We all know that defense wins championships.
Since the 1999 lockout-shortened season, there hasn’t been a single championship team (other than the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers) that finished outside of the top 10 in defensive rating during their respective regular season.
The problem with this clichéd saying is, you can’t completely dismiss the offensive end of the floor. Offense does matter—nearly as much as a team’s defense matters. You can play fantastic defense all game long, but if you can’t complement your stops with points on the other end, then you’re not going to win in the NBA.
As we look at the championship teams of the 2012 Miami Heat, 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2010 and 2009 Los Angeles Lakers and the 2008 Boston Celtics over the last five years, you can begin to find an offensive formula for what parameters a team might need to meet in order to start looking like a championship team.
An offense’s goal is to attempt shots they’re comfortable taking. Conversely, a defense’s goal is to force opposing teams to shoot difficult shots.
Groundbreaking analysis, I know.
With that said, I’ve broken down the last five title winners and how they performed from six key areas on the floor. Those areas are:
- In the restricted area
- In the paint outside of the restricted area
- Corner three-point shots
- Above-the-break three-point shots
- Free-throw shooting
There are many ways for teams to try to excel in these scoring situations, and in today’s NBA, there are plenty of schemes designed to get players shots in the zones from which they’re comfortable shooting.
Let’s start with the closest shots to the rim, work our way out and end with free-throw shooting. For these breakdowns, I’ll provide you with the shooting location charts of one team for each category and discuss how their rotations did. Then we’ll try to figure out what it all means.
Note: The shooting charts are an overall location breakdown into more than those five zones. The attempts around the rim do include some attempts in the paint outside of the restricted area.
Restricted Area Scoring – 2009 Los Angeles Lakers
The first priority in any offense should probably be to get easy baskets at the rim. There are a variety of ways to go about this, but for the 2009 Lakers, they had a big advantage in the paint, and they weren’t afraid to use it.
Even though Andrew Bynum battled injuries during the season, the Lakers sported the biggest lineup in the NBA most of the time on the floor. They could throw out a Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum/Lamar Odom frontcourt whenever they wanted. They could use combinations of Bynum, Odom and Trevor Ariza or Gasol, Odom and Ariza. The Lakers were versatile, and they were longer than everybody.
Because of this, they could go high-low in a variety of ways.
If Kobe Bryant wasn’t driving to the basket for scores, they could pound the ball inside and use their length and brutish frontcourts to dominate the paint. The Lakers finished fifth in the NBA, at 61.6 percent in the restricted area.
The trio of Bynum, Gasol and Kobe led their high success rate inside. Bryant finished inside the restricted area 62.2 percent of the time, while Pau made 62.1 percent and Bynum made 61.6 percent of the shots inside. Those three players, all finishing at a very high rate, accounted for 65.1 percent of the Lakers’ shot attempts in the restricted area.
The Lakers knew where their advantage was on the court. Kobe was still a very athletic player and could attack the basket more easily. And with Pau Gasol in his first full season with Los Angeles, they were learning how to dominate the post and areas around the rim.
Knowing their strengths and being the fifth-best defense in the NBA allowed them to grab their first title since 2002.
In the Paint (Non-restricted Area) – 2010 Los Angeles Lakers
The 2010 Lakers championship team wasn’t as dominant in the paint during the regular season as we had seen the previous year, but that could be due to the various injuries they encountered.
Kobe missed nine games, and Bynum and Pau each missed 17 contests during the regular season, opening up the necessity for the Lakers to play a bit smaller at times and go with a lot more play from guys like Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown on the perimeter.
They also replaced Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest, and while that proved to be a good move overall, it definitely didn’t help their shooting percentages on the floor.
The Lakers still managed to finish 14th in the NBA in converting non-restricted area attempts in the paint, making 42.6 percent of those shots. The previous year, they made 44.0 percent of those shots and finished seventh in the league.
Even though their percentage was lower, it didn’t stop the Lakers from using this area as a weapon in their offense. It was a lot of the same principles we saw from them in the previous title run: Lots of passing in the middle of the half-court allowed them to open up spaces and get shots closer to the rim.
Pau and Kobe led the way once again. Pau converted 45.6 percent of these shots, just ahead of Kobe’s 45.5 percent. Odom’s 42.7 percent helped Kobe and Gasol keep the Lakers afloat while they battled injuries throughout the season. And when the Lakers hit the playoffs, they were able to raise this percentage to 45.4 percent.
Kobe and company found a way to grind out a championship that season despite all of the injuries. They used shots closer to the basket to help break through opposing defenses for the second straight season.
Midrange – 2011 Dallas Mavericks
We all remember the defensive expertise the Mavericks showed throughout their title run. Of course, there was also the barrage of three-point shooting with which they buried their opponents, but we shouldn’t forget their incredible efficiency from midrange that helped their offense shine so much.
The Mavs blew away the competition from midrange that season, with 45 percent shooting. It was the highest percentage from that distance since the Milwaukee Bucks made 44.9 percent in the 2001-02 season.
So why were the Mavericks so good from this range? Take one big German guess.
Dirk Nowitzki surgically disfigured opposing defenses like some sick Eli Roth film that season. We all know about his historic run through the playoffs, but he was actually a better midrange shooter in the regular season, when he shot 52.9 percent in the midrange zones. Here, I’ll show you:
There’s so much green there! It looks like a meadow in spring. And look how evenly distributed the destruction is. Whether it was the lower left side or the farther reaches of the right side of the floor, he was knocking down shots.
As a defense, you would've considered it a bail-out if he shot from a zone in which he made 44.4 percent of his midrange shots—that's baffling.
He wasn’t the only one who shot well from midrange. Jason Terry managed to pour in 47.0 percent of those shots. When Dallas gave the ball to "Jet," they'd spread the floor with shooters and give him a ton of room to operate. Allow him to pull up for his jumper with any kind of space, and he'd usually drop it in.
The Mavericks were fantastic that postseason, but we forget how good their numbers seemed during the regular season, too. For some reason, everybody took lulls in their season too seriously and kept expecting them to falter. But they took their seventh-best defense and deadly scoring straight through to the title run.
Corner Three-Pointers – 2008 Boston Celtics
The 2007-08 Boston Celtics were known as defensive mavens, fueled by the unending heart and psychotic competitiveness of newcomer Kevin Garnett.
The veteran leadership of KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, coupled with the inspiring youth of Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo, was a perfect complement to the direction of Doc Rivers and the schematics of Tom Thibodeau.
What many of us tend to forget was this team also had the league's 10th-best offense that year. They were a team that relatively struggled finishing inside the restricted area (17th), but they placed in the top six or better in the four other shooting zones in this article.
And the Celtics could flat-out bombard you from the corner three.
Their 41.1 percent from the corner three was good for sixth in the NBA, and it seems fitting that Ray Allen shot that exact same percentage from the corners. For the most part, everybody on that roster found an acceptable success rate from those spots.
Pierce dropped in 42.5 percent, Eddie House made 47.5 percent, Tony Allen made 38.5 percent and even Rajon Rondo made 40.0 percent of his corner three-pointers (on just five attempts, but still).
The Celtics had such good ball movement from one end of the floor to the next that doubling KG or Pierce or losing track of Ray meant you were going to pay for it on the back end of your defensive rotations.
When they brought in role players like Eddie House to bomb away (and we all know he was releasing jumpers before he even caught the pass), it gave all of the veterans that much more room to work in the middle of the floor.
This team was so good at getting into the middle of the lane that it caused the defense to suck in and leave shooters open. When those shooters migrated to the corners, it was pretty deadly.
When they got to the playoffs, the Celtics had the highest mark of the postseason with 49.0 percent on those shots. It was slightly better than the Lakers’ 47.5 percent success rate, which helped them edge out Los Angeles for their 17th banner.
Above-the-Break Three-Pointers – 2012 Miami Heat
(Besides them being chokers who couldn’t do it on their own and the sanctity of competition and blah blah blah.)
The next step was finding out which shooters and veterans were going to flock to Miami to team up with this trio. Mike Miller immediately made his way to South Beach, and James Jones stayed on. The next season, Shane Battier made the trek and donned a Miami jersey.
These guys were going to be great at driving the lane and getting scoring opportunities, but they needed shooters around them to keep the defenses honest. And that’s what they tried to do. They tried to bring in versatile shooters with the little flexibility that was left to give opponents some hesitation on their rotations.
Whether it went smoothly or not right away, the Heat and their role players eventually found a rhythm and level of comfort to contribute to its starry teammates.
As a team, Miami shot 35.9 percent from above-the-break three-point range, which was good for eighth in the NBA last season. A big part of that was due to its role players stepping up.
James Jones made 46.2 percent of his above-the-break threes. Mario Chalmers made 38.1 percent. Mike Miller made 45.6 percent of his attempts. Even LeBron James dropped in 36.9 percent. These guys were able to balance out the 27.7 percent from Wade, 25.9 percent from Norris Cole and 26.6 percent from Battier.
In the playoffs, Battier upped his percentage to 45.3 percent and helped Miami close out the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. As Wade (28.1 percent) and LeBron (23.9 percent) struggled to make those shots, it was their supporting cast who stepped up to knock down big shots.
They were solid with that type of shot all season and raised their game when it mattered the most. Isn’t that what a championship team is supposed to do?
We can’t forget about free-throw shooting. Looking at these last five champions, you can’t help but notice how good they were at the free-throw line.
The Celtics had the sixth-best free-throw rate (free throws attempted relative to field goals attempted) and the eighth-best free throw percentage in 2008. In 2009, the Lakers only had the 18th-best free-throw rate, but managed to knock down the 14th-best percentage. In 2010, they had the 19th-best free-throw rate and the 12th-best percentage made.
The Mavs in 2011 weren’t great at getting to the line (21st free-throw rate), but they converted those freebies when they had the chance, with the eighth-best percentage. And last season, the Miami Heat had the fifth-highest rate of attempts and the seventh-best percentage made.
It seems that whether or not you’re good at getting to the free-throw line a lot, in today’s NBA, you better make them when you get the chance.
Overall, if you average out the last five champions’ ranks in defense, restricted area percentage, in-the-paint non-restricted area percentage, midrange percentage, corner three-pointer percentage, above-the-break three-point percentage and free-throw percentage, you get a team that is in the top half of the league in every category.
The average championship team over the past five years had:
- The fourth-best defense;
- The 10th-best conversion rate in the restricted area;
- The 10th-best percentage in the paint outside of the restricted area;
- The fifth-best percentage from midrange;
- The 15th-best percentage from the corner three-pointer;
- The 12th-best above-the-break three-point percentage;
- The ninth-best free-throw percentage.
From year to year, you’ll have plenty of variance, but it seems like as long as you can play great defense, make your free throws and excel in at least two of these five offensive areas, then you have a great shot at projecting to win the title.
It’s not an exact science, clearly, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the 2012-13 season unfolds.
Data from this piece was pulled from NBA.com/stats