In honor of the March 7 matchup between the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies, we've decided to take a look at the grittiest teams in the league.
New defensive rules over the last decade and cultural changes have made half-court-grounded, defensive-minded contenders something close to an outlier in the NBA. Much of the league has gone the way of fast-paced small ball.
But these three teams consistently prove that being accurate from deep and fleet of foot is not the only way to win. The league’s three best defensive forces, all of these squads can regularly force you into their plodding style and beat you at it.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
Tony Allen, also known as "The Grindfather," embodies the Memphis spirit. A typically one-way player, Allen was a starter for the Grizzlies for multiple years before losing his role to Courtney Lee when injured this season.
But that Allen—who came over from the title-winning, grinding prototype Kevin Garnett-era Boston Celtics—has star status as a solely defensive presence is a testament to what the Grizzlies have built. They’ve made a psychological affront out of a defensive, battering mindset, as was made clear during last season’s conquest of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Randolph defiantly bullied Blake Griffin out of his game in the first-round playoff series, leading fans to wonder if they’d entered a time portal back to the Pat Riley-style 1990s.
2. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have gotten here on pure will power.
With their moxie defined by workaholic coach Tom Thibodeau, they’ve reached a reputation as a team that can operate near a 50-win level regardless of who they lose to injury.
This is possible because of a strong locker room mentality. The "next man up" ethos of the Bulls sounds like lip service in the press rounds, but on the floor, it comes to life.
Just ask D.J. Augustin, who’s had a resurgence with the Bulls this season after being counted out as an NBA player when the Toronto Raptors waived him.
The Bulls win most of their games on sheer concept, simply outmanning teams with more raw talent than them.
Their Feb. 26 victory over the Golden State Warriors acts as a perfect case study of this, as the high-functioning Warriors looked plain dispirited by the time the second half was underway. The Bulls went on to win the contest, 103-83, holding the Warriors to one of their lower point totals of the season.
The team's surge this season has been led by center Joakim Noah, a dark horse MVP candidate. Noah’s acute passing skills—he’s had at least 10 assists five times since the beginning of February—shows us a dimension that can be key to a grinding team. Like Gasol for Memphis, Noah makes it possible to run a competent offense without a traditional point guard fulcrum.
1. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers lead the pack. With the very best record in the NBA, it’s hard to argue against their supremacy—whether you find them boring or not.
Like the Grizzlies, the Pacers’ defensive stronghold is centered around two huge, skilled frontcourt bodies in David West and Roy Hibbert. This duo nearly eliminated the champion Miami Heat in last year’s playoffs simply by wearing them down.
Shane Battier was often playing the power forward spot in smaller Miami lineups in order to create more shooting, but by the end of the series, he looked entirely gassed by the constant bruising he had to endure from West. His role became reduced to that of towel boy.
Battier isn't alone: There are few teams who can roll out a frontcourt capable of hanging with the Pacers’. That’s why they’re 46-15, and why they're the first team to clinch a playoff spot this season.
It doesn't hurt that they've also got one of the hardest working perimeter defenders in the NBA in Paul George. George bodies most defensive assignments out of their game, and he is easily one of the best defenders in basketball.
Those with a penchant for the grind will be rooting for the Pacers this spring, hoping that an NBA championship from a grittier team might turn heads around the league.
Long live the grit.
Honorable Mentions: Charlotte Bobcats, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets and Bobcats operate at more hypnotizing paces because of their personnel and age, respectively. Garnett, the flat-footed Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson all like to take their sweet time out on the floor. Be careful, or they'll steal your dynamite and lure you into their grunting ways.