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Defense Does Not Win Championships

14 Jan

This article was originally posted on April 12, 2011. Due to our great reader feedback at, we decided to run it again. Enjoy.

Legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant Jr. famously told his football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide that, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” Bear Bryant was right about that. In football, a dominant defense can carry a paltry, underachieving offense to the pinnacle of the sport, and great offenses often lose to teams less-talented teams that hit hard on defense. The feared Tampa Two of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens proved this assertion. The Tampa Two defense, perfected by Tony Dungy, revolutionized the defensive side of the football. In 2000, the Baltimore Ravens produced the stingiest defense in NFL history and won a championship despite having mediocre quarterback play at best. This was possible because, in football, the defense can score too, and when a NFL team has Hall of Fame athletes like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on the defensive side of the football, that side of the football team scores often. However, basketball coaches are adapting this old adage too, and it has resulted in structurally flawed teams like the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers or the 2002 Philadelphia 76′ers. Those NBA teams had one part of the equation to win a National Basketball Association championship, but their team concept and extraneous personnel was poorly assembled. LeBron James and Allen Iverson, respectively, were the best players in the league in 2007 and 2002. They could score when necessary, but their teammates were accumulated to bolster the team concept of defense. The players that surrounded the league MVP in those two years were put there to stop other players from scoring, instead of scoring themselves. In football, the defense can score points to supplement a suspect offense, but in basketball, the team with the highest skilled, most talented players, almost always win. Both the Cavaliers and the 76′ers lost the Finals series and never returned. Winning in basketball is about having a unstoppable go-to player, having a second and third scoring option on offense, and having respectable rebounding and defense.

The biggest key to winning in the National Basketball Association is obtaining the franchise player with an established go-to move. The best defensive player in the league can not even slow a franchise player without help from other teammates. Did Micheal Cooper ever hold Larry Bird to under 15 points in a game? No, Bird was one of the most polished basketball players that ever reached the NBA and could score on anyone. Did any one player ever stop Michael Jordan from averaging 30 points per game? No, Michael Jordan was better than everyone athletically and skill-wise. The best players in the league put the basketball in the rim, regardless of who is in front of them. Basketball is an offensive sport. If a guy gets hot, it does not matter what junk defense you throw at him, he is going to score. LeBron James scored 22 straight points against the Boston Celtics in a playoff game. They boasted the best defense in the league that year and focused all their defensive acumen on stopping him. It did not matter because a great offensive player always beats a great defense in basketball.

Eventually, a smart coach will double-team the best player if he begins to dominate the game, however this defensive strategy only works if the opposing team is flawed structurally. Good offense still dictates the outcome of any given game. This is where the Cavaliers and 76′ers fell short. Their second and third options were not adept at scoring the basketball and their offenses stalled. James and Iverson penetrated and made easy shots for their teammates, however those teammates specialized in team and individual defense and therefore could not score the basketball. The teams that they faced, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers had superior offensive firepower and won the series 4-0 and 4-1, respectively. Teams that hope to win it all have at least three stars. Every former National basketball Association champion has had at least three scorers.

Below is a list of NBA champions over the last thirty years and their offensive stars.

Los Angeles Lakers – 2009-10 Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Boston Celtics – 2008 Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen
San Antonio Spurs – 2007,05,03 Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker
Miami Heat – 2006 Dwayne Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning
Detroit Pistons – 2004 Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton
Los Angeles Lakers – 2000-02 Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox or Robert Horry
San Antonio Spurs – 1999 David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Sean Elliot
Chicago Bulls – 1996-98, 1991-93 Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, then Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc
Houston Rockets – 1994-95 Hakeem Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell, then Clyde Drexler
Detroit Pistons – 1989-90 Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson
Los Angeles Lakers – 1987-88, 85, 82,80 Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, James Worthy
Boston Celtics – 1986, 84, 81 Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish
Philadelphia 76’ers – 1982 Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones

Every team shown in the graph above has at least one Hall of Fame candidate, with the exception of the 2004 Detroit Pistons. But, the Pistons had the best defense in basketball history at the time, only allowing opponents to score 89 points or less against them, and they put 4 great offensive players on the court nightly. Rasheed Wallace was one of the most talented and versatile scorers in the league at 6’11″. He had great footwork in the post, a soft touch on every shot, and range out to the 3 pt. line. Chauncey Billups became one of the most revered leaders and clutch shooters in the NBA in that season. Tayshaun Prince, their best individual defender was a star offensive player in college, and his scoring prowess resurfaced in those NBA Finals. And, Rip Hamilton was a tireless worker on offense, running defenders off a myriad of screens while putting up 20-30 points in any game. Winning in basketball is more contingent on having multiple offensive weapons than having defensive stalwarts, though defense is important too.

There have been many great NBA defenses that have been crowned champions at the end of the season, but they also had viable scoring options. Literally, every team that has won a NBA championship has played strong defense, but has had some of the best scorers in the league. Defense is important, but it does not win championships. To win in basketball, you have to put the ball in the hole.

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