Power Ranking the NBA's Best Defensive Teams
The Miami Heat won the NBA title in the second year of their Big Three experiment. While certainly the offense contributed a lot, the adage "Defense wins championships" held true, as the Heat boasted one of the league's best defenses, and ultimately that made a difference against the Thunder.
That adage is reaffirmed almost annually.
Since the ABA-NBA merger, there have been 34 NBA championships. Of those teams, 32 were among the top 10 in defensive rating, 24 have been in the top five, and 17 (a full 50 percent) were in the top three.
While offensive rating also has a strong correlation, it's not quite as compelling. Of 34 teams who have won the title, 28 finished in the top 10 offensive rating, 18 finished in the top five, and 13 finished in the top three.
In other words, you need to be efficient on both ends of the court, but defense matters more than offense.
Obviously, finishing in the top 10 in defensive rating, or even finishing first, doesn't assure you a title, but not having a top 10 defense almost assures you will not win one.
So whose defense will assure they have a chance? Some teams have helped their cause through adding personnel. Some have helped it by shedding personnel. Some have stepped in the wrong direction.
Here are projections for the top 10 defenses in the NBA next season.
Note: Statistics via basketball-reference.com.
10. Atlanta Hawks
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Last year, the Atlanta Hawks finished sixth in defensive rating, making theirs the most improved defense in the NBA.
While they should have another solid defense next year, it's unlikely they'll hold onto the sixth-best defense in the league.
Certainly, there's an argument to be made that they would climb even higher, as they'll have a healthy Al Horford for the full season.
On the other hand, they'll have some struggles for a few reasons. They're adding some new personnel and have lost some major cogs. Now granted, Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams weren't threatening for All-Defense team any time soon, but they knew the system.
And that's largely what the Hawks' success is predicated on: their system. Larry Drew runs a lot of zone defenses, and that's been helpful. The problem with systems, though, is that they have to be learned, and with several new payers, that means it will have chances to break down.
Furthermore, even if they don't get worse, other teams will be getting better and moving past them. Expect to see the team retain its top 10 ranking, but barely.
9. Denver Nuggets
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The team you can expect to see the biggest bump from is the Denver Nuggets, who were only ranked 20th in defense last year. They reason they'll improve is the defense of the newly-acquired Andre Iguodala.
In terms of defensive rating last year, the recently-traded Arron Afflalo was dead last on the team at 111.0. Furthermore, the team actually gave up 104.0 points per 100 possessions while Afflalo was on the court, compared to 102.2 while he was on the bench.
By comparison, the 76ers gave up better than four fewer points while Andre Iguodala was on the court.
In essence, the Nuggets will be going from getting below-average help on the defensive end at the shooting guard position to having one of the best wing defenders in the league (arguably the best other than LeBron James), and that's going to make a tremendous difference.
With Iguodala stopping the penetration on the perimeter and JaVale McGee swatting away shots on those occasions where teams manage to break down Iguodala's defense, the Nuggets should see a huge improvement.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder eventually got exposed last year for their sub-par defense. The Miami Heat ended up shredding them in the Finals. In particular, Kevin Durant got exposed, as even Mario Chalmers lit him up.
This is the time in a player's career when he realizes that in order to win a title, he is going to have to play at an elite level on both sides of the ball.
Durant and Russell Westbrook both are going to have to commit themselves to excelling on the other end of the ball.
Durant's synergy numbers are good but not great. He gives up .79 points per play overall. His opponents post a PER of 12.1. Those numbers aren't "bad," but Durant is usually not drawing the top defensive assignment, or even the second-toughest.
Furthermore, he's protected by frontcourt teammates Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, who are almost exclusively there for their defense.
He's not a "bad defender." He's just not an elite defender. He's a better shot blocker than people realize, but he's not great at stopping penetration and often gets caught flat-footed when defending against the dribble.
Russell Westbrook is actually probably closer to an average to below-average defender. His .88 points per play against is well below-average. Yes, he gets a lot of steals, but he also gets burned a lot when he misses trying to shoot the passing lanes. Opponents posted a PER of 16.1 against him.
If Durant and Westbrook commit to being great defensive players (and not just making occasional great defensive plays), they will be an elite defensive team. Expect them to begin that transition this year, but there's usually a one-year learning curve when it comes to these things.
As a result, the Thunder will have an improved, but still not great defense.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
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Last year's Memphis Grizzlies posted the seventh-best defensive rating in the league, but if you're going to take the easy way out and guess the tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is the reason why, you might be surprised. It's not them.
The Grizzlies were only average when it came to giving up points in the paint, ranking 14th in the league at 40 points per game. They gave up 15.6 field goals per game at the rim, which is only 16th in the league. Those numbers aren't bad; they're just average.
It wasn't the time that Randolph spent out with injury either. They gave up just .1 points more per 100 possessions while Randolph was on the bench.
So how did Memphis keep opponents from scoring at an efficient rate?
One sure-fire way of keeping the other team from scoring is to take the ball away. It's really hard to make a shot when you don't have the ball in your hands.
The Memphis Grizzlies were better at doing that than any team in the league last year, as they led the NBA in both steals and turnover percentage. Mike Coley, Tony Allen and Rudy Gay all finished in the top 15 in steals.
The Grizzlies defense stops the opponent by taking the ball away, and with their three elite thieves still in the fold, they should maintain the same level this year.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
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It's going to be easy to think that with Andrew Bynum on board, the Sixers are going to get a huge bump on the defensive end.
Not so fast. They're certainly going to get a huge bump on the offensive end, but defensively, they may actually be a little worse than last year.
There are a couple of reasons for that. First, it assumes that the Sixers were weak defensively in the middle, and now Bynum is going to "fix" it, but you can't fix what's not broken.
Philadelphia was the best team in the NBA last year when it comes to field goals allowed at the rim. It only gave up 13.4 makes per game. It also gave up the fewest attempts at 21.3. How is Bynum going to improve that?
The other reason is that by acquiring Bynum, the Sixers had to give up their defensive leader, Andre Iguodala, who is arguably the best defensive wing outside of LeBron James in the game right now.
One of the reasons that those attempts were down is because Iguodala was freezing out the perimeter.
When Evan Turner, Iguodala's presumed replacement, was on the court last year, the Sixers gave up six more points per 100 possessions. He is not going to be able to replace Igudoala defensively. Opponents who couldn't get by Igudoala will get past Turner.
How many of those shots that formerly wouldn't have been taken is Bynum going to block? Some, but not all, and for that reason, expect the Sixers to drop a tad defensively.
Bynum will more than make up for that offensively, though. Don't take it the wrong way. The Sixers will be a tremendously improved team and are my pick to finish second in the Eastern Conference this year.
5. Indiana Pacers
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The Indiana Pacers do not have any great defensive players, but in Frank Vogel, they have a coach who knows how to coach a good defensive team.
He does so by putting the parts together and getting them to commit to the defensive end of the court.
One area where this is most visible is in their transition defense. They give up just 1.11 point per play in transition, which ranks them fifth-best in the league. They gave up an overall 11.9 fast break points per game, which is seventh-best in the league.
Seeing that they don't have elite athletes to get back and stop, this is an indication that it's pure hustle on their part. Vogel has the team committed to defense.
Another example is Danny Granger, who improved tremendously as on-the-ball defender. In 2010, he gave up .91 points per play in isolation and .90 points per play against the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll.
Last season, he gave up just .61 points per play on isolation plays and .71 points per play guarding the ball handler on the pick and roll.
The Pacers have improved their defense monumentally by simply taking pride in it. Granger might be koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs when he says that the Pacers are the second-best team in the East, but again, it reflects the team has pride. Pride often leads to self-fulfilling prophesies.
An enormous part of defense is effort, and the Pacers will bring that every night. For that reason alone, they'll retain their top 10 ranking.
4. Chicago Bulls
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Omer Asik was an awesome and virtually predatorial defensive presence last year for the Chicago Bulls. He wasn't the entire defense, though, and you might think that the way you hear some people writing the obituary for the Bulls defense.
If you want to assign a name to the Bulls' defensive success, it's not a player; it's their coach. Tom Thibodeau-coached defenses have finished in the top 10 in defensive rating in 19 of the last 22 years, in the top six the last 10 consecutive years and in the top three five of the last six years.
He's achieved that success coaching five different teams.
Does that really sound like a coach that is about to have his system fall apart because of the departure of a backup center?
The reality is that when you look at his accomplishments, year after year, you could make the argument that Tom Thibodeau is the greatest defensive mind in the history of the game. I'm pretty sure he can work around the departure of Asik, as helpful as he was.
The Bulls will still have Joakim Noah, an elite defender who was on the All-Defense team year before last, Luol Deng, who is the third-best defensive small forward after LeBron James and Andre Iguodala, and Taj GIbson, who is one of the best defensive power forwards in the NBA today.
Yes, the Bulls will take a small step back with the departure of Asik and as the other new players learn the system, but Thibodeau has been successfully coaching this team long enough that it isn't going to collapse without Asik.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
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I seriously considered just writing the words "Dwight Howard" here and moving on, but I figured that might come across as unprofessional. Therefore, I want to list five reasons that the Lakers will be an elite defensive team this year.
1. Dwight Howard
2. Dwight Howard
3. Dwight Howard
4. Dwight Howard
5. Dwight Howard
Really, what else is there to say? Dwight Howard is simply the best defensive player of this generation. The only reason he is not the four-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year is that writers A) got tired of voting him for it and B) were mad at him for being such a bobblehead.
When you combine Howard with Kobe Bryant, who has more All-Defensive selections than some players have baskets, Metta World Peace, who is one of the better perimeter defenders in the game when he decides to be, and Pau Gasol, who is vastly underrated defensively, you have a team that doesn't even need to worry about the fact that Steve "Justin-Bieber-Broke-My-Ankles" Nash is playing the point guard position.
2. Miami Heat
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The Miami Heat may very well be the best defensive team in the NBA next year, as they showed continued progress throughout the season and seemed to peak come the finals, when they stepped up and shut down the high-flying Thunder unequivocally.
They have, of course, the most complete defensive player in the league (as opposed to the best, Dwight Howard) to lead them. LeBron James can guard virtually any player in the league and has played the leading part in shutting down everyone from Derrick Rose to Pau Gasol late in games.
He is not the sole reason for the defensive success of the Miami Heat, though. Dwyane Wade is an NBA All-Defense caliber player as well. Shane Battier's defensive numbers are off the charts. Chris Bosh, while not elite, is above average.
Perhaps the most undervalued aspect of the Heat defense is that Erik Spoelstra actually has a pretty good system in place, as evidenced by the Heat's ranking of sixth in the NBA the year prior to James and Bosh's arrival or 11th the year before that in his rookie year.
I'm not quite ready to extol the virtues of Spoelstra as the next Phil Jackson, but it's time to give him credit where it's due. If the "Big Three" can give him credit for that, then so should the rest of the world.
1. Boston Celtics
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Last year, the Boston Celtics finished first in the NBA in defensive rating in spite of the fact that (as this writer has often stated) they are too old.
They have one of the top defensive point guards in Rajon Rondo, shooting guards in Avery Bradley, small forwards in Paul Pierce and center/power forwards in Kevin Garnett.
They'll have an upgrade at power forward/center (i.e. whatever Garnett is not playing) too as Jeff Green returns. Green struggles in post defense, but plays well in terms of perimeter defense, which is what he'll be asked to do.
The Celtics should be better inside for more reasons than just Green, though.
The revitalization of Garnett at the center position has given him new youth. The actual youth they add in Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo won't hurt either.
With Doc Rivers being one of the better coaches at player development over the years, expect them to out-perform their draft status. Melo in particular will be a tremendous defensive asset to the Celtics.
Already the top defensive team and adding defensive help where they need it inside, the Celtics will be even better in the 2013 and should maintain their status as the NBA's best.