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John Schuhmann

Numbers Game

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The addition of Shawn Marion's defense could make Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks a championship contender.
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The Numbers Game: Keys to success start with defense

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Sep 18 2009 11:22AM

They say that defense wins championships, and recent NBA history bears that out:

• Eight of the 10 teams to make the Finals in the last five years were top-five defensive teams (points allowed per possession) in the regular season. Only four of the 10 were top-five offensive teams.

• In the last five seasons, four of the 25 teams that have finished in the top five of offensive efficiency in the regular season missed the Playoffs, and the 25 have won an average of 1.28 series in the postseason. Every one of the 25 teams that finished in the top five defensively made the Playoffs and they won an average of 1.64 series.

• In the last three postseasons, the home team has won 34 of the 45 series, the better offensive team has won 27, and the better defensive team has won 36.

The 2005-06 Miami Heat are one of the recent anomalies, having ranked just 10th defensively in the regular season, but they won in the Playoffs with their defense, allowing less than a point per possession in their 23 postseason games.

It has become clear that if you want to contend for a championship these days, you don't have to be the best defensive team in the league, but you had better be near the top of the list. The Lakers ranked fifth two seasons ago when they lost to the Celtics in the Finals, but knew that was the end of the floor they had to improve on in order to take the next step. They were still ranked fifth last season, but reduced their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) by a point.

So as we look forward to the 2009-10 season, we look to the defensive side of the ball to figure out which teams can turn into real contenders, and we see one team in particular that should make that jump.

Here's a look at the teams that ranked in the top 10 defensively last season, along with some that can move up into that group.

(2008-09 Defensive Rating and League Rank in parentheses)

Orlando (99.5 -- 1st), Cleveland (99.6 -- 2nd) and Boston (99.7 -- 3rd)
These were the three truly elite defensive teams in the league last season, and each made roster changes this summer.

The Magic's exchange of Hedo Turkoglu, Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie for Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson might hurt them slightly defensively, but they should remain near the top of the defensive rankings. The same goes for Cleveland and the addition of Shaquille O'Neal, who will be a defensive liability in general, but whose true value will be determined when he matches up with Dwight Howard or the Celtics' frontline.

The addition of Rasheed Wallace in Boston might actually hurt the Celtics defensively, because it will take minutes away from Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins, who have proven to be two of the best frontline defenders in the league. Of course, how good the Celtics are defensively will largely be determined by Garnett's health. If he's at 100 percent, they're the best defensive team in the league again. If not, they obviously remain vulnerable.

Houston (101.2 -- 4th)
The Rockets will likely drop off. They essentially traded two elite defenders (Yao Ming and Ron Artest) for one (Trevor Ariza). Of course, they still have Shane Battier, and in the long-term, as long as Yao comes back healthy, they'll be in good shape.

L.A. Lakers (101.9 -- 5th)
More important to the Lakers' defense than the Artest-for-Ariza swap is their retention of Lamar Odom, by far their most important defender according to on-off-court numbers. If they're healthy, they should remain in the top five, but keep an eye on the point guard position, where Derek Fisher's age is starting to take a toll on his ability to keep guys in front of him.

San Antonio (102.0 -- 6th)
The loss of Bruce Bowen will hurt on the defensive end of the floor. Even at the age of 37, he was one of the better defenders in the league. But Richard Jefferson has been a part of some elite defensive teams in the past, and the offensive upgrade will more than make up for the step back defensively. Manu Ginobili's health and mobility is also key.

Charlotte (103.2 -- 7th) and New Orleans (104.3 -- 9th)
The Bobcats and Hornets are two teams that need more offense to take the next step. Charlotte ranked 27th and New Orleans ranked 13th offensively last season, and the swap of Tyson Chandler for Emeka Okafor likely won't help either much on that end. Financial restrictions also kept each from upgrading their offense.

Denver (103.8 -- 8th) and Utah (104.5 -- 10th)
The Nuggets and Jazz were also solid offensively (ranking seventh and eighth respectively with an offensive rating of 107.3), but neither made changes that will significantly change them this season. A healthy Carlos Boozer will help the Jazz offensively, but hurt them on the defensive end.

Portland (104.7 -- 11th)
Not many players can defend the rim as well as Greg Oden, so if he stays healthy and out of foul trouble, he can be one of the best defenders in the league. But because Joel Przybilla is also a great defender and Nate McMillan can't play both of them at the same time, the Blazers won't necessarily get better defensively with more minutes from Oden.

Dallas (105.6 -- 18th)
The Mavs are the team most likely to make a big jump defensively. Most important, they added Shawn Marion, who is one of the best and most versatile defenders in the league. Just ask the Suns and Heat, whose defenses both fell off tremendously after they traded the Matrix mid-season.

Secondly, they'll have Josh Howard, another very good defender, back healthy. Expect Dallas to be a top-10 defensive team in 2009-10, and with an already potent offense that ranked fifth last season, expect them to have a much-improved shot at a championship.

If you have a question or comment for NBA.com's John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

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