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Does Defense Really Win Championships?

Posted by dennee on July 28, 2012 at 11:50 AM

How to win a championship is one of the most complex puzzles facing any General Manager. There are so many influences that are largely guesswork and that many fans and observers swear are the most important. Chemistry, unselfishness, emotional control, mental attitude, locker room presence, cohesiveness, and unrelenting will to win are some of the often quoted "intangibles." Not a complete list to be sure, all of these are important and can have a profound impact upon a team's win-loss record. There is and has been no shortage of teams with incredibly talented lineups who never won anything. So there is no argument here regarding the validity of the intangibles. The problem with intangibles is that they are not measurable or quantifiable. They are characterized by feeling, opinion, and guesswork. As such, they are largely uncontrollable. A General Manager must therefore focus on what he can control.

The bottom line, in the final analysis, at the end of the day, or whateveer other popular cliche' one prefers to use, there are only two things that matter above all else. Can you put the ball in the hoop and can you keep the other team from putting the ball in the hoop?

In the past few years, there has been an increased emphasis on defense. Just in the past week I read another article which pointed out that fans come to see the great passes and the ooh-ahh slam dunks, but it is defense that wins ballgames. While the first part is true, is the second? Is defense the difference between winning and losing? The answer really is yes - and no.

Theoretically, a team defense could be so good as to hold the other team to say, only one basket for the entire game. Yet, if a single free throw made is your entire offense, you still lose. Obviously this is a most simplistic example, but it holds true regardless of the total point outcome. So just as obvious, the team that finds the best combination of adequate defense and sufficient offense is the team that will persevere.

If defense was truly the most important factor, the Miami Heat would not have won the Finals. Look for the proof here: http://www.nbastuffer.com/2012_NBA_Playoffs_Advanced_Stats.html

These stats are for the 2012 playoffs and they show that if defense was all it took to win (or at least the biggest determining factor), then Chicago should have been the champs as they had the best defense allowing only 86 points per game.

Conversely, no or poor defense is also the road to disappointment. Utah allowed 102.3 points per game followed by Dallas at 99.8. Both were quickly eliminated after only four games.

Does this mean that defense is completely overrated and that an overpowering offense is the answer? Well, no. Were this true, then San Antonio scoring 102 points per game or Oklahoma City close behind at 101.3 should have been the champs. Of course we all know they aren't.

So the real conclusion is that it is the right amount of defense combined with the right amount of offense that is key. When we look at the point differential, the picture begins to come into focus. Utah was swept with a differential of minus or negative 16 and Miami was the ultimate survivor with a differential of plus or positive 7. Of course, this is again simplistic as it does not consider injuries, match ups by seeding, rest, or timeliness in individual games of points scored or points allowed. Still, the overall premise holds true. It is not enough to be a great defensive team. You still have to score more points than the other guys.

At the same website on another page is a graph which helps to put this into visual perspective:

http://www.nbastuffer.com/

Along the x axis is offensive efficiency and the y axis shows defensive efficiency. The graph is divided into four quadrants with the two upper being the best defense, the two right being the most powerful offenses. The single upper right is where not necessarily the best defense and best offense meet. Rather it is where the best combination of the two exists and it is populated by only one team, the Heat. Their defense was only the sixth best in the playoffs, and their offense was only the third best, but it was the number one combination of the two that brought home the trophy for them.

What does all of this mean for the Celtics and their offseason moves? As mentioned, the Heat had a point differential of 7 in the playoffs while the Celtics differential was 1. All else being equal, which of course it won't be,  the six point difference has to be accounted for by either holding the Heat to an average of 7 points less or the Celtics scoring an average of 7 points more or some combination of the two.

Danny Ainge was undoubtedly well aware of this equation and made numerous moves to try and solve it. As hard as it may be to believe, all of the signings, contract negotiations, cap space worries, draft picks, and everything else basically boils down to trying to be an average of 7 points better. What do you think? Can Danny add and subtract?

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11 Comments

Reply paul
3:54 PM on July 28, 2012 
I'm sorry, dennee, but I think it is totally wrong to say that a GM must focus on what can be measured numerically and therefore more easily controlled. In fact, this is exactly the mentality that I think is devastating humanity in general, not just in the world of basketball. Yes, we should take numbers and measurements, and the things we can learn from them. But that is NOT the 'bottom line'. The real bottom line is sheer humanity, and the more unmeasurable it is, the more important it is. The truth, so easily forgotten, is that we actually have minds capable of evaluating and understanding precisely those things. We are MADE for that. When we use numbers wisely, we use them as a kind of check, or as a way of turning situations around and looking at them in new ways. I almost want to say that numbers are the fork, not the steak, only that is giving them far too much importance. They are a fork.

The thing to remember about most rules of thumb, such as the rule of thumb that says that defense wins ballgames, is that they are meant to be CORRECTIVE. One of the classic thinking mistakes we make is forgetting that. We see that thinking mistake in religion a lot. Religious teachers tell us "don't be selfish". Then people turn around and take that literally. Of course they don't mean never be selfish! You can't live without being selfish! It's a corrective. It means think about things less selfishly. Be less selfish. See the larger picture more.

To claim that defense wins championships is ludicrous on the face of it. If you hold your opponent to ten points, but you only score eight, you lose. The reason for the rule of thumb is to remind us how important defense is, because we otherwise tend to forget about it. It doesn't mean only play defense. It means play more defense.

I think this team is going to be incredibly powerful, because it is going to be savage on defense, and surprisingly effective on offense.
Reply paul
3:56 PM on July 28, 2012 
I mean that our minds are made for understanding what is hard to measure. We are actually very good at that. Numbers, in various forms, can ASSIST us. They can help us to keep looking at the situation in different ways. The problem comes when we start obsessing over the numbers and start forgetting our basic ability to think and understand. Then the numbers actually LIMIT our ability to think our way around situations.

As in all things, the key is balance.

Good piece.
Reply GeeZeeCeltics
4:53 PM on July 28, 2012 
paul says...
I mean that our minds are made for understanding what is hard to measure. We are actually very good at that. Numbers, in various forms, can ASSIST us. They can help us to keep looking at the situation in different ways. The problem comes when we start obsessing over the numbers and start forgetting our basic ability to think and understand. Then the numbers actually LIMIT our ability to think our way around situations.

As in all things, the key is balance.

Good piece.


Agree to every single word here and overall I tend to agree with what Paul said. If you have played basketball enough, you'll know that sometimes a team that is weaker on paper but has played together long enough to develop chemistry ends up being better than one that is stacked yet unseasoned together. I have witnessed this first hand. But you can't measure that, yet it leaves a big mark on wins and losses. So, indeed, the best idea is to have a balance between numbers and intangibles and have a balance between offense and defense.
Reply paul
5:08 PM on July 28, 2012 
GeeZeeCeltics says...
Agree to every single word here and overall I tend to agree with what Paul said. If you have played basketball enough, you'll know that sometimes a team that is weaker on paper but has played together long enough to develop chemistry ends up being better than one that is stacked yet unseasoned together. I have witnessed this first hand. But you can't measure that, yet it leaves a big mark on wins and losses. So, indeed, the best idea is to have a balance between numbers and intangibles and have a balance between offense and defense.


Sometimes, when those 'intangibles' kick in,it's like suddenly having wings, or suddenly you are moving faster than everyone else, even if you aren't...
Reply GeeZeeCeltics
5:29 PM on July 28, 2012 
paul says...
Sometimes, when those 'intangibles' kick in,it's like suddenly having wings, or suddenly you are moving faster than everyone else, even if you aren't...


Another massively underrated thing is momentum. You absolutely can't measure it but momentum is so important in games. Some players have a feel for that and know how to benefit from it and raise it at the same time.
Reply Greg
5:43 PM on July 28, 2012 
Defense does win championships, but u need a good enough offense, to win the games.
Reply dennee
6:57 PM on July 28, 2012 
GeeZeeCeltics says...
Agree to every single word here and overall I tend to agree with what Paul said. If you have played basketball enough, you'll know that sometimes a team that is weaker on paper but has played together long enough to develop chemistry ends up being better than one that is stacked yet unseasoned together. I have witnessed this first hand. But you can't measure that, yet it leaves a big mark on wins and losses. So, indeed, the best idea is to have a balance between numbers and intangibles and have a balance between offense and defense.

Thanks GeeZee. I agree that chemistry can make for over achievement. It is true of all team sports at every level. But as you noted, it develops (or it might not). And you look for the chemistry (qualitative) from among those that first have to the ability to play the sport (quantitative). So while the chemistry is HUGE, it is still has to be secondary when first deciding which players to even consider.
Reply GeeZeeCeltics
7:09 PM on July 28, 2012 
dennee says...
Thanks GeeZee. I agree that chemistry can make for over achievement. It is true of all team sports at every level. But as you noted, it develops (or it might not). And you look for the chemistry (qualitative) from among those that first have to the ability to play the sport (quantitative). So while the chemistry is HUGE, it is still has to be secondary when first deciding which players to even consider.


Indeed, one must first determine the skill of a player - which is where numbers aid us - before taking a closer look at his personality. But I do think that taking a player's persona in account and making sure it meshes with others is what sets championship teams apart. That's why Danny doesn't add no more Nate Robinsons to the team.
Reply paul
9:53 PM on July 28, 2012 
dennee says...
Thanks GeeZee. I agree that chemistry can make for over achievement. It is true of all team sports at every level. But as you noted, it develops (or it might not). And you look for the chemistry (qualitative) from among those that first have to the ability to play the sport (quantitative). So while the chemistry is HUGE, it is still has to be secondary when first deciding which players to even consider.


Ok, you want to dis me now? You want to speak to GeeVee like I never said anything? And you want to dismiss what I had to say?


I really have no desire to respond to you at this point, but for the others I will point out that the claim that intangibles are an ancillary factor is not only silly on the face of it, but it shows the degenerate mentality of our times.
Reply paul
9:55 PM on July 28, 2012 
GeeZeeCeltics says...
Indeed, one must first determine the skill of a player - which is where numbers aid us - before taking a closer look at his personality. But I do think that taking a player's persona in account and making sure it meshes with others is what sets championship teams apart. That's why Danny doesn't add no more Nate Robinsons to the team.


Yes. We all use numbers as an aid. Some seek to use them to replace thinking. Many do that in all walks of life.
Reply paul
10:00 PM on July 28, 2012 
This was like one of those situations where we are all sitting in a room. Dennee made a long comment. I thought about it and made a thoughtful response. Geevee and I then talked about Dennee's comment and my response. And then Dennee turned to GeeVee and said "thanks for your input GeeVee". And that's when I raised my hand and said "um, hey, yeah I'm sitting right here and i've been part of this conversation and now suddenly you are acting like I'm not even here, and that's a diss in my book."

So now see the way it works, pally, is this: you aren't worth my time in the future. If I see any remark or post by you, I won't bother with it. I'm sure we'll both be satisfied with that arrangement, and I'll ask you to return the favor. Can we make that deal?

Cause if you comment on any post I write, I will simply delete your comment immediately, without reading it. So don't.