Memphis winning with defense

But don't call the Grizzlies this year's 76ers; their offense is just as good

Originally Published: December 8, 2012
By Neil Paine | Basketball-Reference.com
Memphis GrizzliesJoe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Grizzlies have gotten off to a fast start with great defense. But they score just as well, too.

We all know that "defense wins championships" … or, at least, it used to. Of the 20 best (per-possession) regular-season defenses since the shot clock was introduced in 1954-55, 13 have gone on to win the NBA title, including 10 of the top 13. Historically, if you wanted to punch your team's ticket to a championship, having an elite defense was a pretty good place to start.

However, defense's batting average hasn't been quite as high in recent seasons. Since the triumph of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics (who were the sixth-best defense of the shot clock era with a defensive rating 8.6 points per 100 possessions under the league average), nine teams have posted a defensive efficiency mark of at least 5.0 points better than average: the 2008-09 Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics; the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls, Celtics and Magic; and the 2011-12 Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, and Celtics. Of those, none came away with the ring; in fact, only the '09 Magic even made the Finals.

Many an aspiring defensive juggernaut has learned the hard way that, unless you have one of the 10 or so best defenses of all time, you can't win a ring with D alone.

Last year's Sixers embodied the one-dimensional trap that's easy to fall into if you take the concept of "defense wins championships" too far. They were third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, with the 56th-best defense (relative to the league average) of any team in the shot clock era. They were also a quicker study than most when it came to the valuable lesson of forcing opponents to shoot from unfavorable spots on the floor. That monster defense helped earn Philadelphia the league's fifth-best schedule-adjusted PPG margin, and it was the kind of defensive performance that could win you a championship -- provided you also brought an offense.

Philly didn't. It was the NBA's 11th-worst offensive team on a per-possession basis, which essentially doomed it from the start. Only one champion in the past 33 seasons won with an offense so weak relative to the league average -- the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons -- and, for all its efficiency, the 2011-12 Sixers' D was not even as historically dominating as Detroit's was. Many an aspiring defensive juggernaut has learned the hard way that, unless you have one of the 10 or so best defenses of all time, you can't win a ring with D alone.

Which brings us to the 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies, who hope to buck that trend by tweaking the failed formulae of those recent defensive-minded teams that came up short.


To read more of why Neil Paine says the Memphis Grizzlies are not this year's version of the Philadelphia 76ers, become an Insider today.

Neil Paine writes for FiveThirtyEight, the data-supported sports, politics and culture site coming soon from ESPN.