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My Perception

With so little basketball news to keep me going, and the trade deadline getting closer, I got to thinking recently about Seattle’s season thus far and its recent run of poor play. We all know Seattle can score well enough to keep itself in games this year; we can even score at a phenomenal pace when firing on all cylinders. It is the defensive end that has been so woeful. Seattle is dead last in the NBA in points allowed; we all have seen how we constantly allow teams that can’t seem to score well anywhere else, light up our Supes. Last year we were 26th out of 29 teams in points allowed/per 100 possessions, worse than the average team in the NBA, yet it always seemed like we were able to get key stops during games that put us over the top. This year it is not happening.

I have always been in the camp that believed that Defense wins championships. I didn’t really have any statistics to back that up, it always just seemed like the better defensive team usually wins in a 7 game series. Thinking back the last few years I think of Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen and even Robert Horry as pretty good defenders, and they have 2 rings in 3 years. I think of Detroit with big Ben Wallace (defensive player of the year), Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince in 2004. I think of the Lakers before that with Shaquille, and Robert Horry again, Kobe, Rick Fox and Ron Harper. These teams had good defenders, but they also played great team defense. Then I got to thinking back even farther to the showtime teams of the Lakers; they seemed to me to be great offensive teams, but not especially gifted on defense; yet they won. Do the statistics bear out what I observe?

Again, jonesing for basketball news, I did a little checking. I went back and looked at the defensive and offensive numbers for the last 20 championship teams, and the runner up. I was curious to see if “defense really does win championships”.

Of the last 20 teams to win a championship, 13 of these were in the top 5 in the NBA in defensive rating; that is about 65%. It really doesn’t seem that incredible to me. I would have thought the number would actually be higher. To even get to the level where you are a serious challenger for a NBA title, I would expect a team to be fairly good on both sides of the ball. Of the last 20 runners up for the championship, only 7 were in the top 5.

Offensively, of the last 20 championship teams, 10 were in the top 5 of offensive ratings, or 50%. The last 20 runners up were in the top 5 offensively just 7 times, or 35%. On the strength of just these comparisons, it would seem like a top five type of defense would win more championships than a top 5 offense; but I think to leave the discussion there would be an oversimplification. A deeper look shows some interesting things. In 2005, the number 1 defense (SAS) met the number 3 defense(Det), and the number 1 team won; fair enough so far. In 2003, the number 1 defense (NJN) again met the number 3 defense (SAS), this time the number 1 defense lost! (It really surprised me that the 2003 Nets had the best defensive rating). The Nets that year were 19th in offense, while the Spurs were 6th; score one for the offense. In 2002 the number 2 defensive rated team (NJN) met the number 3 offensive rated team (LAL), and the offense won out. In 1999, the number 1 defensive rated team (SAS) met the 3 defensive rated team (NYK), and the number 1 won.

In the Bulls championship runs, they were in the top 5 offensive rating for 5 of their 6 championship years; yet during those years they were top 5 defensively 4 of the 6 years; they were very good on both sides of the ball. In 1996 when they met our Supersonics, we were the number 2 defensively in the NBA…but Chicago was number 1; number 1 offensively and number 1 defensively. We know the outcome.

The team with the lowest defensive rating to win a championship in the last 20 years was the 2001 Lakers who were 21 of 29 teams; they were number 2 offensively to compensate. The 1999 Knicks were 26th out of 29 teams in offensive rating when they lost to the Spurs in the championship, but they were number 3 defensively to compensate.

By way of comparison, it seems to me that yes, defense wins championships; but offense wins them too. The best recipe for success is having a great offense and a great defense. I read recently where Bob Hill has commented about how Seattle is not playing good enough defense to win games. I wish the standard was more clearly defined. I wish instead Bob Hill would say something along the lines of “I want this team to become a great defensive team”.

This team needs balance. The run and gun is great, as long as it is balanced with defense. Whatever Seattle does between now and the trade deadline will speak volumes. We have done well with the last two drafts, now we need to address the defense and backup PG position.