The Phoenix Suns are going to be bad this season. Really bad. Totally and wonderfully bad. They'll be entertaining, but are probably going to lose 50-plus games. That's OK, there's a plan, a young core to build around, and potentially a great draft coming down the pipeline. But there are some things they could be pretty good at, and one of them is steals. They could be truly great at steals.
From Bright Side of the Sun:
We have some guys on this team - Eric [Bledsoe], Goran [Dragic], Shannon [Brown] - who can play those passing lanes," (coach Jeff Hornacek) said. "Obviously we can't let our guys fall asleep, but we want to still have active hands. That's going to allow us to get some easy buckets."
New point guard Eric Bledsoe fits that mold perfectly. Bledsoe was third in the league in steal percentage at 3.7%, behind only Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul. While any single statistic is flawed, on an apples-to-apples basis it's clear that Eric Bledsoe knows how to take the ball from the opponent.
"[Former Utah Jazz teammate John] Stockton got a lot of steals, but Eric gets them in a different way: with strength," said coach Hornacek of Bledsoe. "He takes the ball out of guys hands. He's very quick so when they try to run a handoff around him he's always got his hand on the ball. Those are steals that really put pressure on a team."
While Bledsoe is great at getting steals with his bulldog on-ball defense, he's also quite clever off the ball as well. Bledsoe is great at baiting the opponent, just like an elite cornerback in football. On the wing, while keeping his eyes on the ballhandler, he can hang off his man just enough to make the ballhandler think his man is open enough to entice the pass, only to step in, slap it away and start a fast break.
His new running mate, Goran Dragic, led the Suns in steals rate last season, followed closely by the Morris brothers and Shannon Brown. Dragic was 28th in the league at 2.5% steals rate last season, despite the team playing passive defense to defend more against dribble penetration than pressuring ball handlers.
With Dragic and Bledsoe leading the charge, the Suns might be close to the league lead in steals this season. They already have 23 steals in 2 preseason games (11.5 per game) after grabbing 8 steals per game last season (15th in the league overall).
"It could be like shooting, like assists," Hornacek said. "Things get contagious. Maybe steals-wise, between him and Goran, that'll do it."
The highest tally by an NBA team since 2000 for steals in a season is 844 by the 2003 Sixers. Last year's Suns team tallied 659, and they added Bledsoe who had 109 in limited minutes. They lost some talent in that department; Jared Dudley and Luis Scola were 3rd and 4th on the team in steals last year, respectively. But with a younger team with a longer leash to attack the ball-handler and passing lanes, and little to lose given their inexperience and low expectations, it's not crazy to think that the Suns could wind up being the best steal team in the league.
Does this mean anything? No, it's not reflective of an elite defensive efficiency. You can be great at steals and not a great defender. But it does create hvoc and definitely plays into the team's style. Either way, for a team that's going to struggle for notoriety, if they were to really pus the pace and be extremely aggressive, there's reason to think they could be the first team since the 1998 Celtics to crack 900 steals in a season.