Game 5 of the NBA Finals was a rock fight.
The Finals came down to a handful of shots from a handful of players in an ugly, gross game that more resembled the San Antonio Spurs vs. Detroit Pistons series from 2005 than the modern pace-and-space era.
It’s fitting that Denver answered its last challenge by answering the biggest question surrounding the team. All season, people doubted whether the Nuggets, flashy offense and all, would be able to get stops when it mattered.
But hidden behind the mud wrestling that defined Game 5 and handed the Nuggets their first championship in franchise history is something that every fan and bettor should be aware of going forward.
This is an offensive league now.
For years, the adage has been “Defense wins championships.”
What this actually means is that, eventually, the shots aren’t going to fall, and so you had better be superior to your opponent in forcing misses and preventing easy buckets, because you can’t count on offense to carry you.
But this Nuggets championship changes that formula.
The Nuggets’ defense was good enough to win a championship because their offense was ultimately unstoppable. They had more offense when things got tough.
Along the way, the Nuggets had more offense than Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. They had an offense the Los Angeles Lakers‘ defense couldn’t slow down. And ultimately, they had an offense that the Miami Heat couldn’t turn into enough of a rotten version of itself to allow them to win.
Denver finished with the second-best Offensive Rating in the playoffs of all time, according to Basketball Reference.
Era adjusted, the Nuggets won’t look as good; offensive ratings have been climbing steadily over the past decade and have reached insane levels. That’s why we saw so many wild-scoring performances this season. (And why points per game should probably not be as big of a consideration as it once was in judging regular season impact.)
But that only reaffirms the point: The NBA now exists in an offensive-centric state. Defenses are essentially helpless against both rules stacked against them and the amount of space they have to cover in a game that features so much 3-point shooting.
Denver had the fourth-best effective field goal percentage for an NBA champion behind the 2017 Juggernaut Golden State Warriors, the 2022 Warriors, and the 2020 Lakers (who played without fans).
Eight of the top 10 schedule-adjusted defenses made the playoffs, and six were eliminated by the end of the first round.
Eight of the top 10 schedule-adjusted offenses made the playoffs, and five reached at least the second round. Also, had Miami shot in the regular season like they did in the playoffs, their 25th-ranked offense would have looked much better.
This isn’t to say you can be bad defensively; none of the bottom 10 defenses reached the second round, with only Sacramento and Atlanta making the playoffs.
But this should impact how we look at the futures market. Teams with a defense-first approach should be considered with more caution. Miami’s been a defensive beast the last four years and made the Finals twice.
However, their run this year was wholly different from last year’s. Ultimately in 2022, the Heat did not have enough offense to get past Boston, and in 2023 they couldn’t even begin to hang with Denver.
Boston’s offense was elite this year, mostly due to some crazy shooting numbers early on. But their offense has always had trouble with stalling out, and we saw that again in the conference finals. To win the title, you need a sustainable offense that isn’t reliant on 3-point shooting.
Denver went 5-1 when making fewer than 10 3-pointers and 4-0 when shooting worse than 30% from deep.
It’s not that their defense doesn’t deserve credit in these games, and it’s not that Denver just outscored their opponent every time. If Denver wasn’t able to win defensive slugfests, their path to the title would have been considerably more difficult than 16-4.
But part of what allowed them to win those games was that even though the offense struggled, it was still elite for the most part. And when absolutely everything went wrong offensively, as it did in Game 5 Monday night, their worst offensive performance was still better than their opponent’s.
There’s a relationship to consider here as well. If you’re investing as much energy as the Heat had to put into trying to slow down the Nuggets, it’s going to cost you on the offensive end.
Denver demanded so much of their opponent that it wore them out.
The best defense is a good offense.
So when you start to consider value on championship odds next season, you can start by crossing off any team whose offense can bottom out. Start with teams with a high offensive floor behind an efficient engine.
Defense wins games. Offense wins championships. Welcome to the New NBA.