PHOENIX — Like the uniforms, most of the players are different.
The head coach — along with his promised offensive philosophy — is also new, albeit still tremendously familiar.
What’s the next change we can expect from the Suns? Well, they’ve hired an assistant coach whose main focus last season was the defensive maneuvers of the Boston Celtics. And the C’s ranked sixth in defensive efficiency last season. They also were way ahead of the Suns in several other stopping-the-other-team categories.
So the Suns have ticked the defensive box in their voluminous makeover, right? Well, let’s hold on a minute.
“It’s not necessarily what we did in Boston,” said Mike Longabardi, the new Suns assistant coach with a big defensive lean. “Some things that worked there won’t work here.”
Actually, Boston isn’t even Boston anymore. Without Kevin Garnett and his middle-linebacker approach to directing the Celtics’ lane-crowding concepts (not to mention the loss of that bordering-on-hoarse encouragement from Doc Rivers), the defense may look different in Beantown. Brad Stevens had some crusty teams at Butler University, but still.
Anyway, what the Suns have in Longabardi is a highly respected product of a coaching tree with Tom Thibodeau (Houston Rockets, Celtics, Chicago Bulls) looming as one of the strongest limbs and Jeff Van Gundy qualifying as the trunk or the roots or something. OK, so JVG as a tree trunk is a bit metaphorically clunky (and there are other trees in the Thibodeau coaching forest), but the point is that Longabardi’s video-guy-to-coaching apprenticeship was presided over by some real defensive sharpies.
What’s his philosophy? That’s also pretty familiar.
“We want to protect the paint at all costs,” he said, echoing what we’ve heard from coaches all over the league well before Thibodeau (and KG) turned Boston into the build-a-wall mecca of the NBA. “That’s something we have to get better at in comparison to what they did last year.”
Well, with the Suns listed at 28th in frequency of allowing paint points, Longabardi — who joined the Celtics in 2007 and became a bench assistant in 2011 — is on the right track there.
“Then we have to get out to the 3-point line and take that away … especially from the corner. Then you want to defend without fouling and finish with the rebound.”
In summation, he’s looking at limiting everything, right? It certainly seems that simplistic, but what Longabardi really is hoping to do is create a defense that makes the opposition fire up a relatively difficult shot as often as possible.
The tricky part is choking off driving lanes and still recovering to NBA-caliber shooters. At lower levels of basketball, the point guards aren’t as comprehensively nasty off the dribble, and most teams have a player or two with broken jumpers. But shrinking the floor and defending the 3-point line is what it’s all about in NBA defense these days.
“That’s definitely the hardest thing,” Longabardi said. “Absolutely. No question … especially when you’re defending a pick-and-roll play when they set up situations where you have to be ready to help and get back out.”
What those pesky NBA offensive minds are doing is using PNR, down screens and flex screens as misdirection to keep their 3-point guns one step ahead of the defensive-rotation posse.
“And the shooting is better,” Longabardi said, “so we’ve got to be able to do both. Good teams can do more than one thing and play with multiple defensive efforts.”
Ah, yes. Multiple efforts. He’s referring to sustained effort that includes rebooting when the opposition gets a defensive rebound or a crooked Phoenix shot leaves the defense in a transitional predicament.
“One of the things coming from Boston … we’d play good defense, then we wouldn’t get the rebound,” Longabardi said. “Then you have to play defense again for another 24 seconds.”
It’s simply not enough, however, to hit town with a proven defensive approach of certain ball-screen coverage(s) and efficient rotations. A lot of teams have been mimicking what Thibodeau — with considerable debt to Van Gundy, who learned a bunch from his dad and good ol’ Pat Riley — did since turning the Celtics into a defensive-minded, title-winning juggernaut during the 2007-08 campaign.
A lot of teams have smart, dedicated defensive practitioners. The Suns now have one, too. And Longabardi (who worked in Boston for six seasons after cutting his teeth as a video guy in Houston) is smart and dedicated enough to understand that defensive accountability among players and, well, everybody else is everything.
“It has to be a multiple-effort mentality,” Longabardi said. “Piece by piece for an entire game, quarter by quarter, you have to put it together, and that’s hard to do.
“It’s a total start-over … young team, not that much experience. Just going step by step, not getting too far ahead and assuming they know everything when they don’t is important.”
Such a transformation requires the players to realize what it means to embrace the process of improvement. Working hard in the games is easy … or should be. Growing to love the grind of preparation before and after games is what separates the mediodre players and teams from the elite ones.
“It’s not something you just work on in training camp and suddenly you become a good defensive team,” Longabardi said.
But that’s where it starts. And it starts in a few days. Although he’s been reviewing the work from last season and looking at the ability and focus of Suns players attending pre-camp workouts, Longabardi will know more of what Phoenix should be doing on defense as October unfolds.
“That’s going to be my job,” he said of assessing just how to put the Suns in the best positions to succeed defensively. “Then I bring it to Jeff (Hornacek) and give it to him, and he’s going to have the ultimate say in whether we’ll do it or not.”
Yeah, Hornacek wants to bring back playing fast to Phoenix. But he doesn’t want to continue playing loose … at least not on defense.