Jun 20, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; The MVP trophy and the Larry O

NBA: Does Defense Really Win Championships?

Everyone knows the saying ”defense wins championships,” and in addition to this, the NBA has a few well-known common pieces of wisdom like; ”The game slows down in the playoffs,” ”Rebounding is key” and ”You live by the 3and die by the 3.” During the playoffs you’ll find the cast of TNT running through these age-old cliches over and over again.

So what’s the truth? Do more defensive-minded teams exceed expectations in the playoffs? What about slower paced teams or rebounding teams? The playoffs are obviously different; opponents are more talented and smarter, teams have more time to prepare for each other, cross-matching becomes normal and by Game 5 good teams have usually figured each other out completely. The game generally does actually slow down quite a bit, though evidence of that might be disappearing in the modern NBA.


Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I looked at data all the way from the 1979-80 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to today, looking at teams that won the championship and what statistical tendencies they showed. I also studied the best teams never to win it all, teams like Charles Barkley‘s Suns, the John Stockton-Karl Malone Jazz, the ’80s Bucks, the 2002 Kings and a whole other host of ’90s teams that fell to Michael Jordan and the Bulls, all the way to the Mike D’Antoni Suns and LeBron James Cavaliers. I counted averages, variances, medians and sprinkled it all with a little common sense to figure out what tendencies and focuses actually improve you chance of winning a championship. There’s a lot of ”noise” in the data, and it’s hard to say what are trends and what’s actually happening.

Surprisingly, winning a championship is actually a pretty arbitrary line in the sand. Yes, it’s the only thing you actually fight for as an NBA athlete, but more luck and generally just weird things go into coming out of a group of 30 pro teams than we tend to think. It’s like that too much is attributed to things like, ”Oh, he couldn’t handle the pressure” and story lines that the media comes up with when analyzing champions. There’s a tremendous amount of variance and even if we don’t want to admit it falling finals or losing to the eventual champions in Round 2 in Game 7 just happens every now to teams that easily could’ve won it all and you can’t do anything about it. It just happens.

The Stats

Since 1980, the average ranking in offensive and defensive rating of the NBA champion was 5.52 and 5.26 respectively. In the post-Michael Jordan era this changed to 7.13 and 4.14, although seven teams that ranked No. 1 on offense won the championship, compared to six No. 1-ranked defensive teams . The difference doesn’t seem so huge between offensive and defensive prowess, but many of those ”offensive” champions featured iconic teams that had incredible offenses that no one else could compare to. Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Magic Johnson‘s Lakers were good at both ends, but the offense was so much beyond what anyone else could do, and together they account for 11 of the 34 championships on the list. After Jordan retired there just haven’t been any teams that could dominate the league in the same fashion, and over the past 15 years there has been more parity in who wins championships, as defense has been slightly emphasized.

Rebounding rates seem to have no correlation with winning an NBA championship, they are all over the place and generally it’s more import to be good at least one end. Yes, the teams that have won it all are better at rebounding than the league average (average of 9.4 in defensive and 11.3 offensive rebounding ranking), but teams that go deep into the playoffs usually tend to do everything at a higher and better rate than anyone else, and we should not be surprised to see them beyond the mean in anything. Assist numbers actually have a higher correlation value with winning than rebounds, and you may say this is a function of great teams just making shots more shots than other teams, but assists have actually outperformed what you would expect from offensive numbers, which says something great about the notion of sharing the ball and being a team.

How championship teams have shot the 3 ball is interesting, because most teams have shot it more often than the league average (average rank of 12.8 in the last 34 seasons), but that trend has sort of reversed itself and the post-Jordan champions have actually shot the 3 a lot less, even though the league is shooting a lot more 3s than ever before. But the sample size is small, and it’s difficult to say if champions are actually going against the grain.


I went through all the teams with 59 or more wins that didn’t win a championship in their current formation (I counted variations of the Mavs in the 2000s even though they won the title in 2011, because those teams only resembled each other with Dirk Nowitzki). Those teams actually do feature a proportion of fast-paced teams that is irregular compared to the champions. Portland with Clyde Drexler, Barkley’s Suns, one of Gary Payton‘s SuperSonics teams, the 2002 Sacramento Kings (honestly they should’ve won, the refs blew it) and the staple of this category: the Steve Nash/D’Antoni/Amar’e Stoudemire Suns. A few of those teams could’ve won the title with a bit more luck, and the stats would look a bit different if they did, but then again, they didn’t and that does count. For fast-paced teams today like the Houston Rockets, this should be a discomforting stat: out of the last 34 champions, only three have been in the top third of the league in pace.

Defense does have a strong correlation with winning, and historically a bit more so than offense, but there’s not overwhelming evidence that you give yourself an exceptional chance of winning an NBA championship with it. A lot of things go into winning a title statistically, a combination of efficiency, defense, assists, rebounding and basically every other stat does count to one degree or another. What is clear is that championship teams and perennial contenders always have an identity around to which to build themselves. Whether it be post-ups and kicking it out, a ”1-2 punch,” a gritty and tough style of play, what makes a title team is doing well in the things that they value, perhaps even more than finding out what you should value.



Tags: Nba Playoffs

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