A lot of emphasis is placed on offensive aptitude in the NBA. The highest scorers are usually the MVPs and the more threes you can put up, the better. However, what sets the tone for good offense is often the defense. Good defense is difficult to represent in a statistic, but the best way to understand who has the best D is to look at the number of points a team allows their opponent to score per possession and using defensive rating statistics. The Clippers take the cake for best defense in the league, but let’s examine the top three so we can see what sets them apart.
#3: Miami Heat
The Heat are in somewhat of a rebuilding mode after losing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and now Chris Bosh over the last few years. What the team does still have is Coach Erik Spoelstra who is hard at work normalizing his rotation. The Heat are focusing on building yet another solid core with Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters & Goran Dragic but none of those guys are household names when it comes to scoring.
The closest thing the Heat have to a superstar is Whiteside who is putting up very impressive numbers this season. He’s the leading scorer for the team, and also the best rebounder bringing in a remarkable 16 boards per game. One of the simplest ways teams can defend is to help each other out and take every opportunity to double team the opponent. The Heat have mastered this skill and they’ve become very successful at suppressing pick and rolls and forcing turnovers. They have a somewhat smaller lineup, but it appears that Spoelstra is making the best with who he has–holding opposing teams to an average of 98 points per 100 possessions.
#2: Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta has had the makings of something special for a couple of seasons now, but for some reason they haven’t been able to bring it all together. This year it looks like they are serious about starting off the season the right way by playing a more physical brand. Despite a lack of size in their front court, they’ve been playing fierce defense. This effort has helped rank them first in the Eastern conference just a shade in front of the defending champs.
So what’s working? The acquisition of Dwight Howard may be just what the Hawks needed to go the distance this year. Howard is one of the toughest and strongest defenders in the league when he can keep his head right and stay focused. So far this season he is averaging 12.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Power Forward Paul Millsap is key on offense for the Hawks and rounds out as a solid defensive player to complement Howard nicely. There still needs to be a little improvement from Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr. & Kent Bazemore on the defensive end, but so far the Hawks are performing quite nicely. They are currently holding their opponents to around 95 points per 100 possessions.
#1: LA Clippers
Although the Clippers had their fair share of drama last season, they have worked hard to keep it together and enter the 2016-2017 season ready to get down to business. I’m not a fan of athletes who make regular subject matter for TMZ headlines so I was pretty disappointed when Blake Griffin ran into trouble. I was certain he was going to be traded, but it appears the Clippers organization wants to keep the band together and make another run for it.
Defensively this team is holding their opponents to around 93 points per 100 possessions and that has translated into a #1 ranking in the Western Conference for them. DeAndre Jordan leads the defensive effort for LA at an intimidating 6 feet 11 inches and 265 lbs. He averages 12.4 rebounds and almost 2 blocks per game. Griffin is a smart defender alongside Jordan under the rim. A key defensive strategy is to minimize the amount of floor space that the opponent has to work with. That could mean forcing the opponent to play on only one side of the court. The Clippers have been successful with this due to the sheer size of their roster—particularly Jordan and Griffin. These two are almost impossible to get by not just because of their size, but because of the physicality and aggressiveness they play with. Good D could mean great things for ‘Lob City’ this season so stay tuned.
Generally, poor defense produces an environment where teams become reactionary and offensively disorganized. However, good defense sets a controlled tone for the game, and allows a team’s offense to gain momentum quickly while forcing an opponent into reactionary mode. So it’s easy to see why teams with the best defense are often the teams who rank highest in their divisions. While it’s fun to watch players who drain the three and posterize opponents with a jam, keep an eye on who is in control on D–that’s who will walk away with the win.