We all know the old adage – offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. It has long been accepted as true in the NBA, and just rewind back to last season to see the full effect of defense. Through four games, the Cleveland Cavaliers struggled to contain the offensive firepower of the Warriors and were conceding 103 points a game as they fell behind 3-1. In the last three games, they allowed the Warriors to shoot just 36.4%, 40.2% and 38.6% and average 95.6 points a game as they lost three straight games, and the title. Many would label it the greatest choke in the modern NBA, but perhaps Cleveland’s defense played a more than minor role in the outcome.
Fast-forward to this season and glance at the top 10 in defensive rating and there are a few of the usual suspects. The Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are the two best teams in the league, and rank 3rd and 1st respectively in defensive rating, and 2nd and 4th in opponent field goal percentage. These two teams have a combined seven players in the top 30 in individual defensive rating among players who average more than 25 minutes a game (that list includes Tony Parker, who as an individual defender cannot defend an open door. Long live Pop!). These two teams provide plenty of evidence in support of defense equalling success, but take a better look at the top 10 defensive teams and there are some really surprising names.
Utah, Memphis, Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, Washington and Oklahoma City round out the top 10. The Jazz and Wizards are poised to finish in the top 4 in their respective conferences, but none of the other teams are particularly impressing on the standings.
Of those teams, there are some outstanding individual defenders (Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gobert, Nicholas Batum, John Wall, Andre Roberson) but just as many players who are more offensively focused. Three of these teams have losing records, as do three of the next five teams in the defensive ratings (Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit). Furthermore, the Eastern Conference leading Cavaliers and Celtics rank a lowly 19th and 20th in defensive rating.
The Warriors join the Cavaliers and Celtics in the bottom half of points conceded, while the Houston Rockets concede the 6th most points in the league while having the third best record. Golden State and Houston play at a torrid pace, so the fact the concede points is covered by the fact that they are lethal offensively. The Cavaliers and Celtics are more surgical offensively, ranking in the top 6 in offensive rating and backing themselves to win a shootout.
The main reason Boston are nipping at the heels of Cleveland is diminutive guard Isaiah Thomas, who is setting a historical fourth-quarter scoring pace and may well contend for the scoring title. Thomas is making both Phoenix and Sacramento look foolish for trading him, dominating the offensive side of the ball. At the other end, he is making history for all the wrong reasons – his defensive rating is the sixth worst in the NBA for players who are averaging more than 34 minutes a game. That is putrid, but does anyone judge him on this statistic? Granted, he is a woeful one-on-one defender but when you are scoring so often, and play within a team defence that covers your weaknesses it is far easier to stomach how poor you are when the opponent has the ball. Quite simply, Thomas GETS BUCKETS!
Can you guess some of the other names on the list? They might give an insight into the way the league is currently positioned – Carmelo Anthony, Karl Anthony-Towns, Damian Lillard, DeMarcus Cousins, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Devin Booker, Danilo Gallinari, C.J.McCollum and Avery Bradley. Now Bradley is an outlier here, having been a member of the NBA All-Defensive first team last season but all those other guys are considered stars, or rising stars and yet all are proving to be woeful defensively if you trust the analytics. The first thing you notice about that list is that either Tom Thibedeau was lucky in Chicago, or kids take time to learn how to defend. The second thing you notice is that the West should win the All-Star game by 40 points given the individual offensive firepower they possess (that’s the only reason this list features so many dudes from the West, right?). But thirdly, how many of these guys would you NOT want on your team? Even Melo has dragged his carcass up and down the floor to remain serviceable this season, dominating crunch time on more than one occasion.
It was interesting to see Cousins on that list - is there anyone better to watch in the league than Boogie? OK, maybe a player two from Golden State, a rookie from Philly, a freak from Greece and a dude we will mention later in this article but Cousins is the ultimate mix of size, speed and skill but is fast heading towards being the biggest waste of basketball talent in the last 20 years. He has been better than ever this season but two facts remain. Sacramento suck, and he is wasting his prime staying there. Basketball fans NEED him to be traded to a contender, or at least become fully motivated because he does not belong on this list.
If we take this list, expand the minimum minutes to 30 and browse further down (or is it up) this list and you see names like Ricky Rubio (what the f*ck? Cmon Thibs! Is there any danger that you coach a plus defender), Eric Bledsoe, Andre Drummond, Serge Ibaka, DeMar DeRozan, Kristaps Porzingis, Goran Dragic and Nikola Jokic. Again, this list is full of outrageous talent and guys who are known for making the flashy defensive play, or who were once elite defenders like Ibaka and Bledsoe. But the numbers don’t lie – these dudes are statistically crap at defence, and maybe they just don’t need to be as good at that end of the floor as they once did.
Full disclosure - Jokic has only played 26.8 minutes a game but I needed an excuse to throw in a few clips from THE next big thing in the NBA after he dominated the so-called best defensive player in the league, and the supposed best team.
The guy might already be the best passing big man in the league, and is well on his way to making a mockery of being selected 41st in the NBA draft a few years back. Oh, you didn’t know he was selected in the middle of the second round? GM’s across the country are currently looking for the nearest ledge…but back to the article.
Of course, to focus purely on numbers is short-sighted. The Warriors are at their best when they wreak havoc defensively. The Spurs have manufactured a team defence that carries the worst defenders and covers their flaws. The Grizzlies remain defensively oriented, and that might just get them homecourt advantage in the first round. The Celtics have surrounded Thomas with long, elite defenders at the other positions and developed a scheme around him. And despite all those names listed earlier, not all the best players in the league are defensive sieves. Chris Paul, Joel Embiid, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Dwight Howard and Steven Adams are defensive difference-makers who feature at the other end of the defensive rating rankings.
There is a place for elite defenders, but basketball is cyclical and offense is king yet again. The pace has never been faster, the athletes have never been better and scoring is motoring along as just two teams are averaging less than 100 points and the 16th ranked Nets average 105.1 points a game. Today, like never before in recent times, you need to be able to score to win games. If that scoring comes with a total and utter disregard for defense, well, that’s just not a big deal this season.
Written by Steven Paice