happy Williams brought that up, because it’s part of what Durant will need to establish first in Phoenix before the complexities began forming.
The fifth starter has something to do with this formula as well.
Josh Okogie is the obvious choice. He was playing tremendous basketball before the break and is the best point-of-attack defender on the team with similar freakish length like Ayton and Durant.
But Torrey Craig’s a big 6-foot-7 with long arms too and would give Phoenix a truly big lineup that would cause problems because of that and would likely be a strong rebounding five.
Whoever it is, they will be like the rest of the team and bounce off the partnership between Ayton and Durant that will lead the defense.
That relationship is already growing before they even step onto the floor together for a regular season game.
“In the scrimmage, he’s already giving me that trust,” Ayton said Thursday. “Like, ‘Yo, if we switch, I trust you to switch.’ He already told me like, ‘Yo, these dudes can’t score on us.'”
Ayton spoke like someone who was still getting accustomed to playing alongside Durant’s greatness, and that extends to both ends.
“I think people forget KD is really a two-way superstar,” Ayton said. “The dude can defend. He’s just a competitor. He’s not gonna just let you score this [expletive] ball. He’s gonna guard you, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. He’s taller than you think he is, his arms are long as hell — it’s just crazy.”
Ayton a few times during his availability on Thursday brought back up how his role is to be the anchor defensively. He joked some of the stuff Durant did defensively were plays the superstar didn’t even know what he did there, as the veteran is still picking things up within the system, like we covered.
That encapsulates the potential of this Suns team. Their floor right now is higher than most teams’ ceiling. That is undeniable. But their ceiling is higher than anyone’s too and now it’s a matter of how close they can get to reaching it with the limited time left before the real deal begins in six weeks.