NBA Power Rankings Update: Getting Defensive
In this age of offensive explosion, having a good defense in the NBA is often overlooked. We always remember the high flying dunks of LeBron James or the three-point bombs by Stephen Curry, but the key to the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers last season was defense.
While Golden State owned the best offense in the league, they also possessed the fourth-most efficient defense. Cleveland was no slouch either, allowing only 98.3 points per game in 2015-16, the fourth-fewest in the NBA.
For this second edition of the NBA power rankings update, we are focusing on some of the standout defenses -- some good, some bad -- as our new number-one team also happens to own the best defense in the Association.
Our power rankings here at numberFire are not subjective or influenced by the latest hype; we put our faith and trust in our algorithms. Each week, we’ll list all 30 teams in the Association from worst to best based on our nERD metric, which is a predictive measure to help define what the team's winning percentage ultimately will be.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (nERD: 10.9, Record: 0-7, Last Week: 30)
29. Orlando Magic (nERD: 30.6, Record: 3-5, Last Week: 24)
When Frank Vogel was hired on as the Orlando Magic head coach, he brought with him a defensive pedigree. During his five years in Indiana, the Indiana Pacers never finished outside of the top 10 in defensive rating and were the number-one squad twice. Not so much in Orlando.
On Wednesday, the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves shot nearly 52% from the field while dropping 74 first-half points on Orlando's home court. They allowed a 37% three-point shooter in Zach LaVine perform his best Chef Curry impression as he went 7-for-9 from beyond the arc in Minnesota's 123-107 win.
Through eight games, the Magic rank 29th in defensive rating and 28th in opponent shooting percentage. The offseason acquisition of Serge Ibaka is not entirely to blame but doesn't make it any less of a disaster so far. The power forward is posting his worst defensive rating of his career, 114.1, and averaging a career-low 1.1 blocks per game.
28. Washington Wizards (nERD: 33.5, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 22)
27. New York Knicks (nERD: 33.6, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 27)
26. Phoenix Suns (nERD: 34.1, Record: 3-6, Last Week: 28)
25. Sacramento Kings (nERD: 34.6, Record: 4-6, Last Week: 23)
24. New Orleans Pelicans (nERD: 35.4, Record: 1-8, Last Week: 25)
23. Brooklyn Nets (nERD: 35.7, Record: 3-5, Last Week: 26)
22. Memphis Grizzlies (nERD: 38.0, Record: 4-4, Last Week: 17)
21. Los Angeles Lakers (nERD: 38.5, Record: 5-4, Last Week: 29)
Last season, the Los Angeles Lakers' performance, or lack thereof, on defense was embarrassing. The young squad ranked 27th in points allowed, 29th in opponent field goal percentage, and 30th in defensive rating. They finished with only 17 wins, the worst record in the Western Conference. The 2016-17 season so far has been a different story.
With the additions of Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, and new coach Luke Walton, the franchise has turned their fortunes around quickly. It took until the 28th game of the season for the Lakers to win their fifth game last year. The are sitting at 5-4 a whole six weeks and nearly 20 games earlier this year.
The rapid improvement on the defensive end has provided a much-needed boost. Walton's boys are using quick hands -- 3rd in steals, 5th in turnovers forced per game -- and a strong perimeter defense to climb out of the cellar and into 12th place in defensive rating. The unit even limited the high-powered Warriors to only 97 points in their most impressive win of the year.
20. Dallas Mavericks (nERD: 41.5, Record: 2-6, Last Week: 19)
19. Indiana Pacers (nERD: 42.0, Record: 4-4, Last Week: 18)
When Larry Bird decided to fire Vogel this offseason, despite leading the Pacers to the third-best defense rating in the NBA, he cited a need to speed up the offense. While the switch to Nate McMillan has helped the offense average 110.0 points per game, the defense has fallen off the map.
Through eight games, Indiana has allowed the most points of any NBA team as opponents are scoring 113.2 points per game. Against two of the worst offenses in the league, Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers, the Pacers gave up 121 and 115 points, respectively. Those two games weren't the only times the Pacers allowed over 115 points either. The defense has allowed the humiliating mark in five of Indiana's eight games so far.
No matter how many steals and blocks you get per game, the Pacers rank in the top four of both, allowing teams to make 47.7% of their shots will cause your defense to falter.
18. Denver Nuggets (nERD: 42.2, Record: 3-5, Last Week: 20)
17. Portland Trail Blazers (nERD: 45.8, Record: 5-4, Last Week: 14)
16. Milwaukee Bucks (nERD: 47.5, Record: 4-4, Last Week: 21)
15. Miami Heat (nERD: 48.2, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 16)
14. Houston Rockets (nERD: 50.0, Record: 5-3, Last Week: 15)
13. Boston Celtics (nERD: 54.0 Record: 3-4, Last Week: 7)
Entering the season, the Boston Celtics were expected to pose a serious threat to the Cavaliers as the best team in the East. However, after only two-plus weeks, Boston has some soul searching to do, starting on the defensive end.
After ranking fourth in defensive rating last season, the Celtics currently sit last in the Association with a 112.3 mark. In six out of their seven games, they have allowed at least 100 points, including four games of 117 or more. Jae Crowder and Al Horford have missed the last three games, and not coincidentally, the Celtics have given up an average of 123.0 points per game. Teams are shooting over 50% from the field and 44% from three against Boston in the last three games.
Combine the Celtics' rebounding woes -- dead last in defensive and total rebounding percentage -- with the defensive shooting struggles, and you start to understand why the Celtics are off to a disappointing start this season.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (nERD: 56.1, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 13)
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (nERD: 56.2, Record: 6-2, Last Week: 9)
10. Detroit Pistons (nERD: 57.1, Record: 4-4, Last Week: 10)
9. Chicago Bulls (nERD: 57.3, Record: 5-4, Last Week: 11)
8. Utah Jazz (nERD: 58.5, Record: 5-4, Last Week: 12)
7. Golden State Warriors (nERD: 65.9, Record: 7-2, Last Week: 3)
6. Toronto Raptors (nERD: 66.3, Record: 5-2, Last Week: 6)
5. Charlotte Hornets (nERD: 69.8, Record: 6-1, Last Week: 8)
Under the watchful eye of coach Steve Clifford, the Charlotte Hornets have been a top-10 defense the last three seasons. This year is no different.
Charlotte allows 96.7 points per game, fourth-best in the NBA and are second in defensive efficiency with a 95.4 defensive rating. The entire team plays a clean game, low turnovers and no unnecessary fouls, helping take some pressure off the defense. By not giving up easy fastbreak buckets or sending opponents to the line constantly, the defense can set up in the half court and force low-percentage shots. The Hornets allow the most three-point attempts, but opponents only make them at a 31.5% rate, fourth-worst in the league.
Currently, on a four-game winning streak, Charlotte has a tough weekend ahead of them. After hosting the Toronto Raptors Friday night, they take a trip to Ohio for a showdown with Cleveland on Sunday.
4. San Antonio Spurs (nERD: 73.5, Record: 5-3, Last Week: 1)
3. Atlanta Hawks (nERD: 76.3, Record: 6-2, Last Week: 5)
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD: 76.4, Record: 6-1, Last Week: 2)
1. Los Angeles Clippers (nERD: 84.7, Record: 7-1, Last Week: 4)
Over the past week, the Los Angeles Clippers have been on a roll. During their current four-game winning streak, L.A. has won by an average of 24.5 points per game. With help from their ever-improving defense, the Clippers have catapulted to the top of the power rankings
Behind the best defense in the Association, they rank first in both points allowed and defensive rating, the Clippers have allowed only one team to score 100 or more points against them, and that was on opening night versus Portland Trail Blazers. The second time they faced the Blazers, they gave up only 80 points and won by more than 30.
Every aspect of their defense has been clicking. The Clips allow the fewest amount of points off turnovers, are stingy in the paint, and cause the third-most turnovers, but the real key has been locking down jump shooters. Opponents are hitting fewer than 30% on shots 15 feet or farther away from the basket.
Overall, the Clippers dominate the league, limiting opponents to a dreadful 39.6% shooting percentage.