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Numbers Notebook:
Most-improved defenses

POSTED: Nov 28, 2014 11:38 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Larry Sanders' rim protection is one big reason the Bucks have the most improved defense in 2014-15.

When it comes to competing for a championship, defense is a little more important than offense. Over the last 15 years, 26 of the 30 teams who have made The Finals (and 14 of the 15 champions) have ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, while 22 (and 13 of the 15 champions) have ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency.

The San Antonio Spurs are a great example of the importance of defense. While we think first of their ball and player movement on the other end of the floor, they got back to The Finals when they got back to being a top-five defensive team.

With that in mind, it's time to look at the five teams who have taken the biggest step forward defensively this season. You would think this list would be heavy on Eastern Conference teams, who have had more opportunities to feast on the anemic offenses of their brethren. But only one of the top six most improved defenses (Memphis is sixth) comes from the East.

Here are the five most improved defenses through Thursday, according to decrease in points allowed per 100 possessions from last season.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

2013-14: 108.9 (29th)
2014-15: 99.0 (5th)

Improvement: -9.9 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 2 of 16 have been top-10 offenses, 10 of 16 have been bottom-10 offenses.

Bucks' defense -- last two seasons
Season OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
2013-14 52.0% 28 71.4% 29 14.8% 19 0.299 20
2014-15 48.6% 10 72.2% 27 17.2% 5 0.309 20
Difference -3.4% +0.8% +2.3% +0.010
OppeFG% = Opponent (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA / FGA

The Bucks' top-five ranking is certainly schedule-aided, but they've held 10 of their 16 opponents under that team's OffRtg mark (points scored per 100 possessions) for the whole season. This team has ridiculous length, even at point guard, where Brandon Knight has an above average wingspan.

That translates into forced turnovers, contested shots, and long possessions. According to SportVU, the Bucks have forced their opponents to take 21 percent of their shots in the last six seconds of the shot clock, when shooting is at its worst. That rate leads the league.

Larry Sanders' rim protection is a key. Two seasons ago, Sanders played nearly 2,000 minutes and the Bucks ranked 12th defensively. Last season, injuries and a suspension limited him to just 23 games and less than 600 minutes. Now Sanders is back, opponents have shot 9.5 percent less than their season marks from less than six feet when he's been been guarding them, and the Bucks have allowed less than 96 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

But Sanders has played less than 23 minutes per game, and no Bucks lineup has played more than 50 minutes together. So there's been good defense up and down Jason Kidd's rotation. Opponents have shot even worse inside of six feet when Zaza Pachulia has been guarding them.

The Bucks actually play two more bottom-10 offensive teams - Detroit (28) and Houston (22) - this weekend. But after that, eight of their next 10 opponents rank in the top 11. Take note of where they stand after next week, when they play the Cavs, Heat, and Mavs twice.

2. Houston Rockets

2013-14: 103.1 (12th)
2014-15: 94.5 (1st)

Improvement: -8.5 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 3 of 15 have been top-10 offenses, 3 of 15 have been bottom-10 offenses.

Rockets' defense - last two seasons
Season OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank Rank Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
2013-14 48.9% 8 74.1% 20 14.0% 26 0.255 6
2014-15 45.3% 3 72.5% 25 17.4% 4 0.283 16
Difference -3.7% -1.6% +3.4% +0.027

The Rockets are the Bulls of defense, in that they've improved so much with their best player (on that end of the floor) missing a large chunk of games. Houston's defense has basically been the same in the five games that Dwight Howard has missed (94.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) as it has in the 10 games he's played (94.5). Last Saturday, Houston held Dallas' No. 1 offense under a point per possession with Howard nursing his sprained right knee.

According to SportVU, Houston has allowed just 0.88 points per possession on pick-and-rolls, down from 1.02 last season and the lowest mark in the league by a wide margin. The Rockets' improvement has come mainly on the perimeter. No team has increased its opponent turnover rate more and no team has improved its 3-point defense more.

Credit Trevor Ariza. With Ariza on the floor, the Rockets have forced 18.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, while allowing their opponents to shoot just 26.5 percent from 3-point range and score just 92.3 points per 100 possessions. Those numbers are 15.0, 30.9 percent and 102.0 with Ariza on the bench.

James Harden actually has better defensive numbers (on more shots) than Ariza does. Harden still has his shake-your-head moments, but his defense has improved overall. And then there's Kostas Papanikolaou. Opponents have shot a paltry 9-for-55 (16 percent) from outside of 15 feet with the rookie guarding them.

Having allowed 8.8 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, the Rockets are the best defensive team of the last 37 years (since the league starting counting turnovers in 1977). That's not sustainable, but it's a great sign for their chances of competing for a championship, and it's helped them put together a 12-3 record with what has been a pretty poor offense.

3. Portland Trail Blazers

2013-14: 104.7 (16th)
2014-15: 99.5 (6th)

Improvement: -5.2 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 5 of 15 have been top-10 offenses, 4 of 15 have been bottom-10 offenses.

Blazers' defense - last two seasons
Season OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
2013-14 48.8% 7 74.7% 13 12.2% 30 0.253 5
2014-15 44.9% 2 76.2% 8 11.7% 30 0.270 11
Difference -3.9% +1.5% -0.5% +0.017

Amazingly, the Blazers have forced fewer turnovers than they did last season. And the 11.7 per 100 possessions that they're forcing this year would be the lowest mark since the league started counting turnovers in 1977.

But forcing turnovers is secondary to making your opponent miss shots, which the Blazers have done better at the basket, from mid-range, and from 3-point range. Not only do they rank first in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (55.0 percent) and 2nd in 3-point defense (29.0 percent), but only two teams - Chicago and Golden State - have forced their opponents to take a greater percentage of their shots from in between.

In part, this is an extension of in-season improvement from last year, when the Blazers ranked 23rd defensively before the All-Star break and 10th after it. But while Portland's starting lineup allowed just 97.1 points per 100 possessions after the break last season, all other lineups allowed 104.6.

So a big key has been the additions of Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, who have made Portland's bench more of a defensive unit. The Blazers have allowed just 94.2 points per 100 possessions with the pair on the floor,with Kaman ranking among the league's top rim protectors for the second straight year.

Early this month, the Blazers held three straight top-10 offenses under a point per possession. That included a game where the Mavs' No. 1 offense scored about 91 points per 100 possessions, it's lowest mark of the season.

4. Golden State Warriors

2013-14: 99.9 (3rd)
2014-15: 95.0 (2nd)

Improvement: -4.9 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 3 of 14 have been top-10 offenses, 4 of 14 have been bottom-10 offenses.

Warriors' defense - last two seasons
Season OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
2013-14 47.7% 3 76.3% 5 15.1% 17 0.292 16
2014-15 44.6% 1 74.4% 16 15.8% 10 0.295 18
Difference -3.1% -1.8% +0.7% +0.003

The Warriors already had a great defense, but have taken another step forward. Like the Blazers, they've defended better both in the restricted area and from beyond the arc, ranking in the top four in both areas.

This team has plus defenders both inside and out. Andrew Bogut ranks among the league's top rim protectors, having forced opponents to shoot just 41.2 percent at the basket when he's there. And they've shot just 39-for-157 (25 percent) from 3-point range when at least two of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have been on the floor together.

According to SportVU, the Warriors have contested 40.8 percent of their opponents' jump shots, the highest rate in the league and a mark that's up from 32.6 percent last season. And their opponents have shot 60-for-205 (29 percent) from outside of 15 feet when one of those three guys have been guarding them.

The Dubs the Blazers, Clippers and Suns early in the month, but haven't faced a top-10 offense in almost three weeks. The next one they face is the Pelicans next Thursday.

5. San Antonio Spurs

2013-14: 100.1 (4th)
2014-15: 95.4 (3rd)

Spurs' defense - last two seasons
Season OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
2013-14 48.2% 4 76.4% 4 14.2% 23 0.242 3
2014-15 46.7% 4 80.5% 1 14.2% 19 0.245 3
Difference -1.5% +4.1% -0.1% +0.002

Improvement: -4.7 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 7 of 14 have been top-10 offenses, 4 of 14 have been bottom-10 offenses.

Like the Warriors, the Spurs didn't have much room for improvement, but have managed to still pull it off. And like the Rockets, the defensive improvement has been critical, because their offense has regressed quite a bit.

But none of the four teams above have been tested as much as the Spurs, who played six of their first seven games against teams who currently rank in the top 10 offensively. And they've allowed just 99.7 points per 100 possessions in their seven total games against the top 10.

Tim Duncan is 38 years old and is in his 18th season, but has forced opponents to shoot just 43.2 percent at the basket when he's been defending it. That rate ranks sixth among 57 players who have defended at least five shots at the basket per game over at least eight games. No player ranks higher than him in both that category and defensive rebounding percentage, where he ranks sixth among all players who have logged at least 20 minutes per game over eight games or more. DeMarcus Cousins (eighth, second), Howard (second, ninth) and Bogut (fourth, 10th) also rank in the top 10 in both categories.

Tiago Splitter hasn't been missed (on defense), because Boris Diaw has defended well. Opponents have shot just 20-for-78 (26 percent) on shots outside of 15 feet when Diaw has been defending them.

The Spurs face just one top-10 offense (10th-ranked Memphis) in their next 10 games. So they could move up the rankings (both in overall and most improved defense) in the next couple of weeks.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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