clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Does defense really win NBA Finals?

Many assume being top-10 in offense and defense means a Finals run is coming, but does that hold up?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a long-held belief around the NBA that if you have a top-10 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and a top-10 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), that you’re a title contender. Certainly, being top-10 in both categories is a sign of a good team, maybe even a very good to great team. But is being top-10 in both offense and defense a requirement to play in the NBA Finals? That history is a little more jumbled.

Here are the offensive and defensive ratings for each of the last 10 NBA champions:

· 2022 – Golden State Warriors - #17 OR, #1 (tied) DR

· 2021 – Milwaukee Bucks - #6 OR, #10 DR

· 2020 – Los Angeles Lakers - #11 OR, #3 DR

· 2019 – Toronto Raptors - #5 OR, #5 DR

· 2018 – Golden State Warriors - #3 OR, #11 DR

· 2017 – Golden State Warriors - #1 OR, #2 DR

· 2016 – Cleveland Cavaliers - #3 OR, #10 DR

· 2015 – Golden State Warriors - #2 OR, #1 DR

· 2014 – San Antonio Spurs - #7 OR, #3 DR

· 2013 – Miami Heat - #2 OR, #9 DR

What can we extrapolate from this? The first thing that stands out is that the hypothesis mostly holds. Most of these teams are top-10 in both offensive rating and defensive rating, or right on the border. Only last season’s Warriors ranked lower than 11th in either category. And that team was cruising along around the top-10 until a late-March injury to Stephen Curry cratered the offense for the final 12 regular season games.

What about the Finals runner-up teams?

· 2022 – Boston Celtics - #7 OR, #1 (tied) DR

· 2021 – Phoenix Suns - #5 OR, #9 DR

· 2020 – Miami Heat - #7 OR, #11 DR

· 2019 – Golden State Warriors - #1 OR, #13 DR

· 2018 – Cleveland Cavaliers - #5 OR, #29 DR

· 2017 – Cleveland Cavaliers - #3 OR, #21 DR

· 2016 – Golden State Warriors - #1 OR, #5 DR

· 2015 – Cleveland Cavaliers - #3 OR, #18 DR

· 2014 – Miami Heat - #5 OR, #11 DR

· 2013 – San Antonio Spurs - #7 OR, #3 DR

This is a really mixed bag. In general, the theory holds up...until you get to the late-2010s Cavs. Those teams largely slept-walked through the regular season on defense, and then turned it on in the playoffs. Oddly enough, the one year (2016) that the Cavaliers broke through and took down the Warriors, they committed to being a good defensive team the entire year.

And that’s arguably the biggest takeaway here: if you want to make the Finals, and win the title, you probably want to have a pretty good defense. Outside of those Cleveland teams, who also faced little competition in a very weak Eastern Conference, everyone is in range of being a top-10 defense.

That matches the old saying, “Offense wins games. Defense wins championships”. But it’s really a mix of the two that gets it done. Only the 2022 and 2015 Warriors rode the league’s best defense to the championship. And those teams weren’t exactly slouches on offense either.

Obviously, Golden State features prominently in the NBA Finals during the last decade. They’ve played in six of them, after all. What got the Warriors there was a combination of being a dominant offense most years, but having a defense was only slightly less dominant.

But that formula worked for the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors to win titles too. Coincidentally enough, both teams were led by Kawhi Leonard at the peak of his powers. The three LeBron James-led teams in our sample also came out on top when they committed to defense, to complement a good offense. The Milwaukee Bucks broke through by pairing good offense with a solid defense, and both the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns got close the last two seasons.

As a matter of fact, each of the last two seasons have featured four teams that finished in the top-10 in both offensive rating and defensive rating:


· Phoenix Suns - #4 OR, #3 DR

· Memphis Grizzlies - #5 OR, #4 DR

· Boston Celtics - #7 OR, #1 (tied) DR

· Miami Heat - #10 OR, #5 DR


· Utah Jazz - #3 OR, #4 DR

· LA Clippers - #4 OR, #8 DR

· Phoenix Suns - #5 OR, #9 DR

· Milwaukee Bucks - #6 OR, #10 DR

Last season, the Boston Celtics used a good offense to complement what had become a historically good defense to make it to the Finals. The Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies both bowed out in the conference semifinals, while the Miami Heat fell in seven games to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.

If we go back two seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns met in the 2021 NBA Finals. Oddly enough, the LA Clippers knocked the Utah Jazz out in the conference semifinals. That series was costly though, as the Clippers lost Kawhi Leonard to a torn ACL and fell in the Western Conference Finals to the Suns.

So, even our very recent history is a good guidepost to what having a good offensive and defensive rating in the regular season can mean for postseason success.

Now, how about projecting for this season? Maybe unsurprisingly, there are again four teams that currently sit in the top-10 in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating:

· Boston Celtics - #1 OR, #8 DR

· Brooklyn Nets - #5 OR, #9 DR

· New Orleans Pelicans - #6 OR, #6 DR

· New York Knicks - #9 OR, #10 OR

What can we pull from this after approaching the halfway point of the regular season? Boston is really good, as witnessed by having the best record in the NBA so far. Their offense is great, and their defense has also steadily improved. They’ve climbed back to being the best defense in the league since Robert Williams returned.

When playing basketball, and just playing basketball, the Nets are also pretty good. The defense has made major improvement since Jacque Vaughn took over and Ben Simmons started to look more like his old self again. And Brooklyn’s offense will always be there, assuming their guys are actually on the court.

The Pelicans are good. And they’re deep. They’ve put together an impressive run, despite rarely having a full complement of players available. It’s time to take New Orleans seriously as a contender.

And how about those Knicks? Since Tom Thibodeaux excised the no-defense vets from the rotation in exchange for his kids, New York has taken off. They still can’t really shoot, but the Knicks make up for a lack of good shooting, with a good volume of three-pointers and by getting to the line. And they rarely turn the ball over, and regularly crash the glass for second-chance opportunities. That’s how you offset poor shooting, alongside what is always a solid defense.

It’s certainly too early to say our 2023 NBA champions, or even Finals teams, are coming from this group, but it’s worth watching. There are a few teams lurking just outside of the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating too. Keep an eye on the Cleveland Cavaliers (#1 DR, #11 OR), the Phoenix Suns (#2 OR, #11 DR), the Dallas Mavericks (#8 OR, #12 DR) and the Memphis Grizzlies (#4 DR, #13).

We’ll revisit where everyone sits in offensive and defensive rating, and how they’ve climbed up or fallen down, around the All-Star Break. And then we’ll do one last check-in at the end of the regular season. By that point, it’s a good bet we’ll be able to pick out our NBA Finals teams from a list of teams that are either top-10 in both ratings, or knocking on that door.