36 unbothered: How Phoenix Suns can build a championship defense

Oct 14, 2023, 8:43 PM

Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.

He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.

Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.

To keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 10 days away from Saturday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will round out the last 12 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season after being joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby for the first 24.

Previously –

Day 36: Devin Booker enters his prime
Day 35: The Suns have put in the work this summer
Day 34: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Day 33: Kevin Durant gets integrated
Day 32: Bradley Beal proving something
Day 31: How the Big 3 develop chemistry

Day 30: Mat Ishbia’s first full season as owner
Day 29: How does Suns’ place of play change without Chris Paul
Day 28: Suns can maximize Yuta Watanabe in proper role
Day 27: Deandre Ayton finally is traded
Day 26: Who is Suns’ biggest threat in Western Conference?
Day 25: Matrix and STAT in Ring of Honor
Day 24: Phoenix Suns’ most appetizing lineups combinations
Day 23: The importance of Kevin Young’s return to the Suns
Day 22: The revamped Suns sunburst jerseys

Day 21: TV antennas and Phoenix Suns basketball for all
Day 20: Is there room on the Suns to unlock Bol Bol?
Day 19: What Grayson Allen brings to Suns
Day 18: Suns’ championship expectations
Day 17: Drew Eubanks could bring pop to Suns’ center group
Day 16: Olympic implications
Day 15: Jusuf Nurkic changes the Suns in the middle
Day 14: Jon Bloom takes over for Al McCoy on the airwaves
Day 13: Eric Gordon was the Suns’ biggest offseason signing
Day 12: Do the Suns need to trade for a point guard?
Day 11: The Suns need Josh Okogie

Day 10: How Phoenix Suns can build a championship defense

Kellan Olson: The key word here is “build.” Because what Vogel and his staff will do is use the right principles and schemes to get the most out of what Jusuf Nurkic can do as a defensive anchor, which is limited. The preseason has offered us a few tidbits to absorb.

With a shoutout to Bright Side of the Suns’ Stephen PridGeon for the leg work in the clips, we’ve seen Nurkic utilized in a few different ways. The nerdy game tape buffs are excited to see how Vogel mixes up his coverage after more of a limited array was deployed in the previous regime.

Nurkic has already been coming to the level of the screen to meet the guards there right around the corner. That not only provides a more consistent switch-up for opposing ball-handlers to consider but prevents Nurkic from getting targeted individually.

This is Nurkic in a drop but he’s at the top of the key, not sinking so deep to allow Jordan Goodwin to immediately return into the play.

And then this is a cool one, with Nurkic and former teammate in Portland Nassir Little switching as the screen comes in a closing possession sequence.

This is a way of bringing a visual element to how Nurkic can avoid acting as the “pigeon” every time down. There will be games where he is a negative and really exposed. It’s not going to be pretty every night. And it’s going to be on his execution and versatility through different looks, as well as his teammates. Execution will be king.

Kevin Zimmerman: My podcast co-host spent a lot of time on the starting center who replaced a guy who played 30-plus minutes. Nurkic probably will hit 30 most of the time, but I am more curious about how this team is built beyond the center position because the roster is constructed differently than the Monty Williams times.

Those teams were built on consistency and known roles. If those got out of whack, it was vulnerable, though there’s a very strong argument that consistency wins in sports.

But these 2023-24 Suns could be more chameleon-like, shapeshifting around the Big 3 to match up against opponents. That is a unique ability and one that possibly doesn’t translate to prolonged playoff success, where having your known eight dudes works out just fine.

Still, I’m curious if this works like a deck-building card game such as Dominion (I’m pulling out a nerd reference since Kellan is allowed to reference video games I’ve never heard on our most recent podcast). In that board game, you draw cards of your choosing each turn that you’ll be able to put into action. The goal is to diversify what you can do, but you also want to target a few card combinations that complement one another. The balance of selecting cards that diversify your hand and also complement one another is hard.

That’s basically what the Suns’ roster is. They have tons of options, but they’ll have to find the best combos and at some point deploy the ones that work against the opponents over and over while those opponents are attempting to find the same diversity-complementary balance.

After that terrible metaphor, I’ll get super cliché: While doing that, the Suns just need to develop an edge on the defensive end.

If they end up being a team willing to fight everyone, I think that will be helpful. Because the offense will probably be OK.

If they have an edge and a scheme on defense with all the possible bodies from Jordan Goodwin to Josh Okogie to Nassir Little to Keita Bates-Diop to Nurkic and Drew Eubanks, then they will be on the title track.


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