NBA Storylines

NBA Storylines: Rockets, Timberwolves among 5 most improved defenses

Breaking down how the Rockets, Wolves, Magic, Blazers and Thunder have all raised their defensive skills this season.

New addition Dillon Brooks and big man Alperen Sengun are key players in Houston’s improved defense.

For the fifth time in the last six seasons, the NBA is setting a new record for efficiency. Through Wednesday, the league has averaged 114.7 points per 100 possessions, up from 114.1 last season and just 107.8 six seasons ago (2017-18).

But 12 teams have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season. Here are the five who’ve seen the biggest drop …

Biggest drop, points allowed per 100 possessions

Team 2022-23 Rank 2023-24 Rank Diff.
Houston 118.6 29 110.4 6 -8.2
Minnesota 113.1 10 107.5 1 -5.6
Orlando 113.7 18 110.2 4 -3.5
Portland 118.0 28 114.5 15 -3.5
Oklahoma City 113.2 13 110.1 3 -3.1

Through Dec. 20, 2023

1. Houston Rockets

The Rockets have allowed 131.9 points per 100 possessions as they’ve lost three straight games, but have still undergone a pretty incredible transformation defensively. Their drop in points allowed per 100 possessions from last season (8.2) would be the third biggest in the last 25 seasons.

  • Good (and bad) defense starts in transition, and that’s where the Rockets’ improvement starts. Two seasons ago, they allowed 25 points per game in transition, the most in (at the time) 18 years of Synergy tracking. Last season, they topped that, allowing 27.2 points per game in transition. This season? The Rockets have allowed just 14.9 transition points per game, the fewest for any defense in the last six seasons!
  • The Rockets have maybe had a little bit of luck from beyond the arc, where their opponents have shot a league-low 32.4%. But according to Second Spectrum tracking, 14% of their opponents’ 3-point attempts have been tightly or very tightly contested, up from just 8% last season.
  • While the perimeter effective field goal percentage has seen a big drop, there’s been a bigger drop in opponent field goal percentage in the paint, from 60.4% (28th) last season to 54.6% (seventh) this season. That goes back to the improvement in transition.

This three-game slide the Rockets have suffered defensively has been the first three games of their only stretch of five games in seven days, and it’s included games against the league’s third and fourth-ranked offenses. They’ll face the sixth-ranked offense (that of the Mavs) on Friday (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass), before finishing the five-in-seven stretch in New Orleans the following night.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Wolves were much better on defense than they were on offense last season. And in going from eighth to first place in the Western Conference, it’s been on defense where they’ve been more improved.

  • Like the Rockets, the Wolves have seen a big drop in opponent 3-point percentage. They haven’t seen as big of a jump in the percentage of their opponents’ 3s that have been contested, but they’re the only team that ranks in the top five in both opponent field goal percentage in the paint (third) and opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (second).
  • The Wolves’ drop in points allowed per 100 possessions has been significant in both Rudy Gobert’s minutes on the floor (-5.8) and his minutes off the floor (-5.4).
  • They’ve seen the league’s second-biggest drop in opponent free throw rate. Naz Reid has averaged just 2.7 fouls per 36 minutes, down from 5.1 per 36 last season.

The Wolves are the only team on this list that’s played more games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 offensively (9) than they have against the bottom 10 (8). Those numbers will be even after they host the 24th-ranked Lakers on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

3. Orlando Magic

Like the Wolves, the Magic were better defensively last season, and they’ve improved on their strength, climbing into the top five on that end of the floor.

  • Unlike the other four teams on this list, the Magic have actually seen a jump in opponent 3-point percentage. But they’ve seen the league’s second biggest drop in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from 3-point range, from 42.5% (fourth highest) last season to just 38.5% (14th lowest) this season. And they’ve defended the basket better than the team (Indiana) that’s seen the biggest drop.
  • The Magic are among the best in limiting their opponents’ shooting opportunities, the only team that ranks in the top five in both opponent turnover rate and defensive rebounding percentage.
  • Jonathan Isaac may be the Magic’s best defensive player, and he’s been limited to just 259 total minutes, having played less than 20 in all 19 games he’s appeared in. The Magic have allowed just 102.2 points per 100 possessions with Isaac on the floor and he’s the only player in the league who’s averaged at least two steals and at least two blocks per 36 minutes.

The Magic have dropped three straight games for the first time, and their schedule remains tough. They’ll face each of the league’s top three offenses in the next seven days, visiting the Bucks (third) on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass).

4. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have had some defensive slippage of late, but they still rank as one of the league’s most improved teams on that end of the floor, in part because they were so bad last season. In fact, they’ve ranked in the bottom five defensively in each of the last four years.

  • The thing the Blazers’ defense does well is force turnovers. They rank second in opponent turnover rate (16.0 per 100 possessions), up from 19th (13.6) last season, having seen the league’s biggest jump by a healthy margin.
  • They’ve averaged just 2.3 possessions per game of zone (14th most), down from 13.6 (second most) last season, according to Synergy tracking.
  • While the Blazers have been a little worse than average (54.3%) regarding opponent effective field goal percentage (54.8%), that’s a significant improvement from last season. But all of that improvement has come from shots from outside the paint. Their opponents have shot much better in the paint (62.2%, the league’s highest opponent mark) than they did last season (59.1%, 10th highest).

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were the league’s most improved team (statistically) last season, and that improvement was more about an offense that ranked 30th the season prior. This season, when you take the league average into account, they’ve been more improved defensively.

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league with 2.8 steals per game, up from 1.6 (fourth) last season. The Thunder lead the league in opponent turnover rate (16.3 per 100 possessions), though that’s the same rate as they had last season when they ranked second.
  • They’ve seen the league’s third biggest drop in opponent effective field goal percentage, with the drop in the paint being bigger than the drop in shots from the outside. They’ve also seen a significant drop in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come in the paint, from 50% (13th lowest) last season to just 46% (second lowest) this season.
  • That rate has been the same with Chet Holmgren on the floor as it’s been with him off the floor, though the opponents have shot worse in the paint when he’s been on the floor (53.1%) than when he hasn’t (54.4%).

Only five of the Thunder’s 25 games have come against teams that currently rank in the top 10 offensively. They’ve got a big game against the Clippers and their seventh-ranked offense on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass).

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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