Power Ranking Every NBA Team's Defense
Statistics in the NBA have come a long way. Leading the way in changing the way we understand the game is the notion of pace. Some teams play at a faster pace than others.
Offense and defense shouldn't be measured by round numbers but rather by points per possession, or to make it more recognizable in a way we used to are seeing, points per 100 possessions.
Some teams play a faster pace pace than others. While they may give up more points per game, they might actually get stops a higher percentage of the time. That's why advanced stats look at things like "defensive rating" which is the representation of points surrendered per 100 possessions.
Still even that presents a problem. Sometimes defense generates offense and that's something not represented by defensive rating.
Just as defenses score points in football, in essence, even though it's the same group of players, defenses produce scoring in basketball too. Whether it's off a steal, a forced turnover, or even a defensive rebound, teams will score transition points.
So the question is how do you figure how much difference that makes?
Well first, I looked at average points in transition per game, then I adjusted that for the pace of the team to normalize it to fast break points per 100 possessions.
To simply take that whole number and factor it would be misleading though. Since every stop ends a possession and therefore results in another one, some of those points would have been scored regardless of transition or not.
The question is how many extra points were scored in transition. To do that I used Synergy's data to determine the difference between transition points per play on offense and the average points per play on offense.
In other words if a team scores 0.90 points per play on average but 1.15 points per play in transition, then their .25 points per play difference, or 22 percent of their transition points, are a result of their defense. The rest their normal offense would have gotten anyway.
That gave me a number I called Defensive Points in Transition, which I then subtracted from the Defensive Rating to account for the points the defense generated.
This did make a significant difference to some teams. Some went up quite a bit in the rankings because they are more adept at creating points in transition, others were hurt. Just in case you're wondering, the Denver Nuggets lead the NBA in points generated by their defense with 5.88.
On the other end the worst team is the Toronto Raptors, who generate just 0.26 points per game with their defense.
Here is where all 30 defenses rank when you take into account transition points scored.
New Jersey Nets
Defensive Rating: 110.4
Defensive Points in Transition: 1.29
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 109.11
The Nets were hoping that Deron Williams could make them into a playoff contender at the very least. They aren't. Having the absolute worst defense in the NBA is no way to get there. The Nets are just bad all the way around, neither getting stops or generating points off of turnovers.
Defensive Rating: 110.0
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.23
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 107.03
The Bobcats are bad, but they show flashes of potential. If only they could play at Madison Square Garden every night they might be a .500 team!
On the bright side they don't have to worry about giving Chicago their draft pick this year.
Defensive Rating: 111.7
Defensive Points in Transition: 4.67
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 107.03
The Rockets are a good example of realizing how much defensive points generated makes a difference. If you go strictly by defensive rating the Rockets are dead last. However their 4.67 points per game generated by their defense is fifth best in the NBA. That's enough to boost their defensive ranking up to 28th.
Defensive Rating: 108.2
Defensive Points in Transition: 1.19
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 107.01
Detroit is troubling to me. Some (but not all) of the the players look like they're already mailing it in. This is a team that is expecting to lose on a nightly basis. That doesn't bode well for a defense as usually that's where the effort disappears first. Don't expect the Pistons defensive numbers to improve this year.
Defensive Rating: 109.3
Defensive Points in Transition: 5.13
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 104.17
It will be interesting to see how the firing of Paul Westpahl will affect the Sacramento Kings defensively. The early returns aren't really showing any difference, but there really isn't any time to have much impact either. This will take some time to see how it works out.
Golden State Warriors
Defensive Rating: 105.9
Defensive Points in Transition: 1.80
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 104.10
Mark Jackson has been trying to bring a defensive philosophy to the Golden State Warrirors. They have improved by five points per game on the defensive end but that's mostly due to the overall five point drop league-wide in scoring.
The Warriors have improved one spot in defensive rating for whatever that's worth.They have shown flashes of really good defense, but changes in philosophy like this take time—and continuity. With the Warriors having starters shuffle in and out, it's been hard to get that. They'll improve as they year progresses.
Defensive Rating: 104.3
Defensive Points in Transition: .26
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 104.04
The Raptors are the worst team in the NBA in terms of turning defense into offense. They barely generate any points off their defense, just one point every 400 possessions. Just based off defensive rating they are 19th, but their poor ability to score in transition drops them to 24th.
Los Angeles Clippers
Defensive Rating: 105.7
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.16
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 103.54
My big question with the new look Clippers was this: how much talent can Vinnie Del Negro screw up? So far the answer is a lot. The Clippers are 4-2, but with this much talent and athleticism on their team, to be generating only 2.16 points in offense per game out of their defense is just inexcusable!
Del Negro needs to go.
San Antonio Spurs
Defensive Rating: 104.4
Defensive Points in Transition: 1.56
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 102.81
They won championships around their defense. Now they've changed emphasis over the last two years to an offensively oriented team. Having the best offensive rating in the NBA, you would expect them to be a good team at scoring in transition. However, their 1.56 points generated by their defense is only 23rd in the NBA.
I've considered the comparison before. Are the new look Spurs the old-look Mavs?
Oklahoma City Thunder
Defensive Rating: 105.5
Defensive Points in Transition: 3.40
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 102.1
There are those who want to label the Oklahoma City Thunder a top defensive team, but they are far from it. The Thunder are 12th in the league in points generated off of defense but even that is only good enough to bump them up to the 22nd best defense in the league.
Only one team has won the NBA title without a top 10 defensive rating since the merger, the '95 Rockets.
New York Knicks
Defensive Rating: 102.0
Defensive Points in Transition: 1.23
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 100.77
The New York Knicks have a problem in that their personnel doesn't fit their system. The old Phoenix Suns teams of Mike D' Antoni were among the best in fast break points. These New York Knicks are middling at best. No one expects a D' Antoni defense to be one of the tops, but they should be generating more points out of their defense with an uptempo offense, but the uptempo offense isn't uptempo.
Defensive Rating: 104.5
Defensive Points in Transition: 4.13
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 100.37
The Boston Celtics defense is not nearly what it once was. A year ago they were one of the most feared defenses in the league. Now they've become just kind of average. They are eighth in points generated by their defense, but they are giving 104.5 points per 100 possessions, only good enough for 21st in the NBA.
The Celtics just aren't as hard to score on as they once were.
New Orleans Hornets
Defensive Rating: 102.9
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.69
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 100.21
The New Orleans Horents have played better than their 3-6 record would indicate. Last night's 94-81 victory over the Denver Nuggets is an indication of that. One thing that will help this team is getting Eric Gordon back.
Their defense is solid enough, but there is room for improvement.
Defensive Rating: 102.6
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.45
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 100.15
The Dallas Mavericks are not the team they were last year defensively. They've dropped form 8th in the league to 16th in defensive rating. Certainly they are missing Tyson Chandler.
More and more though it looks like owner Mark Cuban's gamble could pay off. He decided against paying Chandler in the hope of securing Deron Williams and Dwight Howard next offseason. With Orlando digging in in their determination to not trade Howard, it's looking like Dallas could secure both Howard and Williams.
Howard would solve a lot of defensive problems.
Defensive Rating: 100.1
Defensive Points in Transition: 0.31
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 99.79
I'm a bit surprised here by the Timberolves lack of transition offense. In fact they are second to worst in the league in points generated off their defense. With Ricky Rubio's effect I would have thought that would be much higher.
Another thing that is eye-catching is that the Timberwolves defense is much better with Rubio on the court. While on the court the 'Wolves defensive rating is 93.6 compared to 104.5 when he's on the bench.
Defensive Rating: 105.0
Defensive Points in Transition: 5.40
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 99.56
Well, we've found something the Washington Wizards don't do bad. In some ways though, this is because of what they do bad.
The Wizards score 1.16 points per play in transition compared to just .81 points per play in their regular offense. That has the effect of 30 percent of their transition points scored counting towards their defensive points in transition.
Their speed and athleticism, particularly that of John Wall, gives them a pretty decent transition offense.
Defensive Rating: 102.7
Defensive Points in Transition: 3.54
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 99.16
The Utah Jazz are an average defensive team all the way around. Their defensive rating is 17th. They are 10th in points created by defense and they are 14th overall. Considering they are 5-3, and that they have a good shot at getting the Warriors number one pick this year, they got the better of the Deron Williams deal.
Defensive Rating: 101.5
Defensive Points in Transition: 3.02
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 98.48
Even Dwight Howard can only be a one man defense for so long. The Magic are taking a bit of a dip on the defensive end this year. Their defensive rating has sunk to 14th in the NBA this year, down from third last year. If you're not going to trade the big man Otis Smith, at least get him some help!
Defensive Rating: 100.6
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.35
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 98.25
Yes, the Phoenix Suns are ranked ahead of the Orlando Magic. Yes, I know that is an apocalyptic occurrence. Run. Hide. This is frightening, yet true. Whether it will be maintained over a full season remains to be seen but for now it is one thing worth raising an eyebrow at.
Defensive Rating: 99.4
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.07
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 97.33
Here's a result I am honestly perplexed by. The Atlanta hawks are eighth best in the NBA in terms of just straight forward defensive rating but they are only 20th in terms of points generated by their defense. With the kind of athleticism on this team you would expect them to be much better than that.
Why isn't this team scoring more in transition? I'm wondering if the zone defense doesn't correlate well with transition offense.
Defensive Rating: 99.9
Defensive Points in Transition: 3.11
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 96.79
It's possible that the most improved team in the NBA this year is the Cleveland Cavaliers. Particularly on defense, they are dramatically better. Last year they were 29h in defensive rating. This year they are ninth. Byran Scott has to be among the early favorites for coach of the year.
Portland Trail Blazers
Defensive Rating: 97.8
Defensive Points in Transition: 1.14
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 96.66
Portland's defensive rating is outstanding, fourth best in the NBA, but they generate just 1.14 points per 100 possessions out of their defense. That's the third worst in the NBA. With the kind of speed and athleticism on this team, it's something they should see more of.
Part of Portland's problem is that they aren't that much more effective in transition offense than their normal offense. They improve their scoring by just eight percent in transition.
Defensive Rating: 100.6
Defensive Points in Transition: 4.07
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 96.53
The Bucks are sort of the opposite of the Trail Blazers. In their defensive rating they are only 11th in the league, but they are so much more effective in their transition offense that their defense creates a lot of points for them. In fact the Bucks improve their chances of scoring by 29 percent when they are in transition.
The combination of being solid at both getting stops and turning stops into points puts them as the eighth best defense in the NBA.
Los Angeles Lakers
Defensive Rating: 99.0
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.65
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 96.35
The Lakers are an underrated defensive team. They are the seventh best team in the NBA. Josh McRoberts deserves some credit here. No, McRoberts is not the greatest offensive player on the planet, but he's a solid defensive player.
The Lakers give up nearly four points per 100 possessions fewer while McRoberts is on the court than when he's on the bench.
Defensive Rating: 98.4
Defensive Points in Transition: 2.06
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 96.34
Frank Vogel needs some love. Really, he does. Yes, Larry Bird has given him some nice pieces to work with but Vogel has worked well with them, and he's coached up a good defensive team. The Pacers have the fifth best defensive rating in the league.
Where they could improve is through points in transition. They are just 2st in the NBA in points generated by their defense. This is in part because they only average 1.08 points per play in transition, which is 18th best along with the having just the 23rd best fast break points per game.
The Pacers need to learn to turn their defense into offense to take that next step.
Defensive Rating: 101.4
Defensive Points in Transition: 5.8
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 95.4
The Memphis Grizzlies are the second best team in the NBA in turning offense into defense, generating 5.8 points per 100 possessions. While their defensive rating is just 13th, their ability to score in transition gives them a boost all the way up to fifth here. That eight spot jump is the best of any team in the rankings.
Defensive Rating: 99.0
Defensive Points in Transition: 5.88
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 93.12
No team in the NBA scores more points in transition or has more points created by their defense than the Denver Nuggets. In addition they are the sixth best defense in the NBA in terms of defensive rating.
The deeper they go into the season producing the way they are the more you have to contemplate the possibility this is not a fluke. This is looking like they could be a team that is a real contender. Don't sleep on them.
Defensive Rating: 96.3
Defensive Points in Transition: 4.57
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 91.73
Here they are. This is actually the team that gave me the genesis of the idea. Watching the Heat and the propensity they have for turning defense into offense got me to thinking how this needed to be incorporated into the way we understand defense.
Not surprisingly the Heat are among the best in the NBA. What did surprise me is that the inclusion had no effect on the Heat's ranking. They are the third best defense in the NBA, whether you count their defensive points scored or not.
Defensive Rating: 96.2
Defensive Points in Transition: 4.50
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 91.70
The Chicago Bulls are not on top. In fact their ranking is not altered by including defensive points in transition. They are second either way. That they are among the elite defensive teams in the NBA should come as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to basketball.
There are only three teams, Chicago, Miami and Denver, who are in the top 10 in both defensive points generated and in defensive rating. None of those teams though is the top defensive team in the NBA.
Defensive Rating: 92.4
Defensive Points in Transition: 1.46
Transition Adjusted Defensive Rating: 90.94
The surprise top team in the NBA is the Philadelphia 76ers. It's time to start taking notice of this team folks. They are looking like they are for real. They lead the NBA by a considerable margin—nearly four points—in defensive rating. They give up a full point fewer in actual points.
Granted their opposition for the most part has not been great but how far do you take that? A 14.63 average margin of victory is nothing to scoff at!