Chicago Bulls Didn't Get Memo That Defense Doesn't Win Championships Anymore

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Chicago Bulls Didn't Get Memo That Defense Doesn't Win Championships Anymore
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Defense wins championships. It’s a truism touted in every sport, and doubtless one that is firmly held by the Chicago Bulls head coach, Tom Thibodeau. He’s one of the best, if not the very best, defensive minds in the game. However, does the saying hold true? Does defense win championships?

What does history show? I looked at every team who has won the NBA Championship since the merger and where they finished in defensive rating and offensive rating to find out.

I used Dean Oliver’s “ratings” statistics instead of John Hollinger’s “efficiency” rating for the basic reason that the historical numbers are more easily accessible.

Both have the same basic premise, which is that what you do per possession, on offense or defense, is more important than what you do per game, as teams run at different paces, and pace can often lead to wrong conclusions. A team that runs a slow pace but scores on a high percentage of its possessions is “better” than a team that runs at a fast pace but scores on a lower percentage of possessions because both the team and its opponent are going to have, on average, the same number of possessions per game, regardless of the pace.

Here are the results: 

Year

Champion

ORtg

ORtg Rank

DRtg

DRtg Rank

2012

Miami Heat

106.6

8

100.2

4

2011

Dallas Mavericks

109.7

8

105.0

8

2010

Los Angeles Lakers

108.8

11

103.7

4

2009

Los Angeles Lakers

112.8

3

104.7

6

2008

Boston Celtics

110.2

10

98.9

1

2007

San Antonio Spurs

109.2

5

99.9

2

2006

Miami Heat

108.7

7

104.5

9

2005

San Antonio Spurs

107.5

8

98.8

1

2004

Detroit Pistons

102.0

18

95.4

2

2003

San Antonio Spurs

105.6

7

99.7

3

2002

Los Angeles Lakers

109.4

2

101.7

7

2001

Los Angeles Lakers

108.4

2

104.8

21

2000

Los Angeles Lakers

107.3

5

98.2

1

1999

San Antonio Spurs

104.0

11

95.0

1

1998

Chicago Bulls

107.7

9

99.8

3

1997

Chicago Bulls

114.4

1

102.4

4

1996

Chicago Bulls

115.2

1

101.8

1

1995

Houston Rockets

109.7

7

107.4

12

1994

Houston Rockets

105.9

15

101.4

2

1993

Chicago Bulls

112.9

2

106.1

7

1992

Chicago Bulls

115.5

1

104.5

4

1991

Chicago Bulls

114.6

1

105.2

7

1990

Detroit Pistons

109.9

11

103.5

2

1989

Detroit Pistons

110.8

7

104.7

3

1988

Los Angeles Lakers

113.1

2

107.3

9

1987

Los Angeles Lakers

115.6

1

106.5

7

1986

Boston Celtics

118.8

3

102.6

1

1985

Los Angeles Lakers

114.1

1

107.0

7

1984

Boston Celtics

110.9

6

104.4

3

1983

Philadelphia 76ers

108.3

5

100.9

5

1982

Los Angeles Lakers

110.2

2

105.5

10

1981

Houston Rockets

108.4

5

102.6

4

1980

Los Angeles Lakers

109.5

1

103.9

9

1979

Seattle Supersonics

102.7

14

100.2

1

1978

Washington Bullets

101.3

10

100.5

9

1977

Portland Trail Blazers

103.2

2

98.0

5

 

With a general look, it’s apparent that most teams were good at one or the other and, more frequently, both. It’s not that important to lead the league in anything, though. There are seven teams in all which led the league in offensive rating and won the title. There are also seven teams that led the league in defensive rating and won the title. Only the 1996 Chicago Bulls led the league in both and won the title.

That means that of the 22 teams that won the title, neither led the league in offense nor defense. So you don’t need to be the best at either to win it all, but your chances are better if you do.

(You can’t just compare No. 1 to the field, you’d have to compare it to each individual rank. For example 13 teams won who were ranked first, 10 teams were ranked second, six teams were ranked third, etc.)

What gets interesting is when you look at how teams break down in terms of top-five and top-10 rankings. The pair of pie charts below shows how teams finished in the overall rankings.

First, here is the breakdown of how NBA champions ranked in terms of offense and defense:

As you can see, 66 percent of teams were in the top five in defense compared to 53 percent of offense, suggesting that it is slightly more helpful to have an elite defense than to have an elite offense. This is further supported by the fact that only six percent of champions failed to have a top-10 defense while 17 percent failed to have a top-10 offense.

Regardless of how you look at it, more than half of all champions were top five in offense, so it’s not like offense wasn’t important at all. In fact, here’s a chart that breaks down offense and defense combined. You can see only 14 percent of all NBA champions were neither top five in offense nor defense, while 35 percent were top five in both, and 86 percent were top five in at least one.

When you expand the criteria to top 10, every NBA champion since the merger has been top 10 in at least one category, and 72 percent were top 10 in both. Again, while there is a slight tendency toward defense being more important than offense, the question seems to be more a matter of balance than one or the other.

All of this shows that it’s not really so much a matter of whether “defense wins championships” as it is a lack of defense ensures you won’t win—but a lack of offense pretty much assures the same. Five teams have won a title with a top-three defense and an offense that didn’t rank in the top 10. Seven teams have won with a merely “very good” defense combined with a “very good” offense ranked between four and 10.  

The Bulls offense is presently ranked 18th in the NBA, and since Thibodeau came to the Bulls they are ranked 9th; however, that's with Derrick Rose. Without him, the offense falls apart. They are in danger of being a team that has great defense and not a good enough offense. 

Just defense doesn’t win champions. But to hear Nate Robinson at the end of this interview, it’s all that matters to Thibodeau, since that’s “all they practice.”

Thibodeau’s defense is superb, and his coaching over the first two seasons gives him an enormous amount of latitude. However, it’s time to take the offensive side of the ball a little more seriously. The Bulls have struggled horribly in the fourth quarter.

In each of their losses, they failed to execute down the stretch. According to TeamRankings.com they are 24th in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring margin, being outscored by 1.5 points. In their last three games, they’ve scored just 20.9 points on average in the fourth, which is 29th.

Should the Bulls be spending more time working on their offense?

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Compare that with Derrick Rose’s MVP season when the Bulls led the NBA in fourth-quarter margin. What’s the reason for the dramatic difference? Derrick Rose is the obvious answer, especially when you take into account that Rose was the second-leading scorer in clutch-time scoring per 48 minutes with 47.8 points and also an average of 10.4 boards and 9.8 assists. Rose accounted for virtually all of the Bulls' fourth quarter offense.

The Bulls—and this is not rocket science—need to practice their offense. They can’t rely exclusively on Rose’s offensive acumen any longer. They don’t have a “Rose” who can create points where they have no business being scored. In order to score, they need to work on it. It’s not going to just take care of itself anymore, because it never did.

Rose just took care of it.

Since they don’t have a great creator any longer, they need to create those points out of a coordinated effort, and that can only come with practice. I mean no offense to Tom Thibodeau, but this whole “no offense” thing isn’t working out. I just hope he doesn’t get defensive about it.

 

This season's stats are as of November 19th, before games were played.

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