Defense wins championships. That’s what’s always been said, at least. If that’s still the case in 2021, the Philadelphia 76ers have positioned themselves favorably to win the NBA finals. But, how true is the statement “defense wins championships” in the current day NBA?
The Philadelphia 76ers are a team that’s built around its top-tier defense. That has become the clear identity of this team and so far it has garnered results even better than expected. Currently with a 1.5 game lead for first place in the Eastern Conference and a favorable schedule in their final 12 games, the team looks primed to enter the NBA playoffs with the #1 seed. Looking at previous champions for reference, let’s find out how important defensive ranking really is to a team’s ultimate title dreams.
Since 2000, 13 NBA champions have had a top 5 defensive ranking in the league. There have been a few occasions where the eventual champions didn’t have a defensive rating in the top 10 of the league. Those instances have come from the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers of 2001. These teams had historically good offenses and overcame any defensive shortcomings they may have had. This feels a lot like this year’s Brooklyn Nets, who haven’t had all their stars on the floor together all that much. On paper that team does feel like one that can overpower teams offensively, and if the Sixers are to make a finals run, they will likely have to go through the Nets.
Right now, the Sixers have the league’s second rated defense, only behind the Los Angeles Lakers. The Brooklyn Nets currently have the second rated offensive rating. The Sixers are right in the middle of the pack at 15th in terms of their offensive rating. Only one team in the last 20 years has won a title with a lower offensive rating than that: the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Looking at the Nets defense, they currently rank 25th in defensive rating. The worst defensive ranking for a championship team in the last 20 years was the Lakers in 2001, when they ranked 22nd.
This has clearly been a really strange year of NBA basketball. Injuries have, unfortunately, played a big role in the current standings across both conferences. Looking at team statistics is a lot more difficult with the condensed schedule and most teams having those injury and Covid difficulties pretty frequently. Making comparisons between teams at full strength is something we simply have not been able to do this year. Based on the regular season’s advanced stats to this point, it appears likely that there will be an ultimate showdown in the playoffs between offense and defense. If things go as planned for the 76ers, an exciting matchup between two teams built in very different ways awaits them in the conference finals.
Defense has proven to be a big factor for most championship teams in the last 20 years. Without a top 10 defense, teams need to be historically great offensively to win a title. Are the Brooklyn Nets going to be that good offensively come playoff time? Will the Sixers second ranked defense translate to a finals appearance? All of these questions will be answered soon enough in an NBA Playoffs like no other.
Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images