Does Defense Win Championships?

The Lakers decision to sign Mike D’Antoni was questioned by a few. Was it a way to spite the Zen Master for trying to play hardball? Was it to get Steve Nash out of his funk? Regardless of the answer, it would appear that the Lakers have decided to go against the wisdom that defense wins championships. Even when he was leading 55+ win teams in Phoenix, his teams were not known for defense (and the stats back this up)

For fun, here’s a rundown of D’Antoni’s teams offensive and defensive ratings (points earned per 100 possessions and points given up per 100 possessions)

Season Team ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank)
 1999 Denver 103.1 (12th)  110.4 (29th)
 2004 Phoenix 101.4 (21st) 105.5 (24th)
 2005 Phoenix 114.5 (1st) 107.1 (17th)
 2006 Phoenix 111.5 (2nd) 105.8 (16th)
 2007 Phoenix 113.9 (1st) 106.4 (13th)
 2008 Phoenix 113.3 (2nd) 108.1 (16th)
 2009 New York 108.1 (17th) 110.8 (23rd)
 2010 New York 107.6 (17th) 111.6 (27th)
 2011 New York 110.9 (7th) 110.1 (22nd)
 2012* New York 104.4 (17th) 101.0 (5th)

In his entire career the only season D’Antoni ever saw a team with a good defense is the year he was fired. I’ll toe the line saying that he never had a fully defensive squad. The Laker team he inherited was 13th in Defensive Rating last season and is currently 18th in the league. Of course, as New York showed with Tyson Chandler, one player can make the difference. Dwight Howard, as we’ll see, has anchored some top defenses. It’s possible D’Antoni’s history of poor defenses may end this season.

Let’s ask the question though, if the Lakers don’t have a good defense, do they stand a shot at a title? Let’s take a look at teams that made it to the finals over the last several decades. Numbers from Basketball-Reference

2010′s Title Rundowns

Season Champ ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank) Runner Up ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank)
2012 Miami 106.6 (8th) 100.2 (4th) Oklahoma City 109.8 (2nd) 103.2 (11th)
 2011  Dallas  109.7 (8th) 105.0 (8th) Miami 111.7 (3rd) 103.5 (5th)
 2010  Los Angeles 108.8 (11th) 103.7 (4th) Boston 107.7 (15th) 103.8 (5th)

2000′s Title Rundowns

Season Champ ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank) Runner Up ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank)
 2009  Los Angeles 112.8 (3rd) 104.7 (6th)  Orlando 109.2 (11th) 101.9 (1st)
 2008 Boston 110.2 (10th) 98.9 (1st) Los Angeles 113.0 (3rd) 105.5 (5th)
 2007 San Antonio 109.2 (5th) 99.9 (2nd)  Cleveland 105.5 (18th) 101.3 (4th)
2006 Miami 108.7 (7th) 104.5 (9th) Dallas 111.8 (1st) 105.0 (11th)
2005 San Antonio 107.5 (8th) 98.8 (1st) Detroit 105.6 (17th) 101.2 (3rd)
 2004 Detroit 102.0 (18th) 95.4 (2nd) Los Angeles 105.5 (6th) 101.3 (8th)
 2003 San Antonio 105.6 (7th) 99.7 (3rd) New Jersey 103.8 (18th) 98.1 (1st)
 2002  Los Angeles 109.4 (2nd) 92.1 (6th) New Jersey 104.0 (17th) 99.5 (1st)
 2001 Los Angeles 108.4 (2nd) 104.8 (21st) Philadelphia 103.6 (13th) 98.9 (5th)
 2000 Los Angeles 107.3 (5th) 98.2 (1st)  Indiana 108.5 (1st) 103.6 (13th)

1990′s Title Rundowns

Season Champ ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank) Runner Up ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank)
 1999 San Antonio 104.0 (11th) 95.0 (1st) New York 98.6 (26th) 97,5 (4th)
 1998 Chicago 107.7 (9th) 99.8 (3rd) Utah Jazz 112.7 (1st) 105.4 (17th)
 1997 Chicago 114.4 (1st) 102.4 (4th) Utah Jazz 113.6 (2nd) 104.0 (9th)
 1996 Chicago 115.2 (1st) 101.8 (1st) Seattle 110.3 (8th) 102.1 (2nd)
 1995  Houston 109.7 (7th) 107.4 (12th) Orlando 115.1 (1st) 107.8 (13th)
 1994 Houston 105.9 (15th) 101.4 (2nd) New York 105.7 (16th) 98.2 (1st)
1993 Chicago 112.9 (2nd) 106.1 (7th)  Phoenix 113.3 (1st) 106.7 (9th)
 1992 Chicago 115.5 (1st) 104.5 (4th) Portland 111.4 (7th) 104.2 (3rd)
 1991 Chicago 114.6 (1st) 105.2 (7th) Los Angeles 112.1 (5th) 105.0 (5th)
 1990 Detroit 109.9 (11th) 103.5 (2nd)  Portland 110.5 (9th) 104.4 (4th)

1980′s Title Rundowns

Season Champ ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank) Runner Up ORating (Rank) DRating (Rank)
 1989 Detroit 110.8 (7th) 104.7 (3rd) Los Angeles 113.8 (1st) 106.7 (7th)
 1988  Los Angeles 113.1 (2nd) 107.3 (9th)  Detroit 110.5 (6th) 105.3 (2nd)
 1987 Los Angeles 115.6 (1st) 106.5 (7th) Boston 113.5 (3rd) 106.8 (9th)
 1986 Boston 111.8 (3rd) 102.6 (1st) Houston 110.1 (5th) 107.6 (14th)
 1985 Los Angeles 114.1 (1st) 107.0 (7th) Boston 112.8 (2nd) 106.3 (5th)
 1984 Boston 110.9 (6th) 104.4 (3rd) Los Angeles 110.9 (5th) 107.3 (9th)
 1983  Philadelphia 108.3 (5th) 100.9 (5th) Los Angeles 110.5 (1st) 105.2 (13th)
 1982  Los Angeles 110.2 (2nd) 105.5 (10th) Philadelphia 109.6 (5th) 103.9 (7th)
 1981  Boston Celtics 108.4 (5th) 102.6 (4th)  Houston 107.0 (9th) 106.7 (16th)
 1980 Los Angeles  109.5 (1st) 103.9 (9th)  Philadelphia 105.0 (13th) 101.0 (1st)

The prognosis is a bit interesting. Of our champions 20 out of 33 of them had a top five defense. In fact, all but two had a top ten defense (the 1995 Houston Rockets and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers) We’re a little more forgiving to runner ups, 18 out of 33 of them had a top five defense, while 25 out of 33 had a top 10 defense. The full explanation is a bit more simple though.

The key to winning in the NBA is point differential. In fact, that’s the basis Wins Produced is based on. If we look at how many points our team score on offense vs. how many they give up on defense, we get a good estimate of how good of a team we have. To win the title requires being a good team. As such, a team needs to be good at offense, defense or both.

And in fact, that’s what we see. 26 out of our 33 title teams were top 10 in both defense AND offense (with the 1996 Chicago Bulls amazingly being number one in both) It’s a bit further down for runner-ups. Only 15 out of 33 were top 10 in both offense in defense. However, across all of our teams, every single one of them was top 10 in either offense or defense. (Which is how teams like the 2004 Pistons and 2001 Lakers still won despite being poor at offense and defense respectively)

Right now the Lakers are, in fact, 6th in the league in offense. They have a bona fied star and their record is actually worse than their stats suggest. It’s possible if the Lakers behind Dwight Howard rebound then D’Antoni could finally win a title and have a top defense. Or, if they somehow imitate the 2001 season, they might even do it with a terrible defense. That said, I’d still have sided with Phil Jackson

-Dre

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