Evaluating NBA Defenses



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

As we get back up to speed this week in the NBA, we want to update everyone on how defenses are grading out this year in pro hoops.

You regulars know we believe that DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS. With playoff positioning a key right now in both conferences, and the playoffs themselves just a couple of weeks away, it's very important that you know the differences between teams in this very important area.

Today we're going to look at how all 30 teams rate in "defensive efficiency." That's simply points allowed per possession. If you just use scoring averages, you're not adjusting for pace. Some fast teams actually guard well, and that doesn't become clear until they're in a playoff series against a worse defense. Some slow teams are actually soft inside. Artificially lower scores caused by slow pace just creates the illusion of defense.

We've been talking some about that during our MARCH MADNESS coverage. Note that we'll back to college hoops tomorrow to preview the FINAL FOUR...and again on Monday to preview the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP game. Sunday's report will focus on baseball, as the MLB season gets rolling that night with the Yankees and the Red Sox on ESPN.

Here are the best defenses in the NBA to this point in the season based on points allowed per possession.

4...Oklahoma City
6 (tie)...LA Lakers
9...San Antonio

We'll stop right there because that's easily the most critical hunk in terms of what you'll be studying in the next several weeks. The top 10 teams include:

  • Eastern powers Cleveland, Orlando, and Boston...the teams that have ruled the conference the past few years, and will be ruling it again this Spring (though maybe not aging Boston so much).
  • The Los Angeles Lakers, the clear power of the West the past few seasons and this year when they're healthy.
  • The amazing Oklahoma City Thunder, who have taken the league by storm this year (fitting for a team called Thunder!). Everyone's talking about Kevin Durant. He's a true superstar. But, the TEAM is winning because they play such great defense. This is hidden by their tempo. It's something we pointed out to you several weeks ago here in the NOTEBOOK. The team has shown no signs of slowing down.
  • The surprising Milwaukee Bucks, who have literally SHOCKED the Eastern Conference this year with their consistently solid efforts. The media loves hyping Brandon Jennings. The TEAM is winning because they play such great defense.
  • Resurgent Utah, who has come on VERY strong in recent weeks to become clear threats to the suddenly shaky Lakers. We showed you Wednesday that Utah leads the West in margin average. They're better defensively than you probably realized.
  • The "dynasty" teams of the past decade...with San Antonio, the Lakers, Boston, Cleveland, and Orlando (and arguably Miami in the best of times). Defense wins championships! Hall of Fame coaches teach defense (Popovich, Jackson, Riley-and the Cleveland coach was a Spurs assistant).

This is why we want you thinking about defense. The media does a horrible job explaining what's going on beyond the occasional blocked shot. The public is influenced by the media. Vegas lines are strongly influenced by public perceptions. We could make the case that the MAIN reason JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK has owned the NBA for more than 20 years is that we're emphasizing a factor that Vegas just doesn't get!

Continuing on with the rankings...



It's one day before the Final Four, and NBA Friday offers us a marquee doubleheader to get our bankroll on! We're on a 12-6 run in the pros and are keyed in on this ESPN twinbill. It starts with Hawks-Cavaliers, where our basketball experts have studied the backcourt matchup of Moe Williams and Anthony Parker against Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson, combined with the post battle between Anderson Varejo and Al Horford and found a key edge that's not manifesting itself in the point spread. Then in the nightcap, our sources are right on the scene in Los Angeles and have an unmatched perspective on whether LA's slump is just the regular season blahs that come to a team running away with homecourt advantage or whether it symbolizes something deeper. We've got the angles, we've got the edges, and all that's left is to GET THE MONEY! Go 2-0 on NBA Friday and roll it right back into the Final Four!

or call the office at 1-800-323-4453


Some important teams in here...with early red flags about why they might not live up to their hopes in the playoffs. Dallas, Atlanta, and Denver are all talking the talk about getting things done in the postseason. They'll have to shoot lights out to make up for their defensive weaknesses relative to the powers we've just discussed. Sure, if the Lakers can't get healthy, or suffer new injuries, anything can happen in the West. Just remember that "anything can happen" favors defenses! Is Atlanta really ready to compete with the big boys this Spring? We'll buy that at home. On the road? With a league average defense?

We imagine that the defensive differences are going to end up being a key theme in our discussions of the West in the next several weeks.

Finishing off the league...

22...LA Clippers
23...New Orleans
25...New York
26...New Jersey
29...Golden State

Phoenix is great for highlight shows. They sell a lot of tickets. We love watching Steve Nash run the break or penetrate a defense and kick it to an open shooter. It's very unlikely Phoenix is going to do a lot of damage this year given their 24th ranked defense. A lot will depend on the brackets...and how hot the shooters can stay. We've seen in the past that Phoenix AT ITS BEST couldn't make it to the league finals. Today's article helps explain why they may be a bigger long shot than it seems this year.

Oh, one way you can evaluate the potential for young teams to get better is to focus on this particular stat. Franchises who "get it" start playing defense fairly quickly. Those who don't flounder around near the bottom until there's a change in management, or even ownership. Now, you can make the case that Phoenix/New York/Toronto "get it" in terms of selling tickets or putting on a show (similar styles because of a Phoenix influence in the other two cities). That's fine if you're marketing a circus.

For the most part, the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency is a collection every year of teams who have lost their way, or are still trying to figure things out. We can't say there are too many exceptions to that theme in this year's group.

That wraps up our look at NBA defenses.

Games of interest we'll be paying very close attention to this evening:

  • Atlanta at Cleveland on ESPN (Hawks tested on the road)
  • Utah at the LA Lakers on ESPN (Suddenly the top two in the West!)
  • Orlando at San Antonio
  • Milwaukee at Charlotte

And, if you're a fan of "turn back the clock" stuff, you might as well watch New York-Golden State to see what ABA basketball used to look like back in the day!

Games of interest over the weekend:

  • Oklahoma City at Dallas on Saturday Night (a potential playoff preview depending on how the brackets finally work themselves out...remember to focus on DEFENSE in this game!)
  • Cleveland at Boston Sunday on ABC (always a war!)
  • San Antonio at the LA Lakers Sunday on ABC (Ginobili's health means everything)

And...if you thought New York-Golden State was wild...wait until you see Golden State/Toronto!

We'll be back on these pages tomorrow to preview Butler-Michigan State and Duke-West Virginia in the FINAL FOUR. Sunday will be devoted to baseball handicapping tips for the new season. That's three sports in three days. Make sure you're with us EVERY day so you know what's really happening in the world of sports!

If you'd like some help picking winners, call JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK at 1-800-323-4453. Game day releases and packages can also be purchased here at the website with your credit card. With so much going on this weekend in particular, it's great to know that BIG JUICY WINNERS ARE JUST A FEW CLICKS AWAY!


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