Defense Wins Championships

One of the hot topics here on CN is that of the Clippers tempo.  It seems as though the overwhelming majority of the Clipper fans here and elsewhere are in favor of the Clips running a more uptempo offense, looking to fast-break more and thus increase points in transition.  While a solid half court game is essential (in the opinion of this poster) if you want to have success in the postseason, I also have no problem with the team getting up and running more.  That being said, I think the enthusiasm for a Mike D'Antoni style offense needs to be tempered.  The key to wining in the postseason in the NBA (in addition to the aforementioned half court offense) is being an elite defensive team.  Scoring in trasnition is certainly important, but it needs to happen as the result of defensive stops.  We have all heard the saying "defense wins championships," but a look at the numbers with respect to this idea is truly eye opening.

The Los Angeles Clippers, as all of us here are aware, have had very limited playoff success (for a myriad of reasons discussed regularly on this board).  However, in 05-06, the Clips had their most successful season ever, earning a 6-seed in the playoffs, and advancing to game 7 of the western conference semifinals.   They did so despite being the 18th ranked offensive team in the league (against the 2 ranked offense Phoenix Suns).  Not surprisingly, however, the Clips were the 8th ranked defensive team that season, finishing among the NBA elites in rebounding and blocked shots.

To evaluate the truth of the saying "defense wins championships", one needs only to look up the defensive rankings of past NBA champions.  The defensive rankings below are the number of points allowed per 100 possessions according to

2008-2009 Lakers : Offensive Rating: 112.8 (3rd of 30) ▪ Defensive Rating: 104.7 (6th of 30)

2007-2008 Celtics: Offensive Rating: 110.2 (9th of 30) ▪ Defensive Rating: 98.9 (1st of 30)

2006-2007 Spurs: Offensive Rating: 109.2 (5th of 30) ▪ Defensive Rating: 99.9 (2nd of 30)

2005-2006 HeatOffensive Rating: 108.7 (7th of 30) ▪ Defensive Rating: 104.5 (9th of 30)

2004-2005 Spurs:  Offensive Rating: 107.5 (8th of 30) ▪ Defensive Rating: 98.8 (1st of 30)

2003- 2004 PistonsOffensive Rating: 102.0 (18th of 29) ▪ Defensive Rating: 95.4 (2nd of 29)

2002-2003 Spurs:  Offensive Rating: 105.6 (7th of 29) ▪ Defensive Rating: 99.7 (3rd of 29)

2001-2002 Lakers:  Offensive Rating: 109.4 (2nd of 29) ▪ Defensive Rating: 101.7 (7th of 29)

2000-2001 Lakers:  Offensive Rating: 108.4 (2nd of 29) ▪ Defensive Rating: 104.8 (21st of 29)

1999-2000 Lakers: Offensive Rating: 107.3 (4th of 29) ▪ Defensive Rating: 98.2 (1st of 29)

1998-1999:  Spurs:  Offensive Rating: 104.0 (11th of 29) ▪ Defensive Rating: 95.0 (1st of 29)

1997-1998  Bulls: Offensive Rating: 107.7 (8th of 29) ▪ Defensive Rating: 99.8 (3rd of 29)


And this trend continues.  Going back 35 years (and probably more) only 2 NBA champions finished outside the top 10 in defense (and both were defending NBA Champs who had been near the top of the league the previous season (2001 Lakers, 1995 Rockets).   The overwhelming majority of champions are top 5 defensive teams ( typically top 3).  The rare cases of teams winning it all while finishing outside the top 5 in defense all seem to be teams in the top 3 offensively.  The 2006 Heat  are the one team that doesn't seem to fit in, though they were top a 10 offensive and defensive team (still in my opinion the worst NBA championship team of the last 30 years).  8 of the last 12 NBA champions have been top 3 defensive teams.  Of the remaining  4 teams, 2 were returning champion Laker teams.  A third was the most recent Lakers championship team, who finished 6th (3rd offensively).

Clearly, championship caliber teams need to be able to score the basketball, but offense alone just doesn't get it done.  The Phoenix suns, fun as they were to watch in the D'Antoni era ( and after ,they have been in the top 2 in offense every year since 04-05, including last season) were never able to make it over the hump in the playoffs.  Those suns teams were, at their best, a middle of the pack defensive team (and at times worse).  In three playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs since 2005, the Suns were a combined  4-12 (each of those spurs teams were in the top 2 on defense).

Getting points in transition is certainly important in the NBA, and the Clippers could definitely stand to do better in this department, but lets face it they could stand to do better in every department.  The numbers show that even in the modern NBA, with rule changes to help offensive players, teams that play defense are the ones that get it done in the postseason.  And looking at the list above, those were all teams that could score in the half court (even the heat had Shaq to throw the ball to on the block, and Dwayne Wade can score in any position, particularly when he gets phantom foul calls in the finals, but I digress...).  The most famous fast-break team in NBA history  is the "showtime" Lakers of the 80's.  Those teams were so well known for running that its easy to forget that a big part of their offense was giving the ball to Kareem (and a number of other talented bigs) on the block.  Defensively they were solid too ,finishing in the top 10 in every championship season.

As a frustrated Clipperd fan (like most of us here have been the last few years) I think its much more important that we  focus on moving the ball well and executing in the halfcourt as opposed to looking to get all our offense in transition.  That being said, Baron Davis, when healthy, is as talented in the open court as anybody.  So sure, lets hope this season he gets up and runs and the Clippers get some much needed easy buckets this year.  But lets hope it starts on the defensive end.

Log In Sign Up

Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Clips Nation

You must be a member of Clips Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Clips Nation. You should read them.

Join Clips Nation

You must be a member of Clips Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Clips Nation. You should read them.




Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.