NBA Betting: The "Defense Wins Championships" Myth Exposed

Joe DuffyAnalyst IApril 20, 2009

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 18:  Forward Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks  takes a shot against Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 18, 2009 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

At the start of the NBA playoffs, there was no shortage of the “defense wins championships” articles. One of the toutspeak clichés is so fundamentally flawed, I can only thank them for keeping the sportsbooks in business for the rest of us.

It goes along the lines of: look at the stats, scoring is way down in the postseason in the NBA, therefore defense is more important. An elite sports handicapper, I don’t consider myself an expert on commodities investments, but the basic fact is if the demand for a commodity stays the same, but the supply goes down, the value of having that commodity goes up.

The more of that commodity that one has, the better off the investor is.  However, if such asset became more easily obtainable, the worth of it decreases. 

That’s exactly how it is with the ability to score crucial points in the NBA playoffs. There is no question defensive intensity rises immensely in the playoffs. The commodity of scoring points is much more difficult to come by than they are against lackluster five-cities-in-seven-nights regular season defenses.

Therefore the worth of the commodity of clutch scoring goes up in the postseason, not down.

Recent historic fact No. 1: The 2007 Miami Heat became the first team in NBA history to win a championship only to get swept in the first round the following year.  Yet defensively they were superior to their championship year, jumping from 13th in the league to eighth. However offensively they did a free-fall going from sixth to 28th, third worst in the NBA.

The Heat had two certified offensive superstars, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.

The two played a combined 91 games this year because of various injuries and never, ever got in sync. Wade was rushed back for the postseason and Miami’s offensive lack of cohesion was indisputable.   

They were better defensively in 2007 because they had to compensate. The end result to the better defense but much inferior offense was being on the wrong end of the historic sweep. Oh and when the Heat won the championship last year, which team lead the league in defense?

Recent historic fact No. 2: It was the Memphis Grizzlies who set an all-time mark for consecutive postseason losses. Yes, the league’s numero uno defense set the bar for playoff incompetence.

Don't get me wrong, defensive and offensive rankings as we have stated time and time again are extremely deceptive in football and basketball. Points per game are much more indicative of tempo than of competence. Fast break teams will always appear “offensive oriented” and half court teams “defensive oriented” to the uneducated eye.

However there was no significant pace-of-the-game adjustment for Miami from last year to this year with Wade and O’Neal playing musical MASH unit, so there is at least an apples to apples comparison in beating live odds for the NBA.

Recent historical fact, No. 3: based on disparity in winning percentage, the Dallas Mavericks became victims of the biggest upset in NBA playoff history when they were not just beaten, but dominated by the Golden State Warriors.

Said the media, this of course was the year that Avery Johnson was finally able to exorcise Dallas of the offensive mindset Don Nelson that poisoned them with for years. The transition to offensive-oriented to defensive-minded was complete.  And so was their season completed—very quickly.

Oh and the team that beat them was the worst defensive team in the NBA—Golden State coached by Don Nelson. There is no epiphany needed. Any debate is fruitless.  The foremost reason for the Mavericks failure was that their premier offensive player Dirk Nowitzki went AWOL, while Golden State put up a clinic in outside shooting.

Anyone who tries to spin it differently, I want to book their plays. We are, as we admitted using deceptive rankings that are based simply on points per game.  But we are using the same data the cliché mongers use in order to refute them.

However the fact is that I am anything but a proponent of a frenetic pace. A great offense in basketball means very good complimentary offensive players that can consistently score clutch baskets, and here is the kicker: in the half-court offense.

The San Antonio Spurs, contrary of the misleading rankings, fit our definition as well as any team in the NBA. The uneducated eye would look merely at points per game, oblivious to the fact they place a strict half court offense. 

But with the game on the line Tony Parker getting the ball to Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili is a pretty powerful combo. Of course, David Robinson was also part of the initial championship team. Robert Horry is not called “Big Stop Bob” it’s “Big Shot Bob”. They also have Michael Finley and before him Steve Kerr.

Look at any of the modern championship teams. They may play different styles, but they all have one thing in common—prime time offensive players.  From O’Neal and Wade, to Jordan and Pippen, O’Neal and Bryant, Olajuwon, Drexler and Cassell, Johnson, Jabber and a sensational supporting cast, Bird, McHale and Johnson, Erving, Malone and Toney.

They all had a lot more success in the postseason than the phenomenal defensive pairing of Mookie Blaylock and Dikembe Mutombo, Bobby Jones and Caldwell Jones, Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief. 

In fact, going back to the late '70s, if not well beyond, the least impressive 1-2 offensive punch from an NBA Champion would be Chauncey Billups and Rick Hamilton from the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons.  Yet anyone who actually watched that particular playoffs can attest that duo’s ability to get the big basket

Phoenix does have enormous offensive talent, but frankly will have to overcome their chaotic style of play to capture the ring. There is no question they have the substance, but may lack the style to win it all.

The simple fact is every single NBA Champion will have the extremely rare commodity of at least two legitimate big time go-to players who can make the big shot and/or the big pass when the game on the line. 

That’s a commodity that’s rare, but not as rare as the professional gambler who is conscious of this fact.


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