Before Monty Williams began his first season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns, he got to decorating. Down the hall from the parking garage, past the poster highlighting Suns legends, and up above the purple-carpeted floors of the team’s locker room, Williams made the walls his marquee.
The coach placed six posters around the room, each marked with one word. Some were intangibles, components of the mindset Williams wanted to instill in Suns players. One was more straightforward: defense.
“I think (defense is) something that over time as we get to know each other, there’s so many things we know we can get better at,” Williams said that season.
Players gave their new coach what he wanted, vaulting from 29th to 17th in defensive efficiency in Williams’ first season. They have been in the top 10 each year since.
Coming after Backcourt 2000 and the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns, this era of Suns basketball has been defined not by lineup oddities or run-and-gun thrill, but a sense of pride around stopping the opponent. Under Williams, the Suns have rediscovered a team identity by rediscovering the defensive end.
These Suns punctuate wins by bleeding you dry, ratcheting up the pace, and turning your mistakes into highlight plays. Renovations have moved the Suns’ locker room several yards away from its original spot at Footprint Center, and the posters are no longer inside reminding the Suns to lock down on D. But they don’t need them anymore -- the defense is here to stay.
Williams installed a few basic principles when he arrived: know the gameplan, don’t foul, grab rebounds, protect the paint. Keeping things simple was practical for a young team, but it also speaks to the coaching staff’s overall philosophy on offense.
“The biggest thing we do well is we contest shots,” says assistant coach Bryan Gates. “And I think at the end of the day, offenses in the NBA are so good, the best players are so good, that you just want to make it as hard as you can. Your ability to keep the ball in front of you, protect the paint, and then challenge shots is what’s best.”
By the end of Williams’ first season, the Suns identified their defensive core: Mikal Bridges on the perimeter and Deandre Ayton inside. From there, it was a matter of building habits and developing additional schemes and adjustments to their defensive repertoire.
During the NBA restart in the Orlando Bubble in the summer of 2020, the Suns hardly looked like a team that had just sat at home for months apart. They allowed 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions in the Bubble than they had before the shutdown. Ayton tied a career-high in blocks with four in a bout with the Pacers, while Bridges put opposing ball-handlers into what fans delightedly called “Mikal Jail.”
A few months later, the Suns traded for Chris Paul and signed Jae Crowder in free agency. That preseason, players told reporters they had a goal of finishing in the top 10 in defense -- and they did it.
“You want everything to be clicking on all cylinders, but the thing about the defensive end, that’s something that’s a real commitment,” Paul said in December 2021. “Night in and night out, you can rely on that to give ourselves a chance to win.”
“Defense is where we’re really going to frustrate teams,” added Cameron Johnson.
Then last season, Phoenix jumped from sixth to third in defensive efficiency, putting the clamps on opponents all year long en route to a franchise-best 64 wins. Ayton set a career-high in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and defensive rebounding rate. Bridges, by then used to guarding the opponent’s best ball-handler and flying around the court as a help defender, also posted the best Defensive Real Plus-Minus of his career and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Today, the Suns are hitting their stride.
“This is coach’s fourth year, and you look at some of the anchors of our defense, Mikal and DA, those guys now are in year four of this terminology and this foundation and this culture,” says Gates. “We just open up our toolbox and pick a different tool from game to game. And our ability to adjust from game to game is (key).”
As players have become more comfortable, the defense has become more sophisticated. In the 2021 playoffs, the Suns added new terminology for a pick and roll coverage on the fly related to corralling a pick and pop behind the arc. Over time, they’ve developed more detailed rules around switching ball screens and doubling players in the post.
Defending has always been a major part of what Bridges and Ayton (as well as other role players) are expected to do for this Suns team. A more significant buy-in was needed from star players Devin Booker and Chris Paul, who set a tone for the Suns’ overall commitment to defense. Having the best players committed in this way created a much more sustainable mentality on that end of the floor.
“Winning games is the most important thing to us,” said Gates. “Everybody’s trying to win the game, but our ability to get to the next play is remarkable.
“It starts with Book and Chris. They lead the culture-driven process of what we’re trying to do.”
As this year’s Suns have moved through the early part of the season without Paul, Crowder and Johnson, the team’s continued execution on defense speaks to just how deeply it has been reinforced as a requisite part of Suns basketball.
Making do without key players has forced role players to step up for the Western Conference-leading Suns through 20 games. From Torrey Craig’s one-on-one physicality to Jock Landale’s energetic rim protection to Damion Lee’s hustle and IQ, the Suns have once again cobbled together a top-10 defense around Booker, Bridges and Ayton.
“We have our mishaps as much as anyone, but it’s easy to see it done over and over correctly and go, ‘OK, I can do that,’” says Gates. “It’s not like it’s very complex. It’s very simple, but we have so many additional executions and coverages that we can do.
“Once you grasp it, it’s pretty good. And then our ability to adjust from A to B to C sometimes is remarkable.”
The Suns subtly chose to shift more toward offense this season in building the roster. Johnson is now a starter, while scorers like Landale and Duane Washington Jr. have seen more minutes than expected.
And while adjusting is a strength for these Suns, it’s a testament to the institutional knowledge in Phoenix that often, not much adjustment is required when players miss games or a unique matchup comes up on the schedule. The Suns are hovering around the top half of the league in defensive efficiency since Paul left the lineup with right heel soreness, even without their veteran leader and with more offensively inclined players in the rotation.
“Having the base group for a while helps,” says Williams. “I’d love to sit here and tell you that we system it all … but I think that having guys like Mikal who can guard multiple positions, Torrey (Craig)’s been unreal for us, and having mobile bigs certainly helps that.”
Recently, the Suns have struggled to defend without fouling and to guard pick and rolls in which the screener slips to the basket before setting a full screen. They are still developing new terminology for shifts around the court to react to opponents’ ball movement. Gates sees that fine-tuning as all part of the same top-down process that’s worked in Phoenix for nearly four years, and says everything comes back to contesting shots and putting bodies between the ball and the basket.
“It’s a credit to the culture of guys being willing to learn it, guys willing to understand it and get on the same page,” says Gates. “At the end of the day, defense is five guys defending the ball, and our ability to learn and execute is unbelievable.”