In pondering what the Jazz’s defensive ranking might be this year with increased minutes for Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter—and zero minutes for defensive liability Al Jefferson, now a Bobcat—I was curious as to how defensive and offensive rankings played out historically for the two teams playing for the O’Brien trophy every June. Is being a Top 10 defensive team essential to make it to the Finals? A Top 10 offensive team? How does it break down?
And because nothing makes an evening more fun than playing around in Excel, this chart is what I came up with. The Top 10 offensive-ranking teams are in the top portion of the chart, and the Top 10 defensive-ranking teams are in the bottom portion. The middle shows the NBA champion for that season, along with the runner up. (click below to see the full image)
I attempted to color code a few teams where there seemed to be trends or teams that were consistently in the Top 10, either offensively or defensively (using Hollinger’s offensive/defensive rankings). As expected, you’ll see the Suns were 1st offensively for six years in a row, and San Antonio consistently ranks in the Top 10 defensively.
Since the Hollinger offensive/defensive rankings in 2002-2003, here are some interesting stats:
Here are the year-to-year stats:
What does this teach us? If you’re a defensive team, you’ll beat the Lakers in the Finals even if you’re not a Top 10 offensive team (yay!). Okay, seriously, what does this teach us? With one exception (2005-2006), at least one team in the finals is a Top 10 defensive team. And with two exceptions, BOTH teams in the finals are a Top 10 defensive team. Bottom line? If you want to be contending for a championship, you HAVE to play defense. The last seven championships have been played by Top 10 defensive teams.
So, what does this mean for the Jazz?
This shows just how essential defense is if you want to be a championship-contending team. Jazz management made a giant step to correct defensive deficiencies—the Jazz have been in the 20s the last couple of years defensively—by amicably parting with Jefferson, arguably (easily?) the worst defender on the team for the last few years. Teams consistently attacked Al, especially using the pick and roll to exploit his lack of lateral quickness.
Al’s departure, along with Millsap signing with Atlanta, gives the reins to Favors and Kanter to anchor what will hopefully be a much-improved defense. Hayward’s defense is usually strong, and Foye’s departure may be addition by subtraction because his good showings on defense were few and far between. Burks’ renewed attention to defense and increased minutes should also help shore up the Jazz on D. Those replacing the Jazz’s former free agents (Jefferson, Millsap, Foye, Watson, etc.) are all upgrades—and sometimes major upgrades, in the case of Favors—so the defense should be significantly better this next year.
A team’s offensive ranking obviously shouldn’t be ignored when chasing the championship, and this is where we as fans might need to practice the most patience. Last year’s best offensive players are gone, and each of the replacements has limitations offensively. However, the core group is young and talented and will likely figure it out—each has improved offensively from year to year. Hopefully Hayward will become more consistent and start strong right out of the gate. Hopefully Favors will develop a go-to move in the post and continue to play well on the pick and roll. Hopefully Kanter can continue to show what he’s capable of when given significant minutes—maybe even another 20/20 game or two. Hopefully Burks can continue to improve his jumper (his three-point shot, by the end of last season, had become pretty consistent) while also getting to the free-throw line. If we’re patient and if Corbin adjusts his offense to a more balanced personnel, we could see some interesting improvement offensively in some ways next year.
In short, we need a Top 10 defense, and we may see glimpses this year that Favors, Kanter, Hayward, etc. can get us there. This team may not be the disappointment that many expect.