Does defense really win titles in NBA? Stats over past 10 seasons tell a different story

The National Basketball Association began its arduous two-month post-season journey last week, meaning we again must endure endless debates about what wins titles. A recent HoopsWorld article repeated my favorite cliché: “Defense wins championships.” That may be true for many sports, but it hasn’t been accurate the past 10 NBA seasons.

The previous 10 NBA champions averaged seventh in the league in points allowed per game. However, they also only averaged 10th in points scored. So how did they end up league champions? Like any good organization, the best NBA teams won because they hired the best employees who executed the best business plan. Who knew?

In relatively low-scoring sports like baseball, hockey or soccer, one dominant defender can significantly affect outcomes. For example, a great goal-keeper can be huge when you’re down to shootout stage of a major soccer or hockey match. And a strong relief pitcher can stop a rally by a great offense at key points in baseball or softball games. But in high-scoring sports like my golf game and basketball, it isn’t always so clear. There is too much talent in the NBA now for any one player to control every game. At least not since Wilt Chamberlain forced the goal-tending rule.

Only two of the past 10 champions ranked first in points allowed during the regular season – the San Antonio Spurs in 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. And none of the 10 champs led the league in scoring points. In fact, Detroit was the last team to win the title in “classic” D-style. In 2003-2004, the Pistons were 2nd in points allowed and 24th in points scored. Defensive purists still revere that team. Yet even the Pistons, like the other nine champions, were more concerned with being in position to reach the Finals than with regular-season team statistical rankings. (Individual stats are a different issue.)

Most important: All of the past 10 champs placed top-three in their conference, meaning home-court advantage the first couple of rounds. That helped get them into the NBA Finals, where anything can happen.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000-2001, for example. They ranked 23rd out of 29 teams in points allowed per game yet won the title. How? They scored enough on the other end to get them second in the conference seeding, and leveraged the home-court advantage to reach the conference finals – where they smoked the #1 seed Spurs to get in the Finals. There, they beat the East’s top seed, Philadelphia, 4-1. It was the only game the Lakers lost in four playoff series that year.

Of course, they also had Kobe Bryant and Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal in prime time leading the way.

The Lakers improved from 23rd to 10th the following season in repeating as champ, but they still messed up the case for defense in the process. When a team tournament has a multi-game format, you must play solid in all phases to make a deep run. One great night in one facet of your game won’t do it. Also, many other things factor in – injuries to key players (on your team or the other), favorable matchups, level of experience, equipment issues, officiating assignments, press distractions, family problems, travel glitches and much more.

If you want a wrap-up of the most important factors, the past 10 NBA champions had three things in common:

  • All had great athletes, a necessity no matter what the debate on approach
  • All positioned themselves in their conferences to reach the Finals
  • All peaked in the playoffs, playing some of their best games of the season

Veteran teams view the playoffs as the start of the real season, so they pace themselves during the regular season and thus have something left to give in the playoffs. They know they’ll need it. The intensity and physicality of play do ramp up considerably. Much less goes uncontested.

In part that’s because referees, under the bright lights, are hesitant to call anything but blatant fouls. I’m OK with that. It’s fun to watch the big boys bang inside a bit without the officials constantly interrupting the game. Unfortunately, the result of allowing more aggressive defense generally is lower-scoring games. The perception “defense wins titles” again gets reinforced when it’s really more about attitude toward the playoffs.

More specifically, it’s about the chance to be in the Finals. Like most organizations, NBA teams set their bottom-line goal as being #1 in their industry. Few care who won the regular season that year. It was a nice long run of consistent exposure in local markets, thank you, but the playoffs – especially the Finals – are show time for the NBA. So the stakes are high.

Players and officials feel it most, and the pressure picks up on both sides of the court. That’s when those three key factors stand out: All of the last 10 champions positioned themselves to get into these Finals, where great athletes who were peaking right now executed best in key moments of key games. It also got them lots of pictures hoisting trophies, along with very cool rings and many beautiful “friends.”

In the end, neither offense nor defense rule in the NBA. It’s about having good athletes on a team with a good 12-month plan. Gee, good employees with a good business plan. Go figure.

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: Would the NBA have a more international flavor as the North American Basketball Association? Even better, expanding into Brazil they could become a broader Basketball Association of the Americas (BAA) – or Asociación de Baloncesto de las Américas ­(ABA) – including North, South and Central Américas. Just a thought…


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