Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Does having a top 5 NBA defensive ranking win teams championships? Yes, of course, more than any aspect to the game. NBA defense in the playoffs is what separates the contenders from the pretenders.
You don’t have to be the best defense or give up the fewest points in the league but championships have been won with great defenses and mediocre offenses. The opposite isn’t true.
Table of contents
Defense wins championships is not just a saying
Every single championship team has been good in the NBA defensive rankings. If you aren’t good defensively in the playoffs, you will lose, this is how I knew the Brooklyn Nets as currently constructed weren’t getting out of the Eastern Conference.
The NBA playoffs are about stopping your opponent from scoring. Scoring the ball is important, but not that important. It’s not like it’s the difference in winning or losing playoff series’.
NBA defense and then protecting the ball, meaning not turning it over, are the two most important factors to championship success.
If you can’t stop your opponent, you’ve lost before the series even gets started. Your opponent will get stops and when you can’t, well, you get it.
The importance of these rankings are accurate and verifiable every single season that NBA basketball has been played. The proof is transparent.
Bucks vs Suns
As the Bucks and Suns prepare for the 2021 NBA Finals, lets delve into the basics. I have had people say things like “in an NBA season, defense winning championships is nonsense”.
I can’t believe that there are fans out there that spend a good portion of their days talking about basketball and don’t know it doesn’t matter how prolific your offense is if you’re not good defensively. Being elite offensively can garner a team 60+ wins but it won’t lead to championship success in the playoffs.
It’s unbelievable, just shocking. This is basketball fundamentals people, NBA 101. How does this happen? It’s impossible to have this opinion and still have a valid take on the NBA.
I find this nonsense embarrassing and I almost feel sorry for these fans but that disappears when I attempt to breakdown defensive importance to these people as they act like I’m the one with misguided facts.
Every single season can’t be wrong
Every single season the NBA champions have been very good with the eye test and in the defensive rankings, especially in the playoffs.
2021 is another season that backs every other NBA season played since the 1960’s. The Milwaukee Bucks (109.6) have the 10th best offense in the playoffs (109.6) and the Phoenix Suns have the 11th best offense (109.4).
The Suns and Bucks are 1st and 2nd in NBA defensive rankings in the 2021 playoffs though.
The NBA All-Defensive First Team for 2020-21 is led by the Defensive Player-of-the-Year Rudy Gobert. The Utah Jazz center is a throwback center from the 1990’s in his playing style.
Personally I thought Ben Simmons should’ve been named the DPOY. Without Simmons, the Sixers wouldn’t have been the top seed in the Eastern Conference. He defends elite talent at four positions on a regular basis.
Teams can’t exploit the Sixers defense with their superstars because Simmons will switch on opponents trying to isolate on the other 76ers defenders.
If the Sixers are without Ben Simmons for the 2021-22 NBA season, their chances at a championship are over.
Two Milwaukee Bucks players were selected to the All-Defensive First Team, this is a major factor why they are in the 2021 NBA Finals.
NBA defensive rating
When I refer to NBA defensive team rankings, I DON’T MEAN NBA DEFENSIVE RATINGS. This isn’t because the numbers don’t remain true to my argument. It’s because defensive ratings in the NBA can be deceiving.
NBA defensive team rating isn’t as bad as the ratings for individual players, but because the individual ratings can be so misleading, I shy away from NBA defensive ratings altogether to remain balanced and true. Honestly the best test for this measurement is the good ole eye test.
Offensive rating advanced statistics are more truthful than defensive ones. THIS ISN’T BASEBALL IS MY FINAL ANSWER THOUGH.
Player defensive ratings
A player like Ben Simmons, who is the best perimeter defender in the NBA and guards elite players at four different positions, could have a worse NBA defensive rating than a much lesser defender.
Sometimes Simmons guards multiple elite NBA superstars without any help. An example of this is a game from January against the Los Angeles Lakers when he was guarding LeBron James for most of the game but during key possessions was guarding Anthony Davis too.
Defensive Player Rating Equation
Here is the actual equation used to deliver Defensive Player Ratings advanced stats.
Using this formula can lead people to believe that Steph Curry is a better defender than his Golden State Warriors teammate and former Defensive-Player-of-the-Year Draymond Green is. DON’T JUST BELIEVE WHAT THEY TELL YOU BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING.
Tim Duncan was selected to 15 NBA All-Defensive Teams. If he was playing in his prime, today, with the Houston Rockets, he would struggle to get his defensive rating below 100 by the time the season ended.
Adjusted plus/minus stats is another of the defensive metrics that I’m not in love with. I’m good with looking at plus/minus but on a game-to-game statistic.
DON’T GET CAUGHT IN A “THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND” SITUATION.
Fansided had the nerve to actually publish one of these nonsensical articles. Utter nonsense stating “However, the most important factor for Curry is that the Warriors team defense is, by far, the best in the NBA. Curry has a 97.9 defensive rating, drastically better than the team’s overall defensive rating which is parked at 101.2”.
Then they end the article with “Curry is the second-best player in defensive rating while also being arguably the best offensive player in the NBA. He’s been absolutely phenomenal and deserves more praise than he’s currently getting“.
THIS ISN’T UNTRUE BY THE ADVANCED DEFENSIVE STATISTICS BUT IT’S MISLEADING, MISGUIDED MISINFORMATION.
Embiid v Jokic
Every basketball fan has an opinion on who the 2022 NBA MVP should be between Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. What shouldn’t be an opinionated topic that is widely discussed is which one is the better defender on the basketball court.
Sadly, it has become one because too many fans don’t actually want to watch the games but they do want to pretend like they’re experts on the NBA.
The lower defensive rating in theory is supposed to show who’s the better defensive player. Too many people use these flawed NBA defensive rankings to judge just how good a player is on the defensive end.
The tweet above showed nonsensical proof to some that Jokic is a better defender than Joel Embiid is. Anyone with the proper knowledge knows this is absurd madness.
“The Joker” is a liability on defense, while Joel Embiid has been named a three-time NBA All-Defensive team selection.
aspects of defense
A great defensive team covers all the aspects of defense. They have good interior, perimeter, and transition defense.
They play with chemistry on both ends of the court. Team defense is as important as individual defense is.
The actual aspects of defense are immeasurable. You can’t assign numbers to it.
Some of the advanced stats say things like if a player plays 20 minutes-per-game and averages two steals-per-game that it’s different if a player averages the same number of steals but plays 38 minutes-per-game.
This advanced metic insinuates that if the player playing 20 minutes-per-game with two steals, would average around four steals if his minutes were doubled.
THIS IS WRONG, FALSE.
I base this educated opinion on the the fact that the most steals-per-game in an NBA season was set by Alvin Robertson in the 1985-86 season. He averaged 3.67 steals-per-game.
Allen Iverson and James Harden have led the NBA in steals a total of four times. Both are very bad defenders. Steals don’t mean a players necessarily a good defender.
Iverson is a three time steals champion because he played the passing lanes. Picking the ball out of the air like a free safety. This is because becoming an NFL free safety was plan A for Allen Iverson.
A player who isn’t a good defender could have a better rating than Simmons because he is purposely hidden on the defensive end like Isaiah Thomas or Allen Iverson.
Sometimes a player isn’t hidden within the defense but they will be placed much of the time on an offensive player who can’t really break a defender down or doesn’t have much of an offensive game.
When this happens, it makes it appear to the untrained eye in advanced stats that the NBA player who’s team and coaching staff are desperately trying to cover up his defensive flaws is as good or better than a versatile defender like Ben Simmons. DON’T DEPEND ON ADVANCED DEFENSIVE STATS ALONE.
I’ve seen this many times for players and their individual defensive ratings, it’s why they can’t be depended on. The NBA isn’t MLB baseball, where almost all of the analytics reign true to stats and facts.
Don’t believe that advanced statistics are the best or only measuring tool of a professional basketball player. The best way is with your eyeballs, it’s what they’re there for.
When it says in baseball that a player is good or bad at this or that, it isn’t deceiving you in anyway. When it comes to the NBA with a teams defensive stats, it can be altogether flawed and inaccurate.
NBA defensive rankings
The NBA defensive rankings that truly matter are opponent’s points-per-game and opponent field goal percentage. These stats don’t lie.
Creating opponent turnovers comes next in judging a teams championship chances, along with rebounding. Especially defensive rebounding
Much more important than forcing turnovers is protecting the ball and not turning it over yourself. A player can lead the NBA in assists-per-game but have a 2.1 assists-to-turnover ratio, in which case the big assists just mean big time turnovers.
Big Time like you stop a contender dead in their tracks from winning rings.
Point differential is also a vital tool in ascertaining a teams championship aspirations.
It’s the opponents points-per-game and field goal percentage that really take precedence though. The eye test is also important in all the aspects of defense. How good are they at team and individual defense. Individual and team defense aren’t the same thing. Team defense is chemistry, working together.
Someone else said to me recently “did I think that the 2020 Lakers were champions because of their defense“.
Yes of course. The 2020 Los Angeles Lakers had Dwight Howard, LeBron james, Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, and KCP. These are all defensive basketball players. They were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
The 2001 Lakers were defending NBA champions and had an NBA defensive rating that was ranked 21st in the league. Someone felt compelled to let me know this.
They thought, since this team wasn’t in the top 5 in NBA defensive rankings that all my knowledge was false and they were now going to set me straight.
Nobody who witnessed the 2001 Lakers play basketball would say they weren’t an elite defense. They were the best defensive team in the NBA. A dominant defense.
The 2001 Lakers were built on defense. Their superstars Kobe Bryant & Shaquille O’Neal were premiere defensive players and most of the role players were great defenders first and foremost.
Kobe Bryant was a great perimeter defender and when he’s not necessarily your best wing defender because you have Rick Fox, you know you have a premiere defense.
Some advice on 2001 Lakers
I don’t like team ratings, but for arguments sake, the 2000 Lakers had the best NBA defensive rating in the league. The 2001 team was even better because they had Rick Fox at small forward, who was a top-notch defender.
He was a part of the 2000 championship team too, but Glen Rice was the starter in 1999-00. The 2001 western conference was one of the most talented conferences over the past 25 years.
Seven teams in the west won 50 games or more. This gets lost somewhat today by the way the Lakers dominated the western conference playoffs. They went undefeated with a 12-0 record.
Shaq, Kobe, Fox, Derek Fisher, Horace Grant, Ron Harper and Robert Horry played defense. In the 2001 postseason the Los Angeles Lakers were fresh because they were talented enough to not play hard defense in the regular season and still have the 2nd best record in the western conference.
When a team wins a championship like the Lakers did the previous season, they know what it takes to win it again.
They didn’t kill themselves in the regular season. In the 2001 playoffs, the Lakers had the best NBA team rating and there wasn’t a close second. Their rating was 97.9, it doesn’t get much better than that.