Defense No Longer the Staple to Win Championships


“Defense wins championships.”

That’s no longer the case in today’s NBA.  

The days of suffocating defense are over— we only see stretches of a game where defenses suffocate the offense into scoring droughts. 

“Live by the three, die by the three.” 

Simply put, the combination of defending the perimeter and offenses going ice cold from three-point territory, puts offenses into scoring droughts. 

In today’s game, fans only see a handful of possessions where an individual defender puts the clamps on an isolation play because of the degree of difficulty to guard the highest level of offensive scoring.

The offensive skills of today’s era are out of this world and floor spacing has advanced so far that defenders consistently have to honor the many sharpshooters that are presented on the floor. 

Since it’s incredibly difficult to shut offenses down, the top defenses are the ones that stay connected for five-minute stretches in a playoff game.

The defenses that can consistently get stops in key moments is what leads a team to championships. The offensive skill level today just makes it nearly impossible for defenses to put a lid on the rim for four quarters.

In the eras prior — especially come playoff time — defensive-minded players stayed on the floor, even if they were a non-offensive scoring threat. 

In today’s era, defensive-minded players have to bring some offensive value so that they cannot be played off the floor, especially in a playoff setting. That offensive value can be shooting, being the primary playmaker or being used as an on-ball screener.

Some examples of elite defensive players that also bring value on the other end are Draymond Green, Marcus Smart and Bam Adebayo.

Green, who has a high defensive IQ and is an elite five in small-ball lineups, is the Golden State Warriors’ primary screener and playmaker out of the short roll.

Smart, one of top perimeter defenders in the league, also provided catch-and-shoot three-pointers for the Boston Celtics, averaging 5.1 attempts on 33 percent shooting when he won the Defensive Player of the Year in the 2021-2022 season.

Arguably the best switch-five defender, Adebayo is the Miami Heat’s primary playmaker and has an offensive bag averaging at least 15 points per game over the last five seasons. Adebayo has his pattern jumper near the elbow as his go-to shot. 

It’s an interesting thought to rat off names of the elite defensive players off the top of the head then wonder why scoring is so high. 

It’s because of how talented offensive players have become. It’s rare to lock down a star offensive player. It’s about slowing them down.

Some defensive-minded players’ lack of offensive production can be detrimental, especially in a playoff setting.

Rudy Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, has little-to-no offensive game. He’s an excellent roller, but the lack of a post game hurts his value.

Gobert is dependent on a passer to set him up to score. He rarely posts up and that neutralizes his value. Gobert can also have a smaller defender guarding him, yet the offense cannot generate an easy basket. 

Matisse Thybulle, a two-time All-Defensive selection, is struggling to stay on the floor.

In an era where defensive-minded players are asked to have a respectable offensive game, Thybulle has yet to evolve his game on that side; he has never averaged double digits points in a season and he is often the player on the floor opposing defenses are willing to live with him taking wide open three-pointers.  

The poor offensive production can make him unplayable at times.

Ben Simmons, a former number one overall pick and a two-time All-Defensive selection, has not developed an outside shot. He was also notorious for his unreliable free-throw shooting in the 2021 playoffs, where he shot 34 percent from the charity stripe on 73 attempts.

Let’s do a hypothetical.

Tony Allen, a six-time All-Defensive selection who played in the mid 2000s to the late 2010s, averaged six points, shot less than under one three-point attempt on 14 percent shooting in his playoff career.

If Allen was playing in his prime in the current NBA, he would need to provide something on the offensive end of the floor to make a positive impact. 

Since Allen was not a respectable outside shooter, he would be most effective when used as an on-ball screener. Putting him in offensive actions can negate the offensive weaknesses he presents and he can stay on the floor to guard the opposing team’s best scorer.

Check this out. 

Ten years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers finished the 2013-14 season with a 19-63 record and gave up 110 points per game, worst in the NBA.

This season, the Minnesota Timberwolves are first in the Western Conference and have given up 106.3 points per game, tops in the NBA

That’s how much the league has changed. 

Holding a team to under 100 points is considered elite defense. The suffocating championship defense no longer exists, but you still need a respectable defense to win a championship. 

Take a look at the last five NBA Finals matchups.

Eight of the last ten NBA Finals participants finished the regular season top ten in points per game allowed. 

In 2023, the Miami Heat had the second-ranked defense and the Denver Nuggets were eighth. 

The Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors finished in the top three the year prior.

In 2021, the Phoenix Suns had the seventh-lowest OPP PPG and surprisingly, the Milwaukee Bucks, were 22nd in that category.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Heat finished fourth and tenth respectively in 2020. The Toronto Raptors were ninth and the Golden State Warriors finished just outside the top half on defense in 2019 (16th).

Championship teams are good-to-great defensive teams in the regular season. Then, they dial it up come playoff time and have key stretches where they lock down opposing offenses to win the game or series. 

In the aftermath of the Tyrese HaliburtonDomantas Sabonis trade, ironically enough, both the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers had one of the top offensive teams and one of the worst defensive teams in the league. 

In 2022-2023, the Kings were first in points per game (120) and were 25th in points per game given up (125). 

This season, the Pacers are first in points per game (122) and are 28th in points per game given up (120). 

Both teams are playoff-caliber. Kings were the third seed last year while the Pacers are currently sixth in the East. 

But they lack defense. If the Kings and the Pacers can get to an above-average level of defense, with their high-octane offenses, they are, without a doubt, title contenders.

One could say defense still wins championships – just when the game starts to slow down and it’s time to dial it up late in the season.

About Mac Pham

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