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Ranking the Top Defensive Squads in the NBA

Jakub RudnikContributor IIIJanuary 10, 2017

Ranking the Top Defensive Squads in the NBA

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    For the last two seasons the Chicago Bulls have been the top defensive team in the NBA and the Eastern Conference has had at least the five best defenses. This season is different, however, as the West has become more formidable defensively and the Bulls have suffered from injuries and roster changes.

    The past six NBA champions have had a regular-season defense that was in the top seven of defensive efficiency, per ESPN. While the Miami Heat won in 2006 with a defensive efficiency that was just average, it is rare that a team does not win with a top-tier defensive group.

    Here are the top-seven teams defensively in the NBA this season. We will see if "defense wins championships" in 2013.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Defensive Efficiency (ESPN): 99.5 (6)

    Adjusted Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com): 103.73 (8)

    Starters, Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com)

    Russell Westbrook: 103

    Thabo Sefalosha: 103

    Kevin Durant: 101

    Serge Ibaka: 102

    Kendrick Perkins: 102

     

    Oklahoma City has the most efficient offense in the NBA, but this season their defense is not too far behind.

    The Thunder use a starting lineup with three defense-first players and can get away with it because of the offensive ability of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

    Kendrick Perkins is a non-factor offensively, averaging 4.5 points in 24.9 minutes per game, but he has the strength and skill to match up with any low-post scorer. Serge Ibaka is second in the NBA in blocked shots, and his presence affects even more shots than stats show. Thabo Sefalosha is used to spot up for three and defend the opposing shooting guard. His defensive ability is a welcome change from Kevin Martin.

    The most surprising thing about the Thunder's defense is that Kevin Durant rates as their best defensive starter. While nobody is lining up to give him a Defensive Player of the Year award, Durant has quietly improved his defense this season. He averages over seven rebounds, one steal and one block per game. He also is more willing to take on big defensive assignments, which will be important if Oklahoma City finds themselves in a rematch with Miami this June.

6. Washington Wizards

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    Defensive Efficiency (ESPN): 99.6 (7)

    Adjusted Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com): 102.45 (4)

    Starters, Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com)

    John Wall: 102

    Bradley Beal: 104

    Martell Webster: 104

    Emeka Okafor: 98

    Nene: 100

     

    The Wizards are the only non-playoff team on the list of top defensive teams in the league. They struggled mightily in the first half of the season, going 4-28. That was, however, in large part because of key injuries to Nene and John Wall. The team has gone 15-13 since Wall's return, which can give them some optimism looking toward the future.

    The Wizards' defensive success comes directly from their front line. Emeka Okafor is an excellent defender and rebounder at power forward, as is Nene at center. The two form one of the best defensive frontcourts in the league. Their ability to guard nearly anyone in the league one-on-one allows the rest of the team to stay with their defensive assignments, minimizing wide-open looks.

    The Wizards' starting five of Bradley Beal, Martell Webster, Wall, Okafor and Nene has posted the third-best defensive rating of any lineup used this season in the league, according to NBA.com. The five have given up just 82.2 points per 100 minutes, outscoring their opponents by 23.3 points. They have played 135 minutes together this season, but now that they are all healthy, look for them to see more time together the rest of the season.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Defensive Efficiency (ESPN): 99.2 (5)

    Adjusted Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com): 103.26 (6)

    Starters, Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com)

    Avery Bradley: 104

    Courtney Lee: 103

    Paul Pierce: 101

    Brandon Bass: 103

    Kevin Garnett: 98

     

    The Celtics have had a top-five defensive team in the league since 2007-08, Kevin Garnett's first year with the team. Even at age 36 and in his 18th NBA season, Garnett is one of the top defenders in the NBA.

    Boston has been able to remain successful defensively even after Rajon Rondo's season ending-injury in part because of a couple of young guards, Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee. The two are still raw, but they have the length and athleticism to cause problems for opposing backcourts.

    Bradley is one player to really watch in the future. At 22 he is absolutely still a work in progress, but people around the NBA praise his defensive ability. In November, Jason Terry talked about his relationship with Bradley and compared him to Gary Payton, the only point guard to ever win Defensive Player of the Year. 

4. Chicago Bulls

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    Defensive Efficiency (ESPN): 98.9 (4)

    Adjusted Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com): 102.72 (5)

    Starters, Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com)

    Kirk Hinrich: 104

    Rip Hamilton: 106

    Luol Deng: 103

    Carlos Boozer: 99

    Joakim Noah: 97

     

    Chicago had been the league's best defense the past two seasons before falling to fourth this season. Coach Tom Thibodeau has managed to keep the Bulls in the top five despite an almost completely revamped bench and injuries to many of their top players. 

    Thibodeau demands 100 percent effort every minute of the game from his team, but it is his defensive scheme that sets the Bulls apart from the rest of the league. As outlined by Zach Lowe of Grantland, Thibodeau's team defends the pick-and-roll differently than the rest of the league and forces teams into shooting long two-pointers, the least efficient shot in the game.

    As far as their personnel, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng are all long, athletic forwards that can guard their men one-on-one while contesting shots from the help side.

    Carlos Boozer has an individual defensive rating of 99, but it should be taken with a grain of salt. Boozer is almost always on the floor with Noah or Gibson, and he is always guarding the lesser of the two offensive post players. Also, he isn't a great individual defender, but Boozer does know his role in Thibodeau's scheme and communicates well to his teammates.

    Just don't vote for him for Defensive Player of the Year. 

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    Defensive Efficiency (ESPN): 98.3 (3)

    Adjusted Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com): 101.54 (3)

    Starters, Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com)

    Tony Parker: 105

    Danny Green: 101

    Kawhi Leonard: 98

    Tiago Splitter: 100

    Tim Duncan: 94

     

    At 36 years old, Tim Duncan has the top defensive rating in the entire league, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Despite waning athleticism, Duncan remains an elite team defender, and he is one of the smartest defensive players in the league.

    The Spurs also have excellent defensive players surrounding Duncan as well. Kawhi Leonard has become an elite wing defender in his own right, with a defensive rating of 98. Danny Green and Tiago Splitter are well above average with ratings of 101 and 100, respectively.

    One of the reasons that the Spurs should be optimistic about their chances in the playoffs this season is that their starting five is one of the best defensive lineups in the league, per NBA.com. Tony Parker, Green, Leonard, Splitter and Duncan have an 84.0 defensive rating, the best of any lineup with at least 200 minutes played and fifth overall.

    While on the court together they outscore opposing teams by 23.5 points per 100 possessions.

2. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Defensive Efficiency (ESPN): 97.2 (2)

    Adjusted Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com): 100.58 (2)

    Starters, Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com)

    Mike Conley: 100

    Tony Allen: 98

    Tayshaun Prince: 103

    Zach Randolph: 99

    Marc Gasol: 99

     

    The Grizzlies traded two of their better defensive players, Rudy Gay and Marreese Speights, before the trade deadline, yet they are still the second-best defensive team in the NBA.

    In their past 10 games the Grizzlies have a 9-1 record, giving up just 85.3 points per game during that span. Newly acquired Tayshaun Prince has been a big part of that success. According to NBA.com, the Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Ed Davis, Marc Gasol and Prince lineup has been the second-best defensive lineup in the league this season, albeit in just 64 minutes played. That group posts an 81.0 defensive rating.

    Replacing Davis with starter Zach Randolph doesn't hurt their success much, however. That lineup is the 10th most efficient, with an 88.9 rating.

    The Grizzlies have an excellent defensive player at almost every spot on the court. Tony Allen is arguably the best defensive wing in the NBA. The same can be said for Marc Gasol at center. Their defensive prowess will make Memphis a dangerous team in the playoffs.

1. Indiana Pacers

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    Defensive Efficiency (ESPN): 95.6 (1)

    Adjusted Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com): 99.75 (1)

    Starters, Defensive Rating (Basketball-Reference.com)

    George Hill: 102

    Lance Stephenson: 100

    Paul George: 96

    David West: 98

    Roy Hibbert: 96

     

    The best defensive team in the league is the Indiana Pacers, much improved from the 2011-12 season. Every one of their starters is a solid defensive player, and each member of the frontcourt ranks statistically as an elite defender.

    Their defensive success begins in the paint, where 7'2" Roy Hibbert takes up tons of space and contests shots at the rim, blocking 2.69 shots per game. He ranks second in defensive rating to Duncan.

    The other big reason for their defensive success has been the rise of Paul George, who currently has the third-best defensive rating in the league. His length and athleticism allow him to guard nearly any perimeter player in the league.

    The Pacers' improvement stems from moving George to small forward in place of the injured Danny Granger, and moving Lance Stephenson into the starting lineup. Granger had a defensive rating of 104 in 2011-12, while Stephenson has posted a very solid 100 rating this season.

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