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The Numbers Game: Elite defenses know how to set pace

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Jan 21 2009 12:03PM

Last week's Numbers Game was a profile of the top five offenses in the league, showing that there's more than one way to score points. The same can be said for preventing points from being scored.

It's no surprise that the four teams (Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and the Lakers) who are head and shoulders above the rest of the league in the standings are all among the top five defenses in the league. Even the best offensive teams will have trouble scoring on some nights, but the teams that can rely on their defense will have the best chance at success. Of course, the four teams above all are in the top six offensively, too.

Here's a breakdown of the five most efficient defenses in the league. As we did with the offensive numbers, we're going to ignore shooting percentages, because in general, all good defenses force low shooting percentages, from both inside and outside the 3-point line.

First, here's what numbers we're looking at:

Defensive Rating: points allowed per 100 possessions
Pace: possessions per game
Def. Reb. Rate: Percentage of available defensive rebounds attained
Opp. Turnover Rate: Opponents' turnovers per 100 possessions
Opp. Paint Percentage: Percentage of opponents' points scored in the paint
Opp. Fast Break Percentage: Percentage of opponents' points scored on the break
Opp. FTA/Poss.: Opponents' free throw attempts per 100 possessions
BS/Poss.: Blocked shots per 100 possessions
(League rank in parentheses)

1. Boston Celtics (34-9)

Defensive Rating: 101.2
Pace: 89.6 (17)
Def. Reb. Rate: 76.4 (2)
Opp. Turnover Rate: 17.5 (5)
Opp. Paint Percentage: 37.4 (6)
Opp. Fast Break Percentage: 11.2 (6)
Opp. FTA/Poss.: 29.1 (24)
BS/Poss.: 5.40 (14)

For the second straight season, the Celtics are the No. 1 defensive team in the league, though they haven't stayed at the top week-by-week as they did last year. Obviously, the Celtics do a lot of things well defensively. They get back in transition, they force turnovers, they keep opposing teams out of the paint and they keep opponents off the boards. They will put opponents on the free-throw line, however and center Kendrick Perkins isn't afraid to use his six fouls.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (31-8)

Defensive Rating: 101.2
Pace: 88.0 (25)
Def. Reb. Rate: 73.7 (15)
Opp. Turnover Rate: 17.9 (2)
Opp. Paint Percentage: 39.1 (11)
Opp. Fast Break Percentage: 14.7 (30)
Opp. FTA/Poss.: 27.4 (17)
BS/Poss.: 6.68 (2)

In previous seasons, the Cavs weren't as consistent defensively during the regular season, but they've been the best defensive team in the playoffs each of the last two years. This season, they've been sharp from their first game. The Cavs are very active defensively, forcing turnovers and blocking shots. They need to improve in transition, but in the halfcourt, there isn't a more stifling defense in the league. What's interesting is that they were a top five defensive rebounding team each of the last three seasons, but they're in the middle of the pack this season.

3. Orlando Magic (33-8)

Defensive Rating: 102.4
Pace: 91.3 (10)
Def. Reb. Rate: 74.3 (10)
Opp. Turnover Rate: 15.1 (20)
Opp. Paint Percentage: 37.7 (9)
Opp. Fast Break Percentage: 12.1 (17)
Opp. FTA/Poss.: 24.7 (6)
BS/Poss.: 6.24 (4)

About the only thing the Magic don't do that well defensively is force turnovers. But they keep teams out of the paint while also defending the 3-point line well. And they also pull off the rare feat of blocking shots without fouling much. They're one of the most improved defenses in 2008-09, though they really started to show improvement at the end of last season.

4. Houston Rockets (26-16)

Defensive Rating: 105.5
Pace: 88.7 (21)
Def. Reb. Rate: 74.9 (7)
Opp. Turnover Rate: 14.2 (28)
Opp. Paint Percentage: 41.7 (23)
Opp. Fast Break Percentage: 13.4 (25)
Opp. FTA/Poss.: 23.3 (2)
BS/Poss.: 4.02 (28)

The Rockets are the most interesting study in this group. They don't force a lot of turnovers, they don't keep teams out of the paint particularly well, they don't get back in transition and they don't block many shots. They do keep teams off the free-throw line and they do defend the 3-point line well though. It's a tribute to their depth (and their defensive system) that they're in this group despite all of their injuries.

5. Los Angeles Lakers (32-8)

Defensive Rating: 106.2
Pace: 93.4 (4)
Def. Reb. Rate: 73.0 (16)
Opp. Turnover Rate: 16.7 (8)
Opp. Paint Percentage: 41.6 (22)
Opp. Fast Break Percentage: 12.0 (15)
Opp. FTA/Poss.: 24.6 (5)
BS/Poss.: 5.43 (12)

Not only do the Lakers keep teams off the free-throw line, but they also have the best free-throw defense in the league. No one knows their secret, but their opponents only shoot 74.1 percent from the line (as opposed to the Blazers' opponents, who shoot 81.0 percent). With their huge frontline, the Lakers are a very good offensive rebounding team (they rank fifth), but they're not as good on the defensive glass.

Common Threads

Looking at the league overall, the category above that correlates most with defensive efficiency is rebounding, but the Cavs and Lakers show that you don't have to be great on the boards to be a great defensive team. For example, the Nets rebound well (they rank fifth in Def. Reb. Rate), yet still give up too many buckets (they rank 27th defensively).

Forcing turnovers ranks behind rebounding, but the Magic and Rockets show that you don't have to get steals to get stops. Memphis, for example, forces a good amount of turnovers (ranking seventh), but it probably gambles too much as its opponents still put up points (they rank 23rd defensively).

After those two categories, pace is actually the next number that correlates most with defensive efficiency (more so than blocked shots or free throw attempts). But it's probably that a quality defense creates a slow pace, rather than the other way around. A good defensive team, is going to force opponents to use more of the shot clock, resulting in fewer possessions per 48 minutes. When we looked at offensive numbers last week, there was no correlation between pace and efficiency.

There's no exact formula for defensive success in the NBA, and the teams above use different schemes and abide by different principles to get the job done. It helps to have players with long arms and quick feet, but in the end, defense is about energy, desire, intelligence and communication. So, put the coaches of each of the five teams above on your list of midseason Coach of the Year candidates.

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