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NBA Daily: Examining New Elite Defenses

The unexpected defensive improvement from several teams has been one surprise that hardly anyone’s talked about this season, writes Matt John.

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“Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.”

When you look at all that’s happened so far in this young NBA season, you’d think that quote would have very little meaning. As of Nov. 5, not one team is currently averaging under 100 points per game this season. Golden State currently leads the league with 124.1 points per game – with DeMarcus Cousins sitting in the sideline – while Orlando mans the No. 30 spot with 101.8.

Even though this offensive explosion makes the NBA all the more entertaining, something that should really catch viewer’s eyes is that most of the best teams in the league right now record-wise are currently sporting some of the league’s best defenses.

Going by defensive rating, these are currently the top ten defenses in the league followed by each team’s record.

1. Boston Celtics: 6-4
2. Milwaukee Bucks: 8-1
3. Denver Nuggets: 9-1
4. Memphis Grizzlies: 5-4
5. Portland Trail Blazers: 7-3
6. Toronto Raptors: 9-1
7. Oklahoma City Thunder: 4-4
8. Indiana Pacers: 7-4
9. Los Angeles Clippers: 5-4
10. Philadelphia 76ers: 6-5

(Note: Golden State, who is 10-1, is currently no. 11)

It appears the “Defense wins championships” still rings true, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The real surprise is when you look at that list, you’ll notice a few newcomers to this list when you compare it to last years. The Celtics, Blazers, Raptors, Thunder and Sixers were all in the top 10 last season, but the Bucks, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pacers and Clippers are all newcomers. In fact, the only one of those five teams that were in the top 15 were the Pacers at No. 13.

So what changed? There’s always an explanation for why a certain team has been doing better on either side of the ball, so let’s begin with the team whose elite defense has come as the biggest surprise.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets’ improvement shouldn’t be too shocking, especially since Paul Millsap is now healthy and they’ve cut ties with Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler. They haven’t improved just a little compared to last season. They’ve done a complete 180.

The Nuggets tied for 25th in the league last season in defensive rating. This season, that number has jumped from allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions to 102.5, good for third overall in the league. Getting Millsap back, who was ninth overall in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, will certainly help. The main ingredient to Denver’s success on defense has been their second unit.

Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, and Trey Lyles all have the best defensive ratings on the team. Offensively, they don’t do the Nuggets many favors – all of them are a negative on that side – but defensively, all their defensive ratings rank from 90.6 to 98.2. The starters actually aren’t too far behind, as the only one who has a defensive rating higher than 103 is Torrey Craig, but the bench holds the fort steady.

When Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. come back from injury, we’ll get to see if Denver can really keep this up all season.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have also made quite the jump compared to last season. They allowed 110.1 points per 100 possessions, which tied for 18th, but now they allow 100.6, good for second overall. Their jump to the top defensively is pretty straightforward: Mike Budenholzer.

His reputation speaks for itself. Back when he was running the show with the pesky Atlanta Hawks (2014-2017), Coach Bud’s defense never ranked any lower than sixth overall in defensive rating.

Besides adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who were brought in primarily for offensive purposes, the team is still pretty much the same from last year. Yet, you can see the difference in the Bucks’ defense.

The Bucks were among the worst teams in opponent field goal percentage from the three-point line last season, as they allowed 37 percent from deep (sixth-highest in the league). They weren’t as bad when it came to two-point shots, as they allowed 51 percent from the field (15th in the league). Now, the Bucks allow the fourth-lowest three-point percentage in the league at 32.3 percent, as well as the lowest in the league in two-pointers with 45.7 percent.

This could change when the Bucks have to face some of the league’s better teams fully healthy. For now, let’s just appreciate that, because of Budenholzer, the Bucks have finally become the scary team that everyone thought they could have been for the last four years.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies opted to keep what was left of Grit-and-Grind alive this summer, and so far, it’s worked out well for them. Injuries destroyed their season, as the Grizzlies were tied for No. 25 in defensive rating with 111. Now that number has climbed up to fourth overall at 104.7.

Their success on defense can be attributed to one major reason: Their new additions have been as good as advertised on the defensive end. Garrett Temple has been excellent for Memphis defensively, as the Grizzlies’ defensive rating surrenders 9.9 points per 100 possessions less when Temple is on the floor. The only other Grizzly whose on/off defense rating is better is Omri Casspi, but he has a limited sample size.

Kyle Anderson has also been a plus, as the Grizzlies surrender 1.3 points per 100 possessions less with him on the floor. And while Jaren Jackson Jr. hasn’t been a plus – the Grizzlies allow 1.4 points per 100 possessions more with him on the floor, that is still solid for a rookie.

Memphis has to be thrilled with its start, especially after many had doubted them when the organization hired J.B. Bickerstaff full-time to replace the well-respected David Fizdale. Last year, they started out well, too, before everything went to crap. Hopefully, we won’t see deja vu this time.

Los Angeles Clippers

Here’s the dirty little secret about the Clippers: They may wind up being better off without DeAndre Jordan. At least they will defensively.

Last season, the Clippers allowed 5.6 points per 100 possessions more when Jordan was on the floor, and they were 20th overall in defensive rating with 110.2. With him gone, the Clippers have moved up to ninth overall this season in defensive rating at 106.9.

Perhaps that’s all a coincidence, but the fact remains that Jordan’s new team, the Dallas Mavericks, have actually fallen from 17th in the league in defensive rating (109.5) to 24th (114.2). To add to that, Dallas’ defense surrenders 2.6 points per 100 possessions more with Jordan on the floor.

Getting back to the Clippers, the return of Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley certainly helps – though the on/off numbers don’t really help either, especially Beverley. But it’s really Jordan’s replacements who have helped out, namely Boban Marjanovic and Marcin Gortat. The Clippers defense has proven to be better with both Boban (5.9 points per 100 possessions less on the floor) and Gortat (2.0).

If that remains the case for the rest of the season, then the Clippers just found another way to make themselves even more likeable.

Indiana Pacers

There’s not much to say about the Pacers because they haven’t had as big of a jump as the others. They’ve moved from 13th overall in defensive rating (108.1) to eighth (106.5), while still having basically the same team. Maybe adding Tyreke Evans has helped them, as their defense has surrounded 3.5 less points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, but who knows?

If anything, their improvement has come from having more continuity with each other. If they build off of that and maybe get themselves into the top five, then more power to them!

There’s no guarantee that any of these teams’ numbers will stay that way for the whole season.

One thing that is for certain, though – whoever does finish among the NBA”s best defensive teams will most likely be the ones who go deep into the playoffs.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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