Defense wins championships. We’ve all heard it ad nauseum. The exception to this rule, however, might be the NBA.
In the past five years, the NBA has become a veritable 82 game three-point shooting contest. In last years’ finals, the Cavaliers scored 86 points in a single half. Against a vaunted Golden State defense, no less. They also broke the record for most threes in an NBA Finals game (24), which was set by the Warriors just one game earlier.
That’s just one singular example of how much the NBA has shifted in the past decade. Regardless of the shooting sprees, though, defense hasn’t completely gone by the wayside.
In the 2017-2018 season, we’ve seen teams such as the Jazz, Celtics and Raptors embrace their defensive identity. This is due to coaching and a true recognition of playing to their own strengths. All three of these teams have ridden their defense to playoff berths (or a potential playoff berth in Utah’s case).
So which teams can buck the current trends and disrupt their opponent with a potent defense? And which teams are better off shooting their way to the NBA Finals? Here, we’ll rank each Eastern Conference team by their defense, based on opponents’ points per game, blocks, steals and points generated off of turnovers.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers
During their three straight trips to the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s defense has never been the driving force. This has all come to a head this season, as they rank third-worst in the league according to their defensive rating.
When looking at their stats individually, they seem like they should place Cleveland in the middle of the pack. The Cavs block 0.3 shots less than opponents per game, they rank only 0.6 steals worse than opposing teams, and surrender only 0.3 defensive rebounds more than they pull in. They’re even positive in their points for/points against split by 0.5 points.
The problem is, when you put all of these middle-of-the-road stats together, they translate to an underachieving defense. If you’re an optimist, you could at least see consistency in their defense to offense, but mediocrity does not get a team far in the playoffs.
The statistics here paint a picture of a team who has had to fight for almost every win they have. Better defensive teams blow out their opponents more often, leading to rest for their stars. It seems as if the Cavaliers are going to have to heavily lean on their offensive capabilities to make it back to the finals.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
According to NBA.com, the Bucks currently stand at 17th in the defensive rankings. They are allowing 106.2 points per game and scoring 105.9 points.
This hasn’t hurt their record too much, though. The Bucks currently sit at 39-35, five games ahead of Detroit for the eighth seed in the East.
A team without a legitimate identity past “give the ball to Antetokounmpo,” the Bucks are fortunate to be in the spot they’re in. Their paint game will give some jump shooting teams fits, but they seem to rely on their offense too much.
Milwaukee’s defense gives up 13.0 second-chance points per game, which is in the bottom ten. They also give up 46.6 points in the paint per game, good for ninth-worst. That last stat is especially odd considering their offensive post game is in the top 10, but it doesn’t always necessarily translate to the other end of the floor.
The Bucks’ block and steal numbers are decent, but they will have to step up the closeout pressure in the playoffs if they hope to pull off an upset.
6. Washington Wizards
The Wizards are known for their offense, led by Bradley Beal in the absence of John Wall. Their defensive rating, however, sits at 106.1, which is good for a place in the top half of the league.
Their worst defensive stat is the number of second chance points given up per game. It makes sense, given their guard-heavy style of play. To that end, the Wizards give up 45.6 points in the paint every night. They are also in the bottom 10 when it comes to blocks per game.
Washington thrives on their ability to steal the ball and turn it into points. At 7.9 steals, their per game average is 10th best in the league. Creating more scoring opportunities for their fast-paced offense is paramount to the team’s success.
Steals alone won’t allow them to take a series, but if they can focus on their frontcourt play, the Wizards can definitely catch some Eastern Conference teams off guard.
5. Indiana Pacers
Indiana’s winning record and surprisingly good season are thanks in part to some serviceable defense.
They give up almost 2.0 less than they score every night, and their steals and blocks are in the plus column as well. The biggest discrepancy here is the block numbers, as they dish out one less than they receive. The 44.7 paint points given up per game are in the exact middle of the road.
The real advantage the Pacers have, though is their ability to turn turnovers into points. They are fifth best in the league, with 14.9 points off of turnovers. Considering their steals sit at 8.8 per game, that is just shy of a 60% success rate.
Much like the Wizards, the Pacers will have to rely on their quick hands to steal a series away from a favored team. But with a potent offensive attack with a very balanced defense, Indiana will be a tough out when April rolls around.
4. Miami Heat
Another surprising playoff contender, Miami’s young core has come into their own during the 2018 season. With a defensive rating solidly in the top 10, playing Miami has been more of a chore than was expected.
A great paint defense has been the key this year. Hassan Whiteside continues to come along nicely, and Bam Adebayo has created a one-two punch that makes easy buckets hard to come by. At 5.2 blocks per game, the team clearly has a defense-first mentality.
Their field goal percentage versus their opponents’ is pretty even, including a plus 0.2 percentage on three-point field goal percentage. The total rebounds and steals also sit narrowly in the plus column.
The real hurdle for the Heat will be keeping their big men on the floor. At 19.3 personal fouls per game, Miami allows 3.3 more free throw attempts than they take. In playoff games, those three points could very well be the difference between winning and losing a game. Discipline on the defensive end will be the name of the game for this young core in their search for a series win.
3. Toronto Raptors
Currently holders of the East’s top seed, and with all the talk of their defense-to-offense balance, one might expect the Raptors to hold a higher spot here. But, according to the defensive ranking, Toronto actually sits at sixth overall, and third in the East.
However surprising it may be, the Raptors are no slouch on that end of the floor.
They tower over their opponents, scoring 8.1 more points per game than their opponents, which is easily the highest on this list so far. They are positive in almost every defensive category. They own 1.2 more blocks per game over opposing teams, 0.7 steals, and have a 2.2% percent advantage in field goals made. Add in their fourth-best opponents’ points off of turnover rankings, and this is team causes problems.
Their biggest struggles come in the paint, like most of today’s NBA teams. A seemingly-paltry bottom half ranking in opponents’ points in the paint and a bottom five ranking in opponents’ second chance buckets are the problems for this team. Paint struggles have broken past playoff teams.
This doesn’t quite spell disaster for the Raptors, though. As previously discussed, jump shots have become the order of every game. It’s going to take some serious game-planning to truly expose these Raptors’ paint struggles to the tune of a win. Doing it four times out of seven is a much taller order.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
A surprising team to occupy this spot, the 76ers’ defense has led this shockingly young team to a playoff berth.
The opposite of most teams on this list, their paint defense is where this team thrives. This is thanks in part to Joel Embiid’s season-long coming out party. Accounting for 11.1 rebounds and almost two blocks per game, the team lives and dies by the center’s play.
Philly gives up just 41.8 points in the paint per game, which is third-best in the NBA. This translates to only 12.4-second chance points every game, good for a spot in the top half of the league. Add that to a 3.3 field goal made disadvantage to the 76ers’ opponents, and you have a formidable defense to deal with, regardless of shooting woes.
The only Achilles heel here is their miserable reputation of giving opponents points off of turnovers. Their opponents score 19.0 points per game off of Philadelphia turnovers, which is the worst in the NBA.
That is not encouraging, considering some teams will have to rely on their steals as their only form of defense. If the 76ers allow a bucket almost every time that happens, then they can kiss any shot of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals goodbye, regardless of their great play in the paint.
That will be the real litmus test of this young team. If they can stop that bleeding, then they have a chance to shake things up in the East.
1. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are not only the top team in the Eastern Conference but the best team in the entire NBA according to the defensive ratings.
Regardless of their woeful injury report, Boston, led by one of the top minds in the NBA in Brad Stevens, has a true defensive identity.
The Celts are solidly in the top 10 in opponents’ points in the paint, and opponents’ second-chance points. Their steals are even with their opponents, and their blocks are just 0.2 ahead of opposing teams.
According to the field goal percentages against them, it’s clear this team contests almost every shot that goes up. They are in the plus column in three-point percentage, two-point field goal percentage, and total field goal percentage.
The most surprising stat is the fact that they only score 4.0 more points than opposing teams. But stats, however helpful, can be misleading when it comes to defense. The team play on the defensive end is completely apparent when watching this team play. They may play close games, but defense often comes out on top in those contests.
When the team gets healthy and gels in the playoffs, this defense could be the deciding factor in more than a couple of games. While their scoring isn’t much to write home about, stopping other teams from scoring can be just as productive.
Featured image by Nathan Denette/Associated Press
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