Does Defense Really Win Championships?

September 10, 2012

By Eric Palutsis


Football season is finally here and that means that it is time again for every wannabe-NFL analyst to give his or her prediction for who will be left celebrating when the confetti falls in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. It seems to be a common sentiment amongst football experts that defense wins championships, as evidenced by this year’s trendy Super Bowl favorites. But does that same logic still apply to basketball? Or has today’s NBA game evolved to a point where offense reigns supreme?


Offensive and defensive ratings are two statistics that are very indicative of a team’s performance on each end of the floor, allowing us to identify which is more important in the makeup of an NBA champion. Taking a look at the title winners this millennium revealed that if you still want to be playing basketball in early June then your team better be putting in extra work on the defensive end in the offseason: only one team (the ’01 Lakers) have won an NBA title without at least being top ten in the league in defensive rating. Three teams have gone home with the hardware that were ranked #1 defensively but the top offensive team has yet to win a title this millennium; the Pistons managed to win it all in ’04 with only the league’s 18th best offense but were carried by their second-ranked defense.


The defensive trend doesn’t just hold true for league champion; if anything, looking at the Eastern and Western Conference finalists over the same thirteen seasons strengthens the argument that defense wins championships. The top-ranked defensive teams reached at least the conference finals nine of the past thirteen years and six of those #1 teams went on to reach the NBA finals. Meanwhile, seven of the top-ranked offensive teams reached their respective conference finals but only two teams were able to advance through to the finals (and both the ’00 Pacers and ’06 Mavericks lost in the end).




Perhaps the perfect microcosm of the offense versus defense debate can be seen by comparing the playoff runs of the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns over the past decade. The Suns, famous for Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo, high-scoring offense, reached the Western Conference finals three times in the past thirteen years. During those three seasons (’05, ’06, ’10) Phoenix was an incredible first, second, and first in offensive rating, respectively. However, their defensive rating averaged a mere 19th best in the league and—to no one’s surprise—the Suns lost all three series, never reaching the NBA Finals during the Steve Nash era.


On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Boston Celtics made four appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals during the same time period (’02, ’08, ’10, ’12). Like the Suns, the Celtics excelled at one facet of the game during these four playoff runs, except that it was defensive as opposed to offense. Boston’s average defensive rating was third best in the league while its average offensive rating was a rather pedestrian 18th best in the league. How did the defensively-minded Celtics fare once they reached the conference finals? Two NBA Finals appearances and—most importantly—a championship trophy.


Even this past season’s NBA Finals showcased the importance of defense in playoff basketball once again, as the Miami Heat’s defense overcame the Oklahoma City’s offensive firepower. The Thunder were ranked second offensively but only 11th defensively, compared to the Heat’s eighth ranked offense and fourth ranked defense. Who came out on top? Obviously Miami and its athletic perimeter defense. This came one season after they were upset in the finals by the Mavericks while finishing with a better offensive rating than defensive rating. After another year of gelling and re-dedication to defense, what happens? NBA title.


Looks like defense really does win championships.