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On Defense Winning Championships

John Hollinger examines the adage that "defense wins championships" in light of the chances of this year's Suns squad. He determines that teams with below average defensive efficiency, in fact, only win championships very rarely. But chamionships are just as rare for teams with below average offensive efficiency. And of course nobody really thinks that "defense wins championships" in the sense that offense is somehow irrelevant. Looking at the numbers, it appears that championship winners tend to exceed the league average in offensive efficiency by somewhat more than they exceed the league average in defensive efficiency. So good news for the Suns. The bad news is that fast-paced teams don't do well. Championship teams are usually slower-than-average and many noteable playoff collapses for successful regular season teams come from amidst the ranks of the fast-paced. Bad news.

It seems to me that part of constructing the column was a bit of a slight of hand in using offensive efficiency as the measure of offensive. The "defense wins championships" remark is, I take it, a knock against teams whose main knack is just for racking up very high point totals. That, needless to say, tends more to be the speciality of fast paced teams than of efficient ones per se. So it seems to me that on a generous construal, Hollinger's statistical inquiries seem to do more to support the adage than he concedes. The best way to score tons of points is to play really, really fast. But teams who rely on this strategy seem to underperform in the playoffs. Be that as it may, I have mixed feelings about the Suns. My personal preference is for slower, defense oriented basketball à la Detroit. But I think the conventional wisdom that success for the run-and-gun Suns would help "save the NBA" from its relative unpopularity has something to it. Certainly most people seem to prefer the basketball fast and sloppy. My hope would be that the best of both worlds could be achieved through an epic seven game Phoenix-Pistons championship battle ending in a victory for the forces of good. I'll also observe that Detroit's continued success seems to me to bolster the view (which I suppose I should argue for properly at some point) that the entire class of "superstar" players is systematically overrated. It's not that these guys aren't better than the NBA's lesser lights. It's just that they're not as much better as people think. Or, even more refined, they're not as valuable to creating a successful team as people think.

April 24, 2005 | Permalink


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The weirdest thing about the column was the basic premise: I rarely recall anyone claiming that in the NBA "defense wins championships." Such statements are ususually made regarding the NFL -- where it seems more likely to be true, as many teams, most notably the 2000 Ravens, have shown.

Posted by: right | Apr 24, 2005 12:52:42 AM

Sure, people say that all the time regarding NBA teams.

On the question of whether superstars win championships, there are a lot of ways to approach the question, but one thing to keep in mind about the '04 Pistons is how rare an achievement they pulled off in winning the title without a major star. If you go by the NBA's 50th anniversary 50 Greatest Players list, and you go back to the days of Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers, you'll find a grand total of two teams that won it all without having anyone on that list--Seattle in '79, Detroit in '04. Every single other title team had at least one of those Top 50 on its roster (the Spurs' title teams, of course, were led by Duncan and not Robinson, although Robinson was the one on the list because it came out before Duncan entered the league--yet, if that list were to be redone now, Duncan would obviously be on it).

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 24, 2005 12:59:26 AM

ah, finally something i'm actually qualified to talk about... when i was playing basketball in college, field goal percentage defense had a almost causal bearing on the outcome of the games -- if we held teams below 40% we usually won, and if not, we didn't (consequently, as we were above 40 a bunch, we lost a lot of games).

but i'd have to agree that it's not the same in the NBA -- Jordan and Pippen could D but no one else really, Kobe could but sometimes didn't (same w/ Shaq). the way that the NBA is structured differently from college (more of an emphasis on the one and one game), team defense becomes much less important, even as coaches (in an attempt to retain power over players that make infinitely more money than they) empasize D.

But it comes down to the way the game is officiated. The major difference between this year and the last is the hand checking rule. And look how Detroit has done. The Suns have a much better chance now because the NBA is trying to promote fast paced basketball. I'm certainly all for that, b/c the NBA game in the last 5 years has been truly unwatchable, esp in the East (except for Lebron the messiah, and they didn't even make it in!)...

Posted by: FreeMan | Apr 24, 2005 1:16:20 AM

Haggai nailed it. The Pistons are not an example of anything. They are the exception that proves the rule. The history of the NBA playoffs is a history of its superstars. Now, it does seem that at least a second superstar is required as Bird had McHale, Jordan had Pippen, Magic had Kareem and on and on but betting on a team with no superstars in the NBA playoffs has been the way to go broke. The counterexamples ( teams without superstars, terrific records and playoff flops) are equally prominent and numerous. Maybe allowing zone defenses changes things and invalidates the 79-03 period but I doubt it.

Posted by: QuietStorm | Apr 24, 2005 1:18:07 AM

I don't know what to make of the idea that most people like a faster paced game with more scoring. Personally, I think lower scoring games fought in the paint, with all the blocks and boards can be pretty entertaining. The most memorable play of last years playoffs for me, as a person who occasionally lives within 15 minutes of the Auburn Hills Palace, was defensive, when Tayshaun Prince got that fast-break block on the Nets to turn the game, and then the series around. But then again it was on a fast-break, so maybe not such a good example...

Posted by: wunderdog | Apr 24, 2005 1:40:11 AM

the '04 pistons not having a bona fide superstar is blatantly wrong. Both Wallaces are (Ben is 2nd in the league in rebounds, 5th in blocks!), Rip is as well and Prince is getting close.
It is like saying New England did not have a superstar when they won 3 years ago. 3 years later, Brady is compared to Montana. It is not that the pisonts don't have superstars, it is that your perception of superstars is skewed. (blame it on hollinger's own espn, which favors athleticisms over fundamentals in its highlights, thus the over-representation of Kobes and LeBrons and Vinces as superstars)

Posted by: cedichou | Apr 24, 2005 1:46:48 AM

Are you thinking of the Indiana series, wunderdog? Prince had that amazing block on Reggie Miller at the end of regulation in Game 2.

But it comes down to the way the game is officiated. The major difference between this year and the last is the hand checking rule. And look how Detroit has done.

Detroit 2003-04 regular season: 54-28
Detroit 2004-05 regular season: 54-28

I'd say they've done...exactly the same as they did last year, so far. They successfully adjusted to whatever differences there have been in the refereeing. They might not win it all again, but if they don't, I doubt that any changes in the officiating will be the reason.

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 24, 2005 1:47:54 AM

I love the Pistons and all their great players, but of course none of these guys are superstars, by almost any accepted definition of the term. Most of them have never even made the all-star team, and although Rip probably should have by now, it's difficult to call someone a genuine superstar if he doesn't make that team. That's not to say they aren't great players, several of them certainly are. But, obviously, none of them would be even close to a Top 50 All-Time List if that 50th anniversary list were updated right now.

And, of course, some people are indeed trying to compare Brady with Montana, and even though I have tremendous respect for Brady, those people are obviously insane.

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 24, 2005 1:51:52 AM

Yeah, that could be, Indiana...it was the semi-finals I think. I never said my memory was very good...

Posted by: wunderdog | Apr 24, 2005 1:52:31 AM

Yup, conference finals. And I'm a native Kentucky fan, too, so Tayshaun representing for Detroit is doubly sweet. :)

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 24, 2005 1:54:29 AM

Two points should be made about the fluke of the Pistons winning a championship without any superstars.

One is that the Lakers were a banged-up team who ran out of gas in last year's Finals. If they had faced the Pistons in the conference finals and then the Timberwolves in the championship series, the T-wolves would have been the ones wearing the rings.

The other is that the reason an MVP-caliber player is usually necessary to win it all is that a title-winning team has to reliably have a winning matchup it can use to turn the game in its favor. The easiest way to achieve that is to have a single player who's better than just about anyone else in the league.

But Detroit managed to assemble a team where even though none of the starters was an MVP candidate, it could consistently count on having an athletic mismatch somewhere:

-- Chauncey Billups has a size advantage against most PGs.
-- Hamilton has a speed/conditioning advantage.
-- Tayshaun Prince gets a defensive advantage from his freakish length.
-- Ben Wallace, 'nuff said.
-- And once they added Rasheed Wallace, they had a teamwide size advantage against nearly the entire Eastern conference (before Shaq arrived in Miami).

That's a big part of the the reason they were able to pull off winning a title. Getting a team that well balanced is probably as unlikely as landing a superstar player, though.

Posted by: Swopa | Apr 24, 2005 1:54:32 AM

"one thing to keep in mind about the '04 Pistons is how rare an achievement they pulled off in winning the title without a major star."

Hear, hear. I have zero idea what Matthew is talking about.

The Pistons are an incredibly singular champion. And not only are they unlike previous champions, but they are also unlike other current aspirants to the title.

This is most definitely a superstar's league. Dumars and Brown deserve a lot of credit for successfully going mad scientist on the association.


And on a tangent, of all the possible series to come, I don't think any are as compelling as Heat/Pistons.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 24, 2005 1:57:01 AM

One is that the Lakers were a banged-up team who ran out of gas in last year's Finals. If they had faced the Pistons in the conference finals and then the Timberwolves in the championship series, the T-wolves would have been the ones wearing the rings.

I don't agree with that. It turned out that the Pistons just matched up extraordinarily well against LA, so I don't think it would have mattered when they played them. But, had Detroit played San Antonio in the finals, or maybe Minnesota, I doubt they would have won it all.

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 24, 2005 2:03:39 AM

It's strange that you chose to challenge the value of superstars in basketball, the one sport among the majors where that argument falls down. In both baseball and football, that argument is a winner. In basketball, an Alex Rodriguez type signing would not allow a team to finish in last place as his Texas teams did and in football the list of no-impact superstars is too long to elaborate ( Barry Sanders ...).

Posted by: QuietStorm | Apr 24, 2005 2:05:35 AM

What makes the Pistons so bizarre is that they don't have a featured player.

Q: Who's the best player on the Pistons?
A: Good question. Tayshaun is emerging as the cliched answer, but you can make a case for all four of the other starters.

Q: When was the last time a champion didn't have an easily identifiable best player or best duo?
A: Before Bird and Magic came into the league.

Q: When was the last time a Finals MVP was as limited a player as Chauncey Billups?
A: While you can make cases for Dumars and Worthy, I'd say Billups is the most limited since Jo Jo White in the mid-70's.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 24, 2005 2:19:15 AM

cedichou - 100% correct. The Pistons had more talent than any team in the league last year. Brady is in Montana's class. Count the rings.

"Superstar" is a marketing term awarded to people who have never proven anything. For example, Kevin Garnett, who I though was going to take over the league. Wrong.

The 79 sonics may not have people on the 50 list but note the 50 list is not indepedent of the championship test - those on championship teams have a better chance of getting on the 50. That's why Barkley can brag.

For those who just know the superstar marketing names, the Sonics had talent. Gus Williams was unstoppable. Fred Brown would go crazy on occasion. Paul Silas has a ring collection he helped collect, as does Dennis Johnson. Both have a long history of getting the job done in playoffs, even when their teams lost. Jack Sikma was solid in a way no center in the league now is. All four had all star quality seasons. Lonnie Shelton was one of the better forwards in the league.

It takes 3 and one half all stars (Micheal Cooper was a half for example) and defense to win the championship. Chicago, for example, shut teams down in its play off runs. They neutralized the paint. They also only had to beat the Bullets. And the second time around Dennis Johnson put away his lousy performance that lost in 78 and put away the Bullets in 79.

I don't know that Phoenix has 3 and one half all stars or defense. It will be interesting to find out if outside shooting can keep the court open, in which case, Phoenix will win. Shawn Marion - on an open court - is one of the best five players in the league, and Stoudamaire, like Wade and James, can only stop himself. I'll be surprised if the court stays open.

Posted by: razor | Apr 24, 2005 2:50:32 AM

"Superstar" is a marketing term awarded to people who have never proven anything."

No. Basketball is an unusual game in the way a single player can dominate the action. Superstars are a handful of elite players who regularly dominate other good players in the league.

Now, merely having a superstar doesn't guarantee a successful team. See KG and Iverson this year. You need to build a good team around a superstar or two to actually win titles.

But since Magic and Bird came into the league, there have been 14 titles before last year's Pistons. And all 14 of them were won by teams with one of the handful of elite players in the league - players deserving of being 1st Team All-NBA:

Kareem & Magic
Moses & Dr. J
Shaquille & Kobe

Or to look forward instead of back:

Houston and Sacramento had similar records. Why does it seem more likely that Houston will win some titles? Because they have McGrady & Yao.

Cleveland and Orlando had similar records. Why does it seem more likely that Cleveland will win some titles? Because they have LeBron.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 24, 2005 3:11:22 AM

Re: The insanity of comparing Brady to Montana. Through the first five years of each's career, Brady's clearly ahead.

Posted by: Fat Tony | Apr 24, 2005 3:39:45 AM

This is the worst post I've ever read in Matt's blog.

Implying that the Suns are "fast and sloppy" is ignorant. Fast yes; sloppy no. Both statistically, where the Suns were with the best in the league at fewest turnovers per possession, and by observation, where nobody who watched the Suns play this year would ever say they were a "sloppy" team. It is far more sloppy when some deliberate post-up team gets a crappy shot off with 1 second left on the 24-second clock than it is for a team like the Suns to take a slightly off-balance 3-pointer with 12 seconds left on the clock.

Lots of teams say they will push the ball. Most fail (remember the Westhead Nuggets? Before your time, Matt...) because like any other basketball plan, you still need the personnel. The Suns excel because Stoudamire is awesome, and has an excellent complementing cast in Nash, Marion and Johnson.

Many people (such as myself) prefer the Suns style of basketball not because it is "fast and sloppy", but because it is graceful, and because it accentuates the athleticism of coordination, speed, and jumping ability instead of the athleticism of size and strength. What is boring to watch is bad basketball filled with bad decisions, bad passes, bad shots, bad turnovers, and very little team play.

I like the Suns, but I also enjoy watching the Pistons. Detroit is another team that uses all their players and makes a lot of good decisions. Detroit is not the anti-Phoenix. Detroit plays great basketball; slightly more physical than the Suns but then that's what they have the personnel for.

Who is no fun to watch? Teams that isolate their best player on offense on half their trips down the court (Lakers). Teams that run the same plays every time (Jazz). Teams that push and shove constantly on defense (Bulls). Teams that have no offensive coherence whatsoever (Blazers). Etc.

It's not an ideological war of fast vs. slow. It's whether one thinks basketball is a game of strategy or a game of size and strength. The NBA took a huge turn for the worst with the Ewing/Mason/Oakley Knicks team and it still hasn't recovered. Defense is great, but shoving people off the low block is not defense, and neither is hacking arms off on every shot from inside of 3 feet. And when the refs decide to only make the call 85% of the time, it gives teams that much more incentive to hack all day.

Good basketball is clean and smart basketball, whether it's fast-paced or slow. That's what fans should be rooting for.

- Itea

Posted by: Itea | Apr 24, 2005 5:45:15 AM

But since Magic and Bird came into the league, there have been 14 titles before last year's Pistons. And all 14 of them were won by teams with one of the handful of elite players in the league - players deserving of being 1st Team All-NBA

Petey, like I mentioned above, you can extend this back to the mid '50s and it's still true in basically every season, except for '79 with the Sonics. Who, of course, were very talented, as razor details, but that's not the same thing as having superstars.

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 24, 2005 11:43:13 AM

The result Hollinger derives is entirely to be expected, and doesn't show us much of interest. Here's why:

Suppose the league contains three teams, A, B and C. Each plays two games in the league's very short season - playing each of the other teams exactly once. Thus there are only three games played altogether.

Suppose that each team averages 100 possessions per game. And suppose these are the scores in the three games:

Game 1: A - 100, B - 95
Game 2: A - 100, C - 90
Game 3: B - 95, C - 90

Given each team's (conveniently workable) average of 100 possessions a game, here are the offensive and defensive efficiencies for the three:


Team A 1 .925
Team B .95 .95
Team C .90 .975

The league average offensive efficiency is 95 and the league average defensive efficiency is also 95. So here is the deviations from those means:


Team A +.05 -.025
Team B 0 0
Team C -.05 +.025

The best team, A, exceeds the league average in offensive efficiency more than it betters the league average defensive efficiency. But it should be clear what is going on here. For any given team, that team's defensive efficiency is equal to the average offensive efficiency of the remaining teams. Thus in a league with, say, 30 teams, team defensive efficiencies will all cluster very close to the mean offensive efficiency.

So for any championship team, even one whose offensive efficiency is only modestly higher than the league average offensive efficiency, we can expect that modest deviation from the mean to be greater than deviation from the mean of its defensive efficiency, since the latter can be expected to be quite close to mean offensive efficiency itself.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 24, 2005 11:44:15 AM

People like to believe that defense wins championships in all team sports. It's somewhat true, of course, but it's definitely possible to overstate it. (One obvious counter example is the Jordanian Bulls regularly beating the Knicks like rented mules.)

But it's such a popular maxim not because it's a useful way to predict the outcomes of sporting events but because it is a metaphor that makes people feel better about the world. Defense is perceived as one of the little things that the unheralded contributors bring to the table.

Most people see themselves as little guys who are unheralded contributors to society. Believing that defense wins sports championships allows them to flatter themselves with the notion that they, too are the real engine of society.

Coaches and managers preach this style of play because teams that win playing defensively (in baseball) or three yards+dust time-and-posession games (in football) or small ball (in baseball) are regarded as "grinders" who are playing above their heads when they succeed and overmatched battlers when they fail. Teams that play more flamboyant systems are justly covered in accolades when they win, of course, but they're regarded as selfish hotheads who don't understand the fundamentals when they lose.

It's insane to think of passing and shooting as less fundamental to basketball than defense, but that really does end up being the perception. So for coaches, it's a matter of job security.

Also, the Wizards suck.

Posted by: sexualchocolate | Apr 24, 2005 12:09:30 PM

Just a note on the previous post: more precisely speaking, the claim that a team's defensive efficiency is equal to the average offensive efficiency of the remaining teams is based on some simplifying features of the eaxmple used: each team plays the same number of games against all of the other teams in the league, uniformity of offensive performance etc. Still I think the same moral would hold, even following a more nuanced analysis. For any team, defensive efficiency can be expected to deviate less from the mean defensive efficiency than offensive efficiency deviates from mean offensive efficiency.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 24, 2005 12:12:14 PM

Defense matters because when things aren't going well its all you can control and in any extended competition there will be times things don't do well. In the play offs things will not go well for many reasons. One is that humans fight much harder when the season is at stake so the game is a different experience for the players. Defense has a competitive advantage in this situation.

One reason the Suns are succeeding is that D Antoni (sp)prepares his players so they maintain their composure on offense. This is twitchy work. One big question mark is whether it can be done in playoffs. A jump shot under pressure is a far less robust skill than bodying up. Offense doesn't have defenses margin of error.

Who was the Bullet's superstar in 78?

The Bulls were a better DEFENSIVE team than the Knicks. They just weren't as good a rugby team. Forget labels, look at what happened on the floor. The Bulls were defensively ruthless when the pressure was on. Phil Jackson quite artfully assembled two, completely different, defensive teams in the two runs, by getting people who filled the role needed to shut down the paint in the playoffs. It was sheer genius done without a superstar in the paint. It has yet to receive the credit it deserves.

Posted by: razor | Apr 24, 2005 12:32:32 PM

For the Bullets, Elvin Hayes was 1st team All-NBA three times in the late '70s, though not actually in the year they won the title, '78. Both Hayes and Wes Unseld made the All-Time Top 50 list in '96.

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 24, 2005 12:43:56 PM

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