NBA Study: Building a Strong NBA Defense

‣ The three main ways to build a top-10 defense in the NBA are through good rim protection, defensive playmaking, or point-of-attack defense.
‣ There is a fourth, less common, way to build a top-10 defensive unit, which is through good opponent shooting luck.
‣ If a team’s offense isn’t elite, they need to be at least good (top-10 level) on defense to make a deep run in the playoffs.

Details

Let’s dive into the key highlights. To build a top-10 defense, you need good rim protection, defensive playmaking, or point-of-attack defense. But there’s also a fourth, less common, way to build a top-10 defensive unit. If your offense isn’t elite, you need to be at least good (top-10 level) on defense.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the NBA teams looking like title contenders this season. We looked at what kind of teams historically go on to make deep playoff runs.

Just to refresh your memory, three types of teams tend to make it to the conference finals. These are teams with elite offenses, teams with elite defenses, and teams with balance on both sides of the ball. Basically, if your offense isn’t elite, you need to be a good defense to make a deep run in the playoffs. But how do you build a good NBA defense?

Before writing this article, we had a hypothesis. To build a good NBA defense, you need to be good at protecting the rim, creating turnovers, or defending at the point-of-attack. To verify this hypothesis, we looked at how every top 10 defense since 2003-04 fared in each of these three categories.

We used NBA.com’s team defensive ratings for this study. To measure rim protection, we looked at each team’s opponent rim frequency. We chose to look at rim frequency instead of rim accuracy because, as a general rule, it is better to not allow shots at the rim at all rather than contest those shots at the rim very well.

To measure defensive playmaking, we looked at each team’s opponent turnover percentage. And lastly, to measure point-of-attack defense at the team level, we looked at opponent assists per 100 possessions. This isn’t a perfect way to capture on-ball defense. But it is a good proxy, as good point-of-attack defenses don’t surrender a lot of assisted field goals. We are using per 100 possessions to adjust for pace.

Our hypothesis was correct. Of the 210 teams we looked at, 196 (93.3%) were in the top-10 in at least one of those three categories. For those wondering, of the 210 teams in our sample, 97 were in the top-10 in rim protection, 94 were in the top-10 in defensive playmaking, and 136 were in the top-10 in point-of-attack defense. Based on those numbers, it seems the most common way to build a good defense is through strong point-of-attack resistance.

For those of you who are proficient in math, you probably noticed that those numbers add up to more than 210. That means that many of these teams finished top-10 in multiple categories. In fact, only 39.5% of the top-10 defenses we looked at were top-10 in only one category. 44.8% of the teams in our study finished top-10 in two of the three categories. And 9% of our sample was in the top-10 in all three categories.

We mentioned that 14 of the teams that have finished top-10 in defensive rating since 2004 didn’t finish in the top-10 in any of the statistics we used to measure rim protection, defensive playmaking, and point-of-attack defense. Well, 12 of those 14 teams share a common denominator that makes us think that there might be a fourth way to “build” a good defense. What is that pathway, you ask?

Those 12 teams all ranked in the top-10 in opponent 3-point shooting percentage. That means that they all (to varying degrees) had some opponent shooting luck on their side. We call it “luck” because, generally speaking, it is hard for defenses to have a serious impact on an opponent’s 3-point percentage.

So, that means that there are technically four ways to “build” a good NBA defense. You can do it through good rim protection, good defensive playmaking, good point-of-attack defense, or good opponent shooting luck.

Okay, what about those two other teams that don’t fit into any of the four categories we’ve discussed? How did they build their top-10 defenses? The two teams we’re talking about are the 2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder and the 2021-22 Cleveland Cavaliers. And as you will see in a second, both of these teams are victims of the (admittedly) arbitrary parameters we created for this exercise.

In 2013-14, the Thunder finished 11th in opponent assists per 100, surrendering 22.4 assists per 100. That is only 0.1 assists per 100 more than the two teams tied for ninth place that season: the Toronto Raptors and the Charlotte Hornets (then known as the Bobcats). So, the Thunder just narrowly missed the top-10. If they had averaged 22.2 opponent assists per 100, they would be in the top-10 in point-of-attack defense, and we wouldn’t even be talking about them.

As for the Cavaliers, despite being 25th in the NBA in opponent rim frequency in 2021-22, they finished first in opponent rim accuracy. So, while Cleveland was surrendering a ton of field goals around the rim, they were still a good rim-protecting team, just not in the way our study was measuring it.

Okay, so we now have all this information, but what do we do with it? At the end of the day, we follow/cover the NBA to figure out who is going to win the title at the end of the year. We use the regular season to help us predict which teams are in serious contention for that title. Now, we have another tool in our toolbox to aid us in this quest.

Like we said earlier, if you don’t have an elite offense, you need to be at least good (meaning top-10 level) on defense. And how do you build a good defense? You build it through your rim protection, defensive playmaking, or point-of-attack defense. If none of those things are going for you, you better hope that luck is on your side when it comes to opponent shooting.

And if the team you are analyzing doesn’t have any of that, and their offense isn’t elite, it is going to be very hard for them to make any noise in the playoffs.

James Shotwell
James Shotwell
James, a dedicated writer for BasketballHour, holds a degree in English and Creative Writing. A genuine sports enthusiast and skilled betting advice provider, he writes engaging articles and valuable winning strategies for sports.

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