Does Defense Really Win Championships?

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published March 21, 2016

Kobe-defense (1)

TRIBUTE: Kobe Bryant will retire at the end of this NBA season. In his prime, he was one of the premier perimeter defenders.
(Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

A year ago, I heard a raging debate on a local radio station about whether or not defense wins championships in basketball. The old proverb reiterated by many basketball pundits and fans say in no uncertain terms “Offense wins Games and Defense Wins Championships”. I recall calling the local radio station and pointing out that this statement if taken in exclusivity is incredibly erroneous. However, what should the alternative say when predicting the team who will be NBA champion? Is the alternative as cute and catchy as the old adage?

John Hollinger, the godfather of modern and holistic basketball metrics, has developed efficiency ratings for players and teams. His highly rated all-encompassing efficiency ratings for teams are available for the past 13 seasons, starting in 2002. His offensive efficiency ranking gives the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions while his defensive efficiency ranking gives the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions. These give an indication of how efficient a team is at scoring points against its opponents and preventing its opponents from scoring points respectively.

 

NBA-Finals-300x212Without a doubt, the two teams that make the NBA Finals are the teams that have the best direct chance of winning the championship. Nonetheless, having the best regular season record, or the best offense or defense is no guarantee that you’ll win the NBA Championship.

A few months ago, I examined the efficiency numbers – both offensive and defensive – of the teams that featured in the past 13 NBA Finals and found some interesting takeaways from the data.  Can the regular season offensive and defensive efficiencies of these teams be used to predict which of the two finalists will win the Larry O’Brien Trophy? Could I answer the question, “Does Defense Really Wins Championships?”

MJ vs MJ: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan go at it. (Photo credit Andrew D. Bernstein /NBAE /Getty Images)

MJ vs MJ: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan go at it in the 1991 NBA Finals.
(Photo credit Andrew D. Bernstein /NBAE /Getty Images)

BEST OFFENSE OR DEFENSE

In the past 13 NBA Finals, only once has the team with best offensive regular season ranking made the NBA Finals and that team was the 2013 Miami Heat team which were the eventual champions for the 2012-13 NBA season. On the other hand, on five occasions the number one regular season defensive team has made the NBA Finals, the 2003 New Jersey Nets, 2005 San Antonio Spurs, 2008 Boston Celtics, 2008 Orlando Magic, and the 2015 Golden State Warriors, with three of those five teams winning the NBA Championship.

Going back to the 2003 NBA Finals, 10 of the 26 NBA finalists had a top-5 regular season offense while 17 of those 26 teams had a top-5 regular season defense. Similarly, for those regular seasons, 18 of the 26 finalists had a top-10 offense while 21 of those 26 finalists had a top-10 defense. Henceforth, teams who make the NBA finals are teams who are elite at both the offensive and defensive ends. However, of the finalists, we see a greater number of them having elite defenses more than elite offenses, whether we look at the best, top-5 or top-10 team regular season efficiency rankings.

Table 1. The number of teams of the past 26 NBA finalists that featured in the past 13 NBA finals with the regular season best, top-5 or top-10 Offensive and Defensive Efficiency Ranking.

Number of NBA Finalists with an elite Efficiency Ranking
Efficiency Ranking Category #1 Top-5 Top-10
Offensive Efficiency Ranking 1 10 18
Defensive Efficiency Rank 5 17 21

 

Renowned NFL coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what you are.” That is, barring injuries, a good offensive team in the regular season will likely remain a good offensive team in the playoffs, and likewise, a good defensive team will remain the same.

CHAMPIONS VS RUNNER-UP

Of the past 13 teams who have won the Larry O’Brien Trophy, how did they rank offensively and defensively, in the regular season, in comparison to the finalist they beat?

In summary, seven of the 13 champions had a better regular season offensive rank than their beaten finalist, while eight of the 13 champions had a better or equal defensive rank. Of the seven teams with better offensive efficiency than their beaten finalist, four had superior offensive and defensive regular season efficiencies, while three had superior offensive, but inferior defensive regular season efficiencies, in comparison to the fellow finalist.

Tim Duncan defense

EVOLVING & EVERLASTING: After 18 seasons, once among the elite offensive & efficient players in the league, Tim Duncan is currently ranked among the elite defenders in the league. Currently, he is ranked second in terms of Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
(Photo credit: Rocky WIDNER/Getty Images)

Of the eight teams with better or equal defensive efficiency than their fellow finalist, as stated earlier, four had both better offensive and defensive regular season efficiencies, while on the other hand, four had better defensive regular season efficiencies but worse offensive efficiencies in comparison to their fellow finalist. Of note, only two of the past 13 champions have beaten their counterparts, though having inferior offensive and defensive regular season rankings than their fellow finalist, the 2006 Miami Heat and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Both were major upsets at the time and both finals, interestingly, were contested by the same franchises: the Heat and the Mavericks.

On average, the offensive regular season efficiencies of the champion and the beaten finalist have been 99.8 and 99.8 points per 100 possessions respectively: identical. Interestingly, though, the champions have had, on average, better regular season defensive efficiencies, 92.5, to 94.0 for the beaten finalists.

Table 2. The average offensive and defensive regular season offensive and defensive efficiencies of the finalists in the past 13 NBA Finals.

Average Regular Season Offensive Efficiency Average Regular Season Defensive Efficiency
Champions 99.8 92.5
Runner-up 99.8 94.0

 

Earlier we had said that 10 of the 26 NBA finalists had a top-5 regular season offense while 17 of the 26 finalists had a top-5 regular season defense, and similarly, 18 of the 26 finalists had a top-10 offense while 21 of the 26 finalists had a top-10 defense. However, how do these split between the champions and the beaten finalists?

Of the 18 top-10 offenses from the 26 finalists, nine belonged to the eventual champions and nine belonged to the beaten finalists. On the other hand, 12 of the 13 champions compared to 9 of the 13 beaten finalists had a top-10 defense, from the 21 finalists of 26 teams with a top-10 defense.

Similarly, in the top-5 rankings, of the 10 finalists with a top-5 regular season offense, four belonged to the eventual champions while six belonged to the beaten finalists. However, of the 17 top-5 defenses from the 26 finalists, 10 of the 13 belonged to the eventual champions while only 7 of the 13 were the beaten finalists.

Table 3. The breakdown of the top-5 and top-10 offensive and defensive efficiency rankings between the past 13 NBA Champions and Runner-ups

  Finalists with top-10 Offensive Efficiency Rank Finalists with top-10 Defensive Efficiency Rank Finalists with top-5 Offensive Efficiency Rank Finalists with top-5 Defensive Efficiency Rank Total Finalists
Champions 9 12 4 10 13
Runner-up 9 9 6 7 13
Total Teams 18 21 10 17 26

 

CONCLUSION

Does defense, exclusively, win championships? No. Teams that make the NBA Finals and eventually become champions must be able to shoot the ball well and defend well. Eight of the past 13 champions ranked in the top-10 in both regular season offensive and defensive efficiency. Nevertheless, more often than not, a good predictor of the finalists and eventual champion lies in the regular season defensive efficiency rankings. Please recall, twenty-one (21) of the past 26 finalists had a top-10 defense and 12 of the past 13 champions had a top-10 defense. So, repeat after me, teams with elite defenses usually make the NBA Finals and win the championship more often than teams with elite offenses. It doesn’t mean exclusively that “Defense Wins Championships”. It simply means, in most instances, you’ll need an elite defense, as well as a good to an elite offense as well.  Yeah, I know it’s not catchy, but it’s the truth.

Olajuwon block Jordan 1024x1024

THE DREAM vs HIS AIRNESS: Hakeem Olajuwon blocks Michael Jordan
(Photo credit: Unknown)

Until next time …

© Zaheer Clarke

Writer’s note: All team efficiency data for this article was obtained from ESPN Hollinger’s Team Stats on March 20, 2016. The available offensive and defensive efficiency data spans from the 2002-03 NBA regular season to present.

Blog: Zaheer’s “Facts, Lies and Statistics”

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/zaheerfactsliesstatistics

Email: zaheer.lies.and.statistics@gmail.com

From the “Lies & Statistics” column in the Western Mirror (Published March 21, 2016)

APPENDIX

Table 4. The regular season offensive and defensive efficiencies and efficiency rankings for the NBA Finalists from 2003 to 2015.

Regular season Teams in NBA Finals Offensive Efficiency Offensive Efficiency Ranking Defensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Ranking
2014-15 Golden State Warriors 109.7 2 98.2 1
Cleveland Cavaliers 107.7 4 104.1 20
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs 108.2 6 100.1 4
Miami Heat 109.0 2 102.9 11
2012-13 Miami Heat 110.3 1 100.5 7
San Antonio Spurs 105.9 7 99.2 3
2011-12 Miami Heat 104.3 6 97.1 4
Oklahoma City Thunder 107.1 2 100.0 9
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks 107.6 8 102.3 7
Miami Heat 109.3 3 100.7 5
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers 105.9 11 101.1 5
Boston Celtics 105.4 13 101.1 5
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers 109.8 3 101.9 5
Orlando Magic 107.2 8 98.9 1
2007-08 Boston Celtics 92.6 12 82.8 1
Los Angeles Lakers 96.5 4 89.8 9
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs 92.7 5 84.4 3
Cleveland Cavaliers 89.0 17 85.0 5
2005-06 Miami Heat 92.2 7 89.4 17
Dallas Mavericks 94.6 3 88.4 12
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs 91.2 8 82.3 1
Detroit Pistons 89.2 17 85.0 3
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 85.0 19 78.7 2
Los Angeles Lakers 89.7 6 85.1 11
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs 88.1 11 83.3 2
New Jersey Nets 87.0 18 81.2 1

Table 5. The regular season offensive and defensive efficiency and efficiency rankings for the NBA Champions from 2003 to 2015.

Regular season Winning Team in the NBA Finals Offensive Efficiency Offensive Efficiency Ranking Defensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Ranking
2014-15 Golden State 109.7 2 98.2 1
2013-14 San Antonio 108.2 6 100.1 4
2012-13 Miami 110.3 1 100.5 7
2011-12 Miami Heat 104.3 6 97.1 4
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks 107.6 8 102.3 7
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers 105.9 11 101.1 5
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers 109.8 3 101.9 5
2007-08 Boston Celtics 92.6 12 82.8 1
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs 92.7 5 84.4 3
2005-06 Miami Heat 92.2 7 89.4 17
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs 91.2 8 82.3 1
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 85.0 19 78.7 2
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs 88.1 11 83.3 2

So far, the Golden State Warriors, (1st in offense and 4th in defense) and the San Antonio Spurs (1st in defense and 2nd in offense) are the clear favourites to make it to the 2016 NBA Finals and win, with Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers, next best. Surprisingly, the true long shot among highly efficient teams is the Charlotte Hornets.

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One thought on “Does Defense Really Win Championships?

  1. Pingback: Does Defense Really Win Championships? – Rewind Selector

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