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Mention the Phoenix Suns to anyone who follows the NBA, and the first words that come to mind are all about offense: running and gunning, 3-point shooting, slick passing and alley-oops. Just in case that image wasn't already cemented in our heads, the Suns went out and hung 47 on Miami in the first quarter of Friday's ESPN game against the Heat.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll discover something different: Defense, not offense, is what's carrying the Suns so far.
That's a surprise if you look only at per-game scoring stats.
The Suns are the league's highest-scoring team at 104.0 points per game, nearly two points ahead of their closest competitor. But in terms of points allowed, they rank only 16th at 96.9 per game. Clearly, one would think, the Suns had hardly changed their stripes from the score-first-ask-questions-later approach of a year ago.
However, that analysis ignores a very important fact: Phoenix games feature more possessions for each team than typical NBA contests. Because Steve Nash is pushing the ball up court so quickly and the other Suns are so ready to launch it, the average Suns game has an estimated 98.2 possessions for each team.
I know that from a statistic I use called Pace Factor, which measures how many possessions a team uses per 48 minutes. And it turns out that Phoenix leads the league in that department by a wide margin, using about five extra possessions per game compared to the average team.
Because of that, we should expect Phoenix's stats to be inflated. In any given game, those five extra possessions provide five more chances for each team to score, explaining why the score of a typical Suns game is so much higher than it is for the rest of the league.
It also means we have to adjust our perceptions of the Suns on both sides of the ball. Offensively, because of their blazing fast pace, they may not be quite as good as their gaudy points-per-game average makes things appear. And defensively, because their opponents get more opportunities, the Suns could be substantially better than their per-game average shows.
Fortunately, we have a simple way of making that adjustment. I keep track of two statistics called Offensive Efficiency and Defensive Efficiency that eliminate the impact of pace by measuring points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions. By doing so, it allows us to make apples-to-apples comparisons of fast-paced teams like Phoenix with plodders like Indiana or Detroit.
And once we make the adjustment, the results might raise a few eyebrows. The Suns still are a quality offensive team -- they rank seventh in the league in Offensive Efficiency through Monday's games. (Incidentally, all these rankings are now available to ESPN Insiders.) But defensively, they're even better, ranking second overall in the league -- barely behind No. 1 San Antonio and well ahead of third-ranked Indiana.
Since this conclusion flies so completely in the face of conventional wisdom, let me introduce a few numbers to back up my contention. For starters, the Suns are fifth in the league in opponent field-goal percentage at 43.1 percent. But that number looks a lot better once you consider how rarely Phoenix's opponents get freebies: Per opponent field-goal attempt, the Suns give up fewer free-throw attempts than any team except Detroit.
Additionally, Phoenix allows a below-average number of 3-point attempts (only 18.0 percent of opponent tries are from downtown, compared to the league average of 19.4 percent), and permit a below-average number to go in (33.9 percent instead of the league's 35.5 percent).
Thus, while the Suns may not fit our stereotype of a physical, grind-it-out defensive team, they have defended better than 28 of the other 29 teams in 2005-06.
Phoenix's example covers one end of the pace spectrum, but there's an equally compelling story among slow-paced clubs, because a team we associate with grind-it-out defense has been a mirror image of the Suns this season, also in unexpected ways.
The Detroit Pistons won a championship and came within a whisker of a second behind a suffocating defense, and at first glance you might think little had changed this year. The Pistons allow only 91.7 points per game, ranking them seventh in the league in that category, while their offensive average of 99.3 points is "only" ninth.
But evaluating Detroit has the opposite problem that we discussed with evaluating Phoenix: The Pistons walk it up the court nearly every possession and routinely grind the clock down to single digits before shooting.
As a result, the Pistons are the league's second slowest-paced team at 88.6 possessions per game -- only Memphis is slower. And looking at the league Pace Factor standings, you'll see that they use nearly 10 possessions per game fewer than the Suns.
Considering that information, it's hardly surprising that Phoenix's per-game averages of points scored and points allowed are so much greater than Detroit's. Only by evaluating these teams on a per-possession basis, using Offensive and Defensive Efficiency, can we make a relevant comparison between the two teams.
And once we do, we reach a surprising conclusion -- the Pistons are a better offensive team than the Suns. In fact, they're better than everybody. Detroit averages an amazing 110.1 points per 100 possessions, more than two points better than their closest rivals, Cleveland and Dallas.
Similarly, Detroit's vaunted defense appears to have taken a step back. The Pistons rank a surprisingly poor 16th in Defensive Efficiency, below even the Charlotte Bobcats.
Again, this might be shocking given the Pistons' reputation, but the numbers don't lie. Detroit has suffered from a puzzling inability to cover the defensive boards -- only Portland is worse in Defensive Rebound Rate -- and their opponent field-goal percentage of 44.8 percent barely beats the league average of 45.0 percent.
So for the first 30 games, at least, our stereotypes have been turned on their heads.
The plodding, grind-it-out Pistons actually have used an unstoppable offensive attack to help cover for a mediocre defense, while the blazing fast Suns are the ones winning with a suffocating defense. It's almost as if the two franchises switched rosters and decided not to tell anybody.
In this case, it means we should think again about who the league's defensive and offensive stalwarts are, because it's the opposite of what we've been led to believe.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. His book "Pro Basketball Forecast: 2005-06" is available at both
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