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Can a Defense-First Team Still Win in Today's NBA

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Can a Defense-First Team Still Win in Today's NBA
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Kevin Garnett and Tony Allen are defensive specialists on defense-first teams.

Just 10 years ago, there were only two NBA teams which averaged more than 100 points per game over the entire season.

The 2012-13 season granted us 11 such teams. Nine of those teams are headed to the postseason, making them the majority this spring.

The saying has always gone: "Defense wins championships," but has the truth been slowly drained from that statement?

To be categorized as a defense-first team, that half of the game has to be the main reason you have advanced to this level. The Indiana Pacers are ranked No. 19 in offensive efficiency and have scored just 94.7 points per game this season. On the other hand, they are the NBA's top team in defensive efficiency, per HoopData.com

Joining the Pacers with numbers like those are the Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. The Grizzlies rank just behind Indiana in defensive efficiency, while their offense sputtered to 93.4 points per game.

The Celtics and Bulls are No. 5 and No. 6 on the defensive efficiency list, respectively. Neither team found itself in the top half of the league in offense, with Chicago scoring a league-low 93.2 points per game.

The Bulls employ a half-court trap that leaves offenses little time to get set up.

The rest of the league's postseason participants are either offense-heavy or well-balanced. 

Of the past 10 teams to play in the NBA Finals, really only two could be classified as defense-first teams in the vein of our four 2012-13 examples. 

The 2007-08 Boston Celtics were the league's top-ranked team in defensive efficiency, but they ranked only at No. 10 on the offensive side. Likewise, their 2009-10 counterparts scored No. 6 on defense, but No. 13 on offense, per HoopData.com.

The past two finals have been played by either well-balanced teams like the Miami Heat entrants and the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, or the offense-first Oklahoma City Thunder of last season.

An easy mistake to make would be to declare the defense has grown out of style and is now a thing of the past when it comes to winning in the NBA. However, every finals participant of the past five years has finished the regular season in the league's top 10 in defensive efficiency.

Which defense-first team has the best chance to make the NBA Finals?

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Defense does still matter, and it matters even more in the postseason. The thing that is fading away is defense-first teams winning big. This is, however, a byproduct of the defensive improvements made by the league overall over the past few years.

Teams that can't score against the advanced defenses put forth by today's teams fall off the grid. It is easy to call the Grizzlies a great defensive team and, by virtue of that, give them a good chance to advance in the postseason. 

Just be sure to take a glimpse at who is right behind them in the listing of the league's top defenses. Both the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are among the top defensive teams in the league. The difference is, they can score against defenses as strong as their own. The Grizzlies would have a hard time putting up 80 points against their defensive doppelgängers.

The same goes for the Pacers, Celtics and Bulls. Could these teams score enough to win if they played against themselves? Or are their defenses really that much better than the teams they'll be facing in the coming weeks?

The Pacers defense just keeps coming. Look how hard Memphis has to work to score.

Of these four defense-first playoff teams, the Grizzlies are the best team. They posted a 56-26 record, 6.5 games better than the Pacers’ 49-32. However, given the difference in conferences this season and the power of matchups, they may actually have the worst chance of the four at advancing deep into the postseason.

Memphis drew the well-balanced Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, without home-court advantage. While the Grizzlies defense will certainly be tested against one of those top offenses, the concern will be whether their own offense, ranked No. 26 in points per game, can score on the decent Clippers defense.

Should they advance, being the No. 5 seed, they will more than likely be stuck playing the No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder, ranked No. 2 in offensive and No. 4 in defensive efficiency, are the most well-balanced team in the league.

On the other hand, back in the weaker Eastern Conference, both the Bulls and Celtics have opening-round matchups against weaker defensive teams.

The Celtics finished just one game over .500 and drew the No. 2 New York Knicks in the opening round. New York’s offense carried it through much of the season, as it finished No. 15 in defensive efficiency. The same goes for Chicago’s first opponent, the No. 4 Brooklyn Nets. They ranked No. 17 on the season, per HoopData.com.

Even the second-round matchups look more appetizing. The Bulls would have to take on the juggernaut Miami Heat, but their defense is rarely at the level of Oklahoma City or San Antonio. 

Screenshot courtesy of HoopData.com

Boston would likely run into the Pacers, who will battle the mediocre-at-everything Atlanta Hawks in Round 1.

According to recent history, the nine teams in the 2012-13 postseason ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency have the best chance of reaching the finals. Four of those teams are defense-first, but the Spurs, Thunder and Heat are the most balanced. 

While it appears it is the time for defense to win championships, it may not be the time for defense-only to win.

The NBA is cyclical in this way. As soon as the defense advances to a point where it becomes dominant, new offensive athletes, coaches or rules come into the league to level the playing field. In another 10 years, maybe the number of triple-digit scoring teams will drop back to two or three instead of nearly half the league.

 

All advanced offensive and defensive efficiency statistics sourced by HoopData.com.


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