This NBA season has produced more than its fair share of ridiculous, eye-popping statistics. Russell Westbrook got his record-tying 41st triple-double of the season on Tuesday. The Rockets shattered the league record for threes made in a single campaign with two weeks left to play. And 20-year-old Devin Booker, who’d never even scored 40 points in a contest before, somehow logged 70 points in one game last month.
But Booker’s team is on the cusp of crossing a less-than-ideal threshold as things wind down: The Phoenix Suns, who lead the NBA in fouls by a wide margin with 1,963 so far, are on pace to eclipse the 2,000-foul mark, which would make them the first NBA club to hit that mark in 10 years.
The Suns commit 25 fouls per game (the NBA average is 20) and send their opponents to the free-throw line an NBA-high 29 times a night. It isn’t necessarily a new problem, since Phoenix allowed opponents to go to the stripe more than anyone last season, too. But the team’s fouls are up 10 percent from last year, and the team is becoming a bit of an outlier by fouling more often, given that NBA foul rates have decreased over the past decade as more and more shooters space the floor, leading to less contact from play to play.
The chronic fouling is a symptom of two much larger issues: 1. The team’s inability to contain their opponents on defense, where the Suns allow 109 points per 100 plays, third-worst in the league. Being that bad leaves their players out of position, often leading to more desperate fouls as they try to recover. And 2. Phoenix’s relative youth and inexperience, especially in the post, where it’s fairly common for players to struggle with foul trouble at the beginning of their careers.
This talented group is still developing, both physically and mentally. The Suns are one of the NBA’s shortest and lightest teams, which might make them a bit easier to push around. But Phoenix — which last month used the youngest starting five in NBA history — also has plenty to learn when it comes to countering the offensive tricks and techniques that veteran players acquire over the years.
“You ever seen a young group of guys play against a group of older guys in pickup? The older guys somehow manage to physically take advantage of the younger guys without making it look like that’s what they’re doing. Then the young guy starts to hit back, and it’s completely obvious? That’s what we look like sometimes,” coach Earl Watson told me last week during his club’s East Coast trip. “Players in this league are so good, and our guys are still learning how to be aggressive without committing obvious fouls.”
Those gaps in experience are most apparent in scenarios where a single defender is being asked to hold his own: 1-on-1s and post-ups. The Suns have committed the second- and fourth-highest rates of shooting fouls this season when guarding 1-on-1s and post-ups, respectively,1 according to Synergy Sports.
It’s hard to fault the players’ intent, despite the dismal results. They often sacrifice their bodies in hopes of forcing a turnover, but many times they haven’t established good enough positioning to ward off defensive-foul calls. This has been especially true of some young players, like Booker, rookie power forward Marquese Chriss and fourth-year center Alex Len, who are 1-of-18, 5-of-28 and 0-of-14 when it comes drawing charge calls this season. (Those numbers are pretty abysmal, considering that the leaguewide average charge rate is 40 percent.)
Phoenix’s learning curve has gotten considerably steeper in recent weeks, since the Suns elected to shut down a handful of healthy veteran players, including usual starters Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler, in pursuit of some lottery ping-pong balls and a chance to give their younger, less-used talent some spin over the final month of a losing season.
That has meant fielding lineups that have little institutional knowledge of how to defend without fouling.
“If I’m the only young guy out there with four veterans, those four can kind of direct traffic and help cover for me when I mess up,” said Chriss, who commits 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes, tied for the NBA’s fourth-highest rate among players who’ve logged at least 1,000 minutes.2 “But when it’s a situation where everybody on the floor is, at most, 3 or 4 years into their career, that’s kind of tough, because then we’re all kind of lost, and still learning how to communicate with each other as players.”
It’s not just an issue of youth. There are several other, less-examined factors that help explain why they’ve committed so many fouls. Phoenix plays at a blistering pace, handling more possessions than most, which puts the team in a position to commit more fouls than any other club. The Suns have been in more close games where they trailed late than any other team, meaning a decent number of their infractions were likely intentional and committed in hopes of stopping the clock. And it’s worth noting that Phoenix also comfortably leads the NBA in offensive fouls. So, not every foul Phoenix commits is a symptom of the Suns’ weak defense.
Make no mistake, though: The Suns do an absolute ton of hacking, and they usually get called for it.
“Refs officiate games with a certain rhythm. They’re used to a certain speed and rhythm. When you jump out of that rhythm, it’s easy for them to see, and you’re going to get called for it,” said Chandler, an NBA champion who joined the league as a teenager and went from committing more than 5 fouls per 36 minutes in his fifth season to eventually winning Defensive Player of the Year. Chandler added that the Suns, much like he was as a youngster, are often overeager to make a play, and wind up swiping or jumping when they shouldn’t.
Nevertheless, struggles and all, Watson is an eternal optimist. He takes ample time most days to walk through film of the team’s fouling tendencies, and he told me that he feels his team is only a reinforcement or two away from a huge turnaround if the young players keep developing.
“I was with OKC during Russ’s first year” — Westbrook, of course — “and I always let [my Phoenix players] know: That year, [the Thunder] won 23 games. The next year they won 50, and did it because their young guys had gotten so much experience and developed a supreme confidence.”
Phoenix may not go on to write the kind of success story that the Thunder did, at least not next season. But if putting in a year at the School of Hard Knocks helps this team improve on defense, maybe the Suns will eventually be able to say that this furious foul pace was a worthwhile learning experience.
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