The trite cliche, ‘Defense wins championships,’ has been passed along by coaches and sports authorities for as long as amateur and professional sports have been played. And, in some sports the old adage rings true. Defense usually propagates wins and ultimately championships for football, baseball, and hockey teams because their defenses have distinct advantages. Hard hitting teams with good play on defense usually win games in football and hockey because collisions create turnovers that can be immediately converted into points. The squad that covers more ground and delivers harder punishment on the field or the ice will eventually impose their will on their opponents because there is a direct correlation between defensive plays and overall scoring. No football team wins a championship without fielding a decent secondary, and no hockey squads win the cup without finding a goalie who stops every shot that comes near the net. Turnovers equal victories. In most postseason baseball games, fielding percentage and pitching decide which team will be victorious, and a hot pitcher can win playoff games by himself. Defensive efficacy dictates how well those types of teams fare in their respective sports, however basketball is not as dependent on defense as coaches would have the casual fan believe. In basketball, even in the National Basketball Association, offense decides which team will reach the win column and which team will lose, especially when it comes to championships.
Winning basketball games is not completely dependent on defense like most other sports. It depends on three distinct components for success, offensive star power, ball control, and rebounds. Good teams have some these characteristics, but these characteristics define the great teams. Championship contenders in basketball have to field players who can score baskets consistently, they have to control turnovers and share the basketball, and they have to get more possessions on average than their opponents.
The 2014 NBA champions, the San Antonio Spurs, had three of the most efficient offensive players in the league in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard. Consequently, the team was 1st in the league in field goals made, 1st in 3 point field goal percentage, 1st in assists, and 2nd in overall field goal percentage. The Spurs were only 9th in the league in blocks and 20th in steals, the two most clearly defined defensive categories, however they were 11th in the league in turnovers and 12th in rebounding which puts them in the top third of the league in both categories. Put simply, the Spurs won the title that year because they shared the basketball, got easy shots, and won the possession battle on most nights. That trend occurs with most NBA champions. The 2013 Miami Heat may have been one of the best defensive squads since the Chicago Bulls teams of the 90′s because of their unparalleled team athleticism, but they are also one of the most talented offensive squads of this generation. The Heat combined LeBron James, the premier basketball talent of this generation with NBA Finals-tested superstar Dwayne Wade and established superstar Chris Bosh, to form one of the most talented offensive trios in NBA history. The Heat ranked 3rd in steals and 10th in blocks despite fielding one of the shorter teams in the league in 2013 (they were good defensively), however Miami ranked in 5th in field goals made, 1st in field goal percentage, 3rd in three pointers made, 2nd in three point percentage, and 7th in assists as a team. Though the Heat were great defensively, they were also a juggernaut on offense. Miami played in four straight Finals from 2010 to 2014, consequently. The 2015 World Champion Golden State Warriors were 1st in total offense, points, field goals made, field goal percentage, 3 pointers percentage, and assists. They were also 6th in rebounding, 4th in steals, and 2nd in blocks. This team could outscore anyone in the league, they controlled pace, and they won the possessions battle every night. Therefore, the Warriors won their first championship in 50 years and set the regular season wins record the following season before losing in the NBA Finals to the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers. That Cavaliers team ranked 27th in blocks and 28th in steals, but they ranked 13th in assists, 8th in total points, and 9th in rebounds. They also ranked 10th in turnovers, 7th in 3 point percentage, and 9th in field goal percentage. Though they ranked in the bottom 10% of the league in defense, the Cavaliers were ranked in the top ten in the most important offensive statistical categories, and consequently brought Cleveland their first championship in 52 years. And, the 2017 Warriors led the NBA in almost every offensive statistical category on their way to a title. With the addition of Kevin Durant, one of the most efficient scorers in the league, Golden State placed 1st in total scoring average, field goals made, field goal percentage, total points, and assists. The Warriors were well rounded as they placed 1st in steals and blocks, but their offensive firepower drove them past their opponents.
In the last 25 years, the average offensive ranking of championship teams has been 5.52, and the average defensive ranking of those championship teams 5.26. Two teams had a defense not ranked in the top ten, the Houston Rockets in 1995 ranked 12th, and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers ranked 21st, and the top ranked defense in the NBA only won 5 times. This does not mean that defense is unnecessary to win a NBA championship. Just as with any other sport, defense plays an important role in winning games, especially a title. However, in the National Basketball Association offense plays more of a role than defense, and its importance has been underplayed for too long.
The average National Basketball Association champion has three to four All-Star caliber players on their team, and the All-Star game is defined by offensive talent. Though defensive stalwarts like Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, or Tony Allen occasionally sneak into the mix, overwhelmingly the All-Star games are comprised of the offensive leaders of the best NBA teams. Polished offensive players provide consistent scoring against the stouter defenses of the postseason, and when an offensive star gets hot, there is no defense that can stop them. LeBron James took a cast of throw-away players to the NBA Finals in 2007 because of his offensive dominance. His brilliance scoring and passing the basketball made everyone on his team better, and the Cavaliers were only stopped by a championship team that had three future Hall of Fame players, the San Antonio Spurs. And, in the interest of clarity, the Spurs’ defense did not stop LeBron as he averaged 22.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game. LeBron simply did not have teammates that could help him to get past the Spurs’ second ranked defense. Because there were no other offensive threats on the 2007 Cavaliers squad, San Antonio was able to key all their defensive schemes onto slowing James. The next highest scoring Cleveland Cavalier was nearly a full ten points under James’ scoring average at 12.8 points per game, and Cleveland as a whole could only muster 80.5 points per game in the Finals, one of the lowest scoring team averages in NBA postseason history. The Cavs fielded a defensive rating of 4th in the league and took some points off of the Spurs’ average, however they only ranked 18th in offensive rating. No one besides James could get his own shot, and in the crucial moments the stars of San Antonio delivered. Tony Parker was amazing, scoring at will in the paint despite being a relatively small guard in stature. He had the highest scoring average of the series at 24.5 points per game on 56.8% field goal percentage. Manu Ginobli was relentless going to the rim and mixed his shorter shots with long range bombs that kept the Cleveland defense honest. And, Tim Duncan was himself, cool and poised under pressure while surgically dismantling the interior defense of his opponent.
Cases of offensive stardom outshining defensive excellence are a common occurrence in the NBA. LeBron James scored 22 straight points against the best team defense in the league and one of the NBA’s premier individual defenders in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. In the Round 2 of the 1995 Playoffs, Reggie Miller scored 8 points in 9 seconds to beat the New York Knicks in Game 1. Isiah Thomas mounted a comeback for his Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals on one leg. A bad high ankle sprain threatened to take him out of the Finals altogether, but he hobbled on and scored a NBA Finals record 25 points in a quarter to make his team competitive in Game 6. And then, there is Michael Jordan who embodies the offensive standard of professional basketball. He scored in the clutch against any defense that the opposing teams threw at him. He faced modified zones, double-teams, and triple-teams that included every team’s best defenders grabbing and pushing him. But, none of those things matter because great offensive players have at least two distinct advantages over their defenders. First, no defender truly knows what an offensive player is going to do on any possession. If they have studied film, then they know a player’s tendencies, but every play is organic. Jordan, for instance is characterized by his deadly fadeaway shot, but that shot was set up by a series of head and shoulder fakes that often led to an aggressive post move finish, a balanced up-and-down jumpshot, a soft floater taken with either hand in traffic, or a finesse counter. On every possession he had five different, efficient shots with an infinite number of pivots and ball-fakes at his disposal. No defender could feasibly guess correctly on every possession. Second, any good offensive player is reading the body of the defender and moving that defender to get the shot that he wants. Chris Paul makes contact with his opponents to neutralize their length and height. He bumps bigger guards with his lower body before he takes shots in traffic, so that they cannot leave the floor without fouling him. James Harden uses a long first step to keep his defenders off balance. Once he has them on his hip, he regular takes small, false steps into their bodies to keep them at bay. Steph Curry uses flashy ball-handling to lull defenders to sleep before launching long three pointers. He fakes moves to the basket in order to create space for his shots. LeBron James applies his strong upper body to bully his competition in the post and the open floor. He reads defenses for gaps, and then squeezes his frame into the seams overpowering even the post players at times. All four players, utilize different methods to gain advantage against rivals, however they all manipulate their opponents into positions on the court where they have the advantage. No defender can stop a great scorer in basketball. They can only hope to contain the impact that offensive star has on the game.
Basketball games are won by the team that has the best offensive players because basketball is an offensive game. They are won with balanced scoring by the team who controls the most possessions, and in order to convert shots and maximize possessions, teams must build skilled squads with complementary parts. All the aforementioned teams had players who were efficient offensively and who operated on different parts of the floor which ultimately utilized a larger portion of the court and stretched defenses. Scoring is a direct result of having polished basketball players who can create their own shots and make scoring opportunities for their teammates. And, though defense matters, putting athletes on the court who can hit shots and focusing on ball control and turnovers is the secret to winning basketball games. Your coach lied to you. Offense wins basketball games.