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Fact or Fiction: Defense still wins in the NBA

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Kyle Soppe also writes about the NBA for Pickin’ Splinters. Follow him on Twitter.

As time progresses, rules change and so do the games we love. Can you look anybody in the face and honestly tell them that a stable run game and a smash mouth defense still is the key to winning an NFL title? If so, the Ravens are your super bowl champs, and the Patriots have a top 5 draft pick. Times change, but have they in the NBA? We all see the dunk highlights and stare in awe at the offensive skill sets of players like Kevin Durant. We were swept up in Linsanity for a few weeks, another great offensive story. But does the age old adage that “defense wins champions” still hold true in today’s version of up and down basketball?

To try and find an answer, I took a look at the past two NBA seasons, in an attempt to find some sort of relation between winning and defense. I used statistics such as eFG% allowed (an adjusted version of FG% that accounts for three pointers being worth more than a two pointer), and DRtg. (points surrendered per 100 possessions) to give me a baseline for evaluating the best and the worst defenses. I also took the top two individual performers in terms of PER, and tracked how well defenses were able to slow them down by using their PC/PU (points contributed per possessions used).

Season Top Records eFG% Allowed (NBA rank) DRtg. (NBA rank) PC/PU (LeBron James) PC/PU Dwayne Wade/Dwight Howard
2009-2010 NBA average: 50.1 NBA average: 104.9 Season average: 1.11 Wade season average: 1.03
Cleveland (61-21) 48.20 (3rd) 101.5 (7th) N/A 1
Orlando (59-23) 47.72 (1st) 100.2 (T1st) 1.11 1.03
LA Lakers (57-25) 48.39 (5th) 101.1 (T5th) 1.01 0.97
Dallas (55-27) 49.52 (5th) 103.2 (12th) 1.03 0.86
Phoenix (54-28) 49.06 (11th) 106.9 (19th) 0.96 0.99
2010-2011 NBA average: 49.8 NBA average: 104.4 Season average: 1.07 Howard season average: 0.97
Chicago (62-20) 46.27 (1st) 97.4 (1st) 1.16 0.98
San Antonio (61-21) 49.07 (10th) 102.8  (11th) 1.01 1.24
Miami (58-24) 47.51 (3rd) 100.7 (5th) N/A 0.94
LA Lakers (57-25) 47.72 (5th) 101.3 (6th) 1.3 1.06
Dallas (57-25) 48.83 (9th) 102.3 (7th) 0.82 1.03

We are trying to determine if winning causes good defense, or if defense causes winning. As you can see, the great teams play above average defense. The average top tier NBA team – a team who finishes with a top 5 record – ranked roughly 6th in the league in eFG% and 7th in DRtg. Those numbers may not blow you away, but in a league that stresses star power, an average ranking inside the top quarter of the league is impressive. Out of 20 possible instances, the Suns’ DRtg. was the only stat measured that was worse than the league average.

The great teams in this group didn’t just have strong season-long defenses, they also did very well at defending the league’s most efficient players. How many times have we said that the 2012 Lakers can’t win without a big game from Kobe Bryant, or the T-wolves without Kevin Love? If an opposing defense can make that happen, they’ve moved themselves a lot closer to victory.

LeBron James saw his efficiency drop .08 points per possession in 2009 against the top notch teams, a number that seems insignificant at first glance. But with the Cavs’ up and down pace, that could very well be 6-7 points a night, and the difference between winning and losing. The odd trend here is that Dwight Howard actually contributed more against the better teams, but that is likely a result of him being the leagues lone dominant big man. While he usually catches the ball in scoring position, often with a mismatch, play makers like Wade and James are forced to carve their way through an entire defense. Moral of the story … nobody can defend D12.

Season Bottom Records eFG% (NBA rank) DRtg (NBA rank) PC/PU (LeBron James) PC/PU Dwyane Wade/Dwight Howard
2009-2010 NBA average: 50.1 NBA average: 104.9 Season average: 1.11 Wade season average: 1.03
New Jersey (12-70) 51.66 (23rd) 108.0 (25th) 1.1 1.25
Minnesota (15-67) 52.46 (27th) 109.3 (28th) 1.14 1.08
Sacramento (25-57) 50.49 (19th) 107.2 (21st) 1.15 1.48
Golden State (26-56) 52.50 (28th) 109.4 (29th) 1.29 1.24
Washington (26-56) 50.23 (18) 106.7 (18th) 1.28 1.08
2010-2011 NBA average: 49.8 NBA average: 104.4 Season average: 1.07 Howard season average: 0.97
Minnesota (17-65) 51.43 (27th) 108.3 (27th) 1.22 0.86
Cleveland (19-63) 52.38 (29th) 109.0 (29th) 1.11 1.03
Toronto (22-60) 52.24 (28th) 109.8 (30th) 0.97 1.01
Washington (23-59) 51.24 (24th) 107.2 (23) 1.21 1.23
Sacramento/New Jersey (24-58) 51.27 (24th)/ 50.33 (19) 106.3 (20th)/ 107.0 (22nd) 1.02/ 1.14 1.02/ 1.03

On the other side of that coin are the struggling teams at the bottom of the league. In a cruel twist their lack of defense seemed to be more strongly correlated with win total than that of strong defense in elite teams. In 2010 the worst 3 teams (record wise) in the league ranked as the 3 worst teams on defense. The bottom five teams averaged a ranking of 26th in eFG% and 24th in DRtg – awful teams defend poorly more often than good teams defend well.

Those bad defenses were also dominated by the game’s biggest stars. Dwyane Wade increased his PC/PU by a ridiculous 0.2 against the cellar dwellers. He’s already as efficient as they come, but add on 20 points per 100 possessions, and his Heat are an unbeatable machine. The inability to stop the other team’s go to players seems to be a huge difference between winning and losing teams, but now lets approach things from the other angle. Instead of assuming winning teams play defense, let’s see how the top defensive teams did in terms of winning.

Season Top defenses (eFG % rank + DRtg rank) Record Playoffs
2009-2010 Orlando (1st, 1st) 59-23 10 wins
Miami (2nd, 3rd) 47-35 1 win
Cleveland (3rd, 7th) 61-21 6 wins
LA Lakers (5th, 6th) 57-25 16 wins
San Antonio (4th, 9th)/ OKC (5th, 8th) 50-32 / 50-32 4/2 wins
2010-2011 Chicago (1st, 1st) 62-20 9 wins
Boston (2nd, 2nd) 56-26 5 wins
Orlando (4th, 3rd) 52-30 2 wins
Miami (3rd, 5th) 58-24 14 wins
Milwaukee (6th, 4th) 35-47 N/A

It is very clear that the top defensive teams won a whole bunch of games, implying a strong connection between stout defense and team success. The 10 teams in my experiment averaged a whopping 53.4 wins, and 90% of them made it to the post season. Eight of the teams recorded at least 50 wins, a magic number for earning home playoff games in most seasons. Even in a sample that included the Bucks, who didn’t qualify for the playoffs, the average top five defensive team won at least one postseason series. Odd stat: in 2009, the top three defensive teams went 9-15 against the Celtics in the postseason and 24-5 against everybody else.

Season Bottom defenses (eFG % rank + DRtg rank) Record Playoffs
2009-2010 Golden State (2nd, 3rd) 26-56 N/A
New York (4th, 2nd) 29-53 N/A
Detroit (5th, 1st) 27-55 N/A
Minnesota (3rd, 4th) 15-67 N/A
Toronto (1st, 9th) 40-42 N/A
2010-2011 Detroit (1st, 2nd) 30-52 N/A
Toronto (3rd, 1st) 22-60 N/A
Cleveland (2nd, 3rd) 19-63 N/A
Minnesota (4th, 4th) 17-65 N/A
Phoenix (5th, 6th) 40-42 N/A

Finally, check out the sieves. The bottom five defensive teams in the NBA averaged 27 less wins per season than the top five defensive teams. 27! Whereas we had 80% of the great defenses win at least 50 games, we had 80% of the terrible defense win at most 30 games. It shouldn’t be a surprise that none of these teams made the playoffs, or that they weren’t even close. The bottom five defenses on a year to year basis show up together on one more list, and that’s the draft lottery. Find me players that can score on a good team, and I’ll show you a team that has surrounded him with defensive pieces to make the team a viable option. The thought of building around a player’s strengths, and providing support where he lacks is called the Anti-Knicks Model for Success.

Final conclusion: Teams with great records tend to play above average (and sometimes elite) defense, but teams that play elite defense finish with great records more often. This study finds that defensive success possess a stronger correlation to wins than wins to do defensive successes.

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  • Paul

    What’s been lost over the years is that the actual saying is: “Offense wins games (and in the 21st century sells luxury boxes), and defense wins championships.” There is a correlation between the two. At the risk of making this into an existential discussion, defense is more than numbers on paper. To reduce it to “…the Ravens are your super bowl champs, and the Patriots have a top 5 draft pick…” misses the point. It is not meant to say the best defensive team wins, but the team with enough of a defense to allow its offense to work wins. That’s why the Giants with a superior defense twice beat a New England team with a superior offense in the Super Bowl. By the way, trying to use 21st NFL to prove or disprove this theory requires significant recalibration of any equation. The NFL has done everything in its power to create excitement through offensive output. How else could the NFL continue to feed its already bloated image.

    To the NBA – that is why the Mavs won last year. Few would suggest that Dallas showed any pride in their effort ofnthe defensive end prior to last year. You need look no further than the first round exit versus Golden State a couple of years ago. But the Mavs commitment to defense led to the title. They did just enough to give their offense a chance. That and a crafty 2-3 zone which decreased LeBron’s chances to dunk significantly. Funny how when he can’t dunk, LeBron is somewhat of an average player.

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