How Important is Defense?

 

Jan. 23, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill (3) leans in on Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) during the first quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Lowe recently wrote a must-read piece on the Blazers and where they should expect to land after their offseason moves.

Part of what caught my attention was Lowe’s observation that the Blazers “were a disaster defensively last season — 27th in points allowed per possession.” It must have caught the attention of Kevin Yeung too, as he offered his analysis of next year’s Blazers’ defense yesterday.

We always hear that “defense wins championships,” and while coach Terry Stotts recently let slip in Lowe’s piece that “you can win a lot of games with a great offense,” it’s going to be tough for the Blazers to find postseason success (or find their way to the postseason, period) if they can’t staunch the heady flow of buckets they allowed opponents to score in 2012-13. 

So just how important is defense?

I took a quick peek at the last 14 years of NBA champions, and here’s what I found:

  • Since 1999-00, 11 of the 14 championship teams have been in the top 10 in points allowed. 7 of them were in the top 5, and only one (the 2000-01 Lakers, at 23rd) were below the top 15.
  • Of those 14 championship teams, all of them except one, the 2000-01 Lakers, were in the top 8 in field goal percentage allowed (coincidentally, that Lakers team tied with the Blazers at 11th).

Here’s the full rundown by year, team, points allowed, and field goal percentage allowed:

  • 2012-13 – Miami (5th)(6th)
  • 2011-12 – Miami (4th)(5th)
  • 2010-11 – Dallas (10th)(8th)
  • 2009-10 – LA Lakers (9th)(5th)
  • 2008-09 – LA Lakers (13th)(6th)
  • 2007-08 – Boston (2nd)(1st)
  • 2006-07 – San Antonio (1st)(4th)
  • 2005-06 – Miami (T-13th)(8th)
  • 2004-05 – San Antonio (1st)(3rd)
  • 2003-04 – Detroit (1st)(3rd)
  • 2002-03 – San Antonio (3rd)(3rd)
  • 2001-02 – LA Lakers (T-9th)(1st)
  • 2000-01 – LA Lakers (23rd)(T-11th)
  • 1999-00 – LA Lakers (6th)(1st)

What does this mean for a Blazers team that was an abysmal 27th in points allowed last year?

It means they’d better pray their defense gets better. But will it?

One obvious improvement will be Robin Lopez manning the middle instead of J.J. Hickson: to my sincere surprise, Lopez’s defensive rating last year was a pedestrian 110 points allowed per 100 possessions to Hickson’s 106. Even though it’s dangerous to say in an article leaning heavily on statistics, it’s true that sometimes the measures by which players are evaluated can be somewhat misleading. We can only assume (and hope) that’s the case here, as the multiple blown defensive assignments, inability to stay in front of taller and stronger players, and unwillingness to do much more than wave a hand in the face of passing opponents seemed to typify J.J.’s defensive prowess last season.

At the very least, Lopez will deter easy buckets just by camping his 7-foot frame anywhere near the basket, something that stats can’t quantify.

You also expect Damian Lillard’s defense to take a mini-leap, as it’s mentioned time and time again as something he’s working on.

Combine that with the addition of having competent backups in Dorell Wright (105), Thomas Robinson (101 while with Houston), and Mo Williams (111), and you can see how that triad would fare a smidgen better than, say, Victor Claver (110 in limited minutes), Will Barton (109 in even more limited minutes), and.. well, pick a player.

Will the Blazers be a great defensive team next year? No. Will they be good? …okay, no. But will they be average?

As fans, we’re hoping the answer is “yes,” but frankly, even “sort of” would be an improvement over last year. Combine a good-enough defense with an above-average offense, and Stotts is right: you’ll be able to win some games. Even if a below-average defense gets you deep in the playoffs only once in 14 years, who’s to say it can’t be 2014?

Hey… stranger things have happened.

Topics: Damian Lillard, Defense, Portland Trail Blazers

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