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They Say Defense Wins Championships


by Dean Oliver, founder of JoBS, Journal of Basketball Studies

The proverbial "they" say that Defense Wins Championships.

I really don't know who exactly "they" are that claim this, but "they" are wrong. Or at least "they" should step forward and tell me what "they" mean. Because I really can't tell.

Growing up and playing on a few teams (basketball, football, softball, and, of course, dodge ball), I saw lots of games and lots of teams. I won a few championships and played on a few bad teams, too. But in most of the cases where I saw the best teams, it was offense -- not defense -- that made the teams as good as they were.

There was the basketball team that had a guy who could dunk, who could blow by just about any defender, and who ultimately played college ball. They won our league title because this guy could score. They didn't say that defense wins championships. Only "they" did.

... Who Gets Recruited? ...

On top of that: Who are the players that get recruited for the next level? It sure ain't the guy who sticks to his man like glue, but can't buy a wide open ten footer. It's more likely to be the guy who can break down any defense and has a breakdown about playing defense.

... The King of the Court ...

If you think Michael Jordan is called the greatest basketball player ever because of his defense, then you're probably also wondering what all the fuss about Elvis' death was about since you just saw him at the grocery store handing out free samples of Yoohoo. Nike, McDonalds, Gatorade, and Sportsline are paying Jordan because he can hang in the air, do his taxes, then dunk on Shaquille O'Neal -- not because he can shut down Steve Smith.

... The Fifty Greatest Players ...

You want more? How about this: Of the Fifty Greatest Players in NBA History, only three had career scoring averages under 15 ppg. Of all these players, it is fair to say that only Bill Russell, Dave DeBusschere, and maybe Nate Thurmond made their reputation primarily on defense.

... The 1997 Chicago Bulls ...

But I have heard Defense Wins Championships as much as anyone and I have at least been partially brainwashed by it. I thought I saw the Bulls winning the '97 NBA Title because they turned up the defensive intensity. I know I saw that. Didn't you see it?

"I remember Jordan making shot after shot, but I don't remember a single defensive play.

But I also saw Jordan bury his %@!#&! 23rd game winning jumper at the buzzer. And I saw Jordan score 38 points when no defense -- not even the flu -- could stop him from winning Game 5 of the Finals. Funny, I remember Jordan making shot after shot, but I don't remember a single defensive play.

As I remembered Jordan's shots, I thought I could be missing something, so I decided to look at this question in more detail. I really tried to find some evidence that Defense Wins Championships.

... The Basic Study ...

My first thought was to evaluate the number of times the NBA's best defensive team won the title and compare it to the number of times the NBA's best offensive team won the title. If you consider the best defensive team to be the one that allowed the fewest points per game, then this almost never happens, happening only four times since the Celtic dominance of the '60's. On the other hand, the league's highest scoring team has won five times since the Celtic era.

Those who know my work, however, are trying to buzz in and remind me that I typically define the league's best offense and defense by the number of points they score and allow per 100 possessions. I call them offensive and defensive ratings. I also call them a pain to calculate, but I did it all the way back through the 1986 season.

For more detailed descriptions, definitions, and explanation of calculating "ratings",
see JoBS Methods Descriptions for the Scientific Study of Basketball

... The Champs Were Most Efficient How Often? ...

Since the 1986 season, the most efficient defensive team has won the title three times. The most efficient offensive team has won the title four times.

If Defense Wins Championships, it certainly helps to have good offense.

... If They'd Only Apply Themselves ...

Still trying to prove myself stupid, I figured I'd go back to the method I outlined in Toying With 'Em. In short, this method says that good teams slack off in a lot of games that they have won by the third quarter, so their numbers aren't as good as they would be if they competed throughout games. As your mom used to tell you, "You could do so much better if you just applied yourself!!" Well, teams do apply themselves in the playoffs, so it seems relevant to look at this measure, which just adjusts teams' offensive and defensive efficiencies by evaluating how much they slacked off in the regular season.

Before I do, let me provide some context. Going back through all the playoff series since 1986, I find that the better defensive team won their playoff series a not-so-whopping 63% of the time. The better offensive team won their playoff series 66% of the time. This still shows no support for the Defense (not Offense) Wins Championship phrase that "they" cling to.

Since 1986, the better defensive team has won 71% of their playoff series. The better offensive team has won 75% of their playoff series.

Now when I determined how much teams slacked off, which I could only do for 5 of the past 12 seasons because I didn't have game by game scores, I saw something of a change. The better defensive team won 71% of their series, an improvement giving evidence to support the notion that teams do turn it up defensively in the playoffs. But, the better offensive team won 75% of their series, which implies that teams also turn it up offensively in the playoffs.

... Really, They Only Got Lazy Defensively ...

Given the rather dim light this placed on "their" mantra, I pulled out one last desperate trick to try to prove "them" right. What my previous method did (I really need a name for it) was assume that teams slacked off equally on defense and on offense. Heck, I don't know if that is right, but I had no basis to think otherwise... until now. Since "they" say Defense Wins Championships, I figured that it must be only the defense that teams slack off on during the regular season, turning it on for the postseason.

And -- whaddya know!! -- Defense Does Win Championships!!! With this adjustment, the better defensive team won 76% of their series and the better offensive team won just 70%.

Still, I think I'll take Michael Jordan over Dikembe Mutombo.



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