Sports

NBA Analysis: Defense Supposedly Wins Championships, but Offense is Actually More Important

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“Offense wins games, defense wins championships” – Ancient NBA adage

Or so we are told.* There is no debating that bad defensive teams are unlikely to win an NBA championship. There is also no debating that bad offenses are equally, if not more unlikely to win an NBA championship. This is because basketball is played at two ends of a court, and each side, both offense and defense, can contribute to the final margin of victory.

*I believe the genesis of the quote is Bear Bryant’s “Offense sells tickets but defense wins championships.”

Of the top 200 teams by SRS from 1980-2011 — a range that encompasses every single NBA champion — the average team was +3.2points better on offense (relative to league average efficiency) and only 2.8 better on defense.

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The top two outlying teams on offense (04 Mavs and 05 Suns) didn’t win, but the next group of offensive juggernauts features NBA champions. The Lakers and Bulls title teams in this era were by and large offensive dynasties. Conversely, the elite defenses peaked out higher or just as high, with only one of the four teams — the 2008 Celtics, who had by far the best offense of the group — winning the championship.

In general, good teams in the NBA seem have been slightly better because of their offense. Interestingly, that phenomenon goes away when we look at only the 32 championship teams of the period: Title-winners in the 3-point era are exactly as good on offense as they are on defense during the regular season (3.66 points/100 better than league average). However, the playoffs are another story…

Here is a list of all 32 NBA champions in the 3-point era and how they stacked up on offense and defense in the regular and postseason relative to league average (Rel ORtg/DRtg). Included is whether the team was stronger on offense or defense and its margin of victory (MOV) in the regular and postseason (bold indicates stronger trend)...

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