Defense Wins Championships - Hope for the Trail Blazers

—Tuesday, December 31 2013

“Defense Wins Championships.” If you’re a fan of the NBA (or most major sports), you’ve likely heard this phrase. I’ve always considered it fodder for punditry; something you say when you have nothing objective to add to a conversation. Sure, it’s cliché, but is it true?

--

December is almost over and we’re eight weeks into another NBA season. Some great story lines have emerged. Kobe makes a miraculous comeback after tearing his achilles only to promptly injure his knee; Derrick Rose made his return from a season ending injury and tore the meniscus in his right knee, knocking him out for yet another season; First year head coach Jeff Hornacek has the Phoenix Suns, a team people expected to be in the lottery, making a case for the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference. And then there’s the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers, with a record 24-7, are the Cinderella team of the season. A few people expected them to improve, but no one expected them to be sitting near the top of the NBA rankings. The best-case preseason scenario was barely winning enough games to secure the 8th and final playoff spot in the west.

The Blazers area an interesting team. They have the NBAs best offense; One of the best offenses in the NBA in the last 17 years. Taking a look through stats back to the 1996-97 season, this year’s Blazer team ranks #10 in Offensive Rating, behind some dominating Nash-led Phoenix Suns teams.

Offensive Rating- The number of points scored per 100 possessions. By using possessions, you eliminate pace as a factor because some teams play faster, resulting in more possessions.


 rank | season  |       team_name        | wins | losses | advanced_off_rating
------+---------+------------------------+------+--------+---------------------
    1 | 2009-10 | Phoenix Suns           |   54 |     28 |               112.7
    2 | 2004-05 | Phoenix Suns           |   62 |     20 |               111.9
    3 | 2006-07 | Phoenix Suns           |   61 |     21 |               111.4
    4 | 2008-09 | Phoenix Suns           |   46 |     36 |               111.2
    5 | 2007-08 | Phoenix Suns           |   55 |     27 |               111.2
    6 | 1996-97 | Chicago Bulls          |   69 |     13 |               111.1
    7 | 2007-08 | Utah Jazz              |   54 |     28 |               110.8
    8 | 2008-09 | Portland Trail Blazers |   54 |     28 |               110.7
    9 | 1996-97 | Utah Jazz              |   64 |     18 |               110.5
   10 | 2013-14 | Portland Trail Blazers |   24 |      7 |               110.4

While the Blazers offense under Terry Stotts has been humming along, the defense is sitting near the bottom of the league at #23 allowing 105 points per 100 possessions.

Defensive Rating- The number of points allowed per 100 possessions. By using possessions, you eliminate pace as a factor because some teams play faster, resulting in more possessions.


 rank |       team_name        | wins | loses | advanced_def_rating
------+------------------------+------+-------+---------------------
    1 | Indiana Pacers         |   24 |     5 |                93.6
    2 | Oklahoma City Thunder  |   25 |     5 |                97.4
    3 | Charlotte Bobcats      |   14 |    18 |                98.3
    4 | Golden State Warriors  |   19 |    13 |                98.5
    5 | Chicago Bulls          |   12 |    17 |                98.6
    6 | San Antonio Spurs      |   24 |     7 |                98.8
    7 | Los Angeles Clippers   |   21 |    12 |               100.4
    8 | Miami Heat             |   24 |     7 |               100.7
    9 | Toronto Raptors        |   13 |    15 |               101.6
   10 | Phoenix Suns           |   19 |    11 |               101.8
   11 | Boston Celtics         |   13 |    17 |               102.1
   12 | Houston Rockets        |   21 |    12 |               102.4
   13 | Minnesota Timberwolves |   15 |    16 |               102.5
   14 | Orlando Magic          |   10 |    20 |               102.5
   15 | Atlanta Hawks          |   17 |    14 |               102.6
   16 | Denver Nuggets         |   14 |    16 |               102.8
   17 | Washington Wizards     |   14 |    14 |                 103
   18 | Cleveland Cavaliers    |   10 |    20 |               103.9
   19 | Los Angeles Lakers     |   13 |    18 |               103.9
   20 | Dallas Mavericks       |   18 |    13 |               104.4
   21 | Detroit Pistons        |   14 |    19 |               104.8
   22 | Milwaukee Bucks        |    6 |    24 |               104.8
   23 | Portland Trail Blazers |   24 |     7 |                 105
   24 | New Orleans Pelicans   |   14 |    15 |               105.3
   25 | Memphis Grizzlies      |   13 |    17 |               105.5
   26 | New York Knicks        |    9 |    21 |               105.8
   27 | Brooklyn Nets          |   10 |    20 |               106.2
   28 | Sacramento Kings       |    9 |    20 |               106.5
   29 | Philadelphia 76ers     |    9 |    21 |               106.8
   30 | Utah Jazz              |   10 |    24 |               107.7

Does this mean the Blazers can’t compete for a title? Conventional wisdom suggests they can’t, but there is a chance and that chance is the 2000-01 Lakers.

Take a look at the chart below showing the offensive and defensive ratings of the two teams who competed for the championship back to the 1996-97 season.

The numbers on the outside represent a teams respective regular season rating, while the numbers near the circles represent the teams regular season rank. Shorter bars are better.
Champion Runner-up

Here are some takeaways from the chart:

  • 16 of the last 17 champions had a top 10 defense (94%). The 2000-01 Lakers being the outlier.
  • 14 of the last 17 champions had a top 10 offense (82%).
  • 13 of the last 17 runner-ups had a top 10 defense (76%)
  • 10 of the last 17 runner-ups had a top 10 offense (59%).

In the last 17 years, only one time has a team won the championship without a top 10 defense. That probably isn’t the news Blazer fans want to here (I include myself in that group), but the 2000-01 Lakers are the silver lining.

It’s ironic that Blazer fans would need to look to the 2000-01 Shaq and Kobe Lakers for hope given how much Blazer fans loathe the Lakers. Especially a Lakers team that swept them in the first round. But if there’s reason for hope, this Lakers team is it.

In the 2000-01 season the Lakers had the #19 ranked defense (#21 according to basketball-reference.com) and the #2 ranked offense (similar to this years’ Blazer team), but went on to win the title. But, how did they do it?

The 2000-01 Lakers #19 ranked defense allowed 101.7 points per 100 possessions. That defense would be ranked #10 in the 2013-14 season. But, I believe this can almost certainly be explained away by rule changes that have favored offenses. The league PPG average has grown by almost 4 points since hand checking was eliminated in the 2004-05 season.

However, The answer becomes clear when you look at the stats for the 2001 playoffs. The Lakers were motivated in the playoffs, jumping from a regular season rank of #19 to a playoff rank of #1!

The table below shows just how much individual players improved during the playoffs:


      player      | Regular Season Defense | Playoff Defense
------------------+------------------------+-----------------
 Kobe Bryant      |                    105 |              99
 Shaquille O'Neal |                    101 |              96
 Derek Fisher     |                    105 |             101
 Rick Fox         |                    106 |              98
 Horace Grant     |                    106 |              98
 Robert Horry     |                    104 |              95
 Brian Shaw       |                    105 |              99
 Tyronn Lue       |                    108 |              96
 Mark Madsen      |                    107 |             103
 Ron Harper       |                    105 |              91
 Devean George    |                    105 |             106
 Greg Foster      |                    104 |              96
   

Everyone, save Devean George, who played a total of 27 minutes during the Lakers’ playoff run, improved on defense—and pretty drastically.

So the 2013-14 Blazers can win, but they’ll need to make drastic improvements on defense. How drastic? I’ll leave you with one last table, comparing players who’ve played at least 300 minutes on the top 5 teams in the NBA.


  rank |      player       | Defense Rating
------+-------------------+----------------
    1 | Roy Hibbert       |             93
    2 | Ian Mahinmi       |             94
    3 | Paul George       |             94
    4 | David West        |             95
    5 | Luis Scola        |             96
    6 | C.J. Watson       |             97
    7 | Tim Duncan        |             97
    8 | George Hill       |             98
    9 | Kevin Durant      |             98
   10 | Kawhi Leonard     |             98
   11 | Steven Adams      |             98
   12 | Serge Ibaka       |             98
   13 | Lance Stephenson  |             98
   14 | Danny Green       |             99
   15 | Jeff Ayres        |            100
   16 | Russell Westbrook |            100
   17 | Orlando Johnson   |            100
   18 | Kendrick Perkins  |            101
   19 | Thabo Sefolosha   |            101
   20 | Tiago Splitter    |            101
   21 | Chris Andersen    |            101
   22 | Manu Ginobili     |            101
   23 | Nick Collison     |            102
   24 | Reggie Jackson    |            102
   25 | Jeremy Lamb       |            102
   26 | Dwyane Wade       |            102
   27 | Chris Bosh        |            102
   28 | Patrick Mills     |            102
   29 | Derek Fisher      |            103
   30 | Marco Belinelli   |            103
   31 | LeBron James      |            103
   32 | Mario Chalmers    |            103
   33 | Rashard Lewis     |            103
   34 | Michael Beasley   |            104
   35 | Boris Diaw        |            104
   36 | LaMarcus Aldridge |            105
   37 | Thomas Robinson   |            106
   38 | Ray Allen         |            106
   39 | Shane Battier     |            106
   40 | Tony Parker       |            106
   41 | Norris Cole       |            106
   42 | Joel Freeland     |            107
   43 | Nicolas Batum     |            107
   44 | Robin Lopez       |            107
   45 | Wesley Matthews   |            109
   46 | Dorell Wright     |            109
   47 | Damian Lillard    |            110
   48 | Mo Williams       |            110