Top Defense, Offenses, and Championships

July 12th, 2013 | by Laura Thompson

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)

Defense Offense and Championships

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:

  • Only once was neither NBA Finals team in the Top 10 defensively: 2005-2006 between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks. Not surprisingly, both teams were in the Top 10 offensively.
  • From the 2002-2003 season until present, both teams competing for the ultimate trophy were both in the Top 10 Defensively AND Offensively four times—the 2008-2009 season, and each of the last three seasons.
  • Both teams in the NBA finals have been in the Top 10 defensively 9 of the 11 times since the rankings started.
  • In only 2 of the 11 Finals was neither team in the Top 10 offensively.

Here are the year-to-year stats:

  • 2012-2013 – Both Top 10 Defense; Both Top 10 Offense
  • 2011-2012 – Both Top 10 Defense; Both Top 10 Offense
  • 2010-2011 – Both Top 10 Defense; Both Top 10 Offense
  • 2009-2010 – Both Top 10 Defense; Neither Top 10 Offense
  • 2008-2009 – Both Top 10 Defense; Both Top 10 Offense
  • 2007-2008 – Both Top 10 Defense; Lakers Top 10 Offense (Boston Won; Boston #1 defense, Lakers #9)
  • 2006-2007 – Both Top 10 Defense; San Antonio Top 10 Offense (San Antonio Won)
  • 2005-2006 – Neither Top 10 Defense; Both Top 10 Offense (Miami Won)
  • 2004-2005 – Both Top 10 Defense; San Antonio Top 10 Offense (San Antonio Won)
  • 2003-2004 – Detroit Top 10 Defense; Lakers Top 10 Offense (Detroit Won; Detroit #2 Def; Lakers #6 Off)
  • 2002-2003 – Both Top 10 Defense; Neither Top 10 Offense (San Antonio Won; NJ #1 defense, SA #2)

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.

Laura Thompson

Laura Thompson

Laura was a Jazz fan since diapers, even growing up in California. Her favorite things in life are the Utah Jazz, food (whether cooking or consumption of), reading, church, black Labs, and the beach--though possibly not in that order.
Laura Thompson


  1. Clint Johnson says:

    Excellent take. A lot of your data supports what many fans have long believed, but it is interesting to see the recent trend of a truly elite class of teams rising in the NBA. I have a bad feeling the elite teams on both sides of the floor may represent an increasing polarization in talent in the league. First Boston, then a new level with Miami, now add Brooklyn and Houston to the mix. The Lakers, Knicks, and Mavericks have all tried to do the same thing and simply missed in the construction. If the Jazz really want to compete for a championship, they need to buck the trend the same way Detroit and Boston did against the Lakers: double down on defense.

  2. Laura says:

    Thanks, Clint! I think you’re right about the polarization in talent, which is why I think I’ve been so thrilled with how DL/KOC are operating this offseason. See what the young kids (defensive-minded players, mind you) can do, and see what tweaks need to be made after that. Offense-only players are no longer part of the plan (goodbye Al, Randy, and Mo), and we’ll see what a better defensive team can offer. If we can get another elite player–Draft 2014?–and another great defensive player or two, it’ll be interesting to see if we could make some noise in a few years.

    Defense wins championships. Hopefully we’ll become a Top 10 defensive team soon.

  3. Clint Peterson says:

    A few seasons ago I did a similar study looking back at the last 10 years of champions using BasketballReference’s ratings systems. My finding were very much like yours — 80% of the time it took a top 10 defense to win it all, while only about 60% of the time a top 10 offense did. The pattern held true — that being that most of the time you needed both — with two anomalies: the ’01 Lakers, who had a 21st-ranked D with a 2nd-ranked O, and the ’04 Pistons, who had a 2nd-ranked D with an 18th-ranked O.

    Some old adages hold true, cliche as they may be — defense does indeed win championships. At least before offense if you’re playing the odds.

  4. Laura says:

    Very interesting! Do you still have that study around? It’d make a great SCH post.

    That’s what surprised me, too: as much as we hear that defense wins championships, it really is the more important ingredient of the two if you HAVE to pick. Your odds go up, and considering we have some defensive-minded players starting now, I’m thrilled to see how this develops.

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