Will the Cavaliers' Defense Really Prevent Them From Winning Another NBA Title?

The Cavs' defensive efficiency is below the league average. Is that the death knell to their chances of repeating as champions?

Stories of how championships -- won or lost -- change franchises and players are quite numerous in professional sports.

Either the drive to be the best is temporarily satisfied or players inflate their worth and role. Some franchises blow it up and try to cash in on the increased demand for their players. Some even struggle to get back to the playoffs again the following year.

Though the Cleveland Cavaliers defied odds by overcoming a 3-1 deficit during last year's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, their core stayed mostly intact.

J.R. Smith stopped wearing a shirt, but overall, the team was prepped for a title defense for the first time in franchise history.

With 12 games left in the regular season, the Cavaliers (46-24) own a one-game lead over the Boston Celtics for the top seed in the Eastern Conference -- in spite of allowing the same number of points per 100 possessions to opponents (110.0) as the 24-46 Orlando Magic allow.

The defensive play from the champions has been, well, bad, and they tie for the 22nd-best defense in the NBA.

Is that going to be a problem come playoff time?

Title Defense

Comparing defenses -- even on a per-possession basis -- in different eras can be tricky. To wit, the NBA is experiencing the most efficient scoring season in league history this season (108.7 points per 100 possessions).

So to help with this, we'll be examining how the Cavs' defense stacks up to the rest of the league this year (their relative defensive rating).

Again, the NBA's average defensive rating is 108.7, making Cleveland's defensive rating (110.0) 1.3 points per 100 possessions worse than an average defense in 2016-17.

Would you like to guess how many of the 74 NBA Finals participants since the 1979-80 season had a worse relative defensive rating?

Just one: the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. Their 104.8 defensive rating was 1.8 points worse than the NBA's average points per 100 possessions that season (103.0).

In all, only five other eventual Finals teams had a defensive rating below the NBA's average in this timeframe.

SeasonTeamDRtgNBA AverageRel DRtg
2000-01Los Angeles Lakers104.8103.0+1.8
1980-81Houston Rockets106.7105.5+1.2
2014-15Cleveland Cavaliers106.3105.6+0.7
1982-83Los Angeles Lakers105.2104.7+0.5
1997-98Utah Jazz105.4105.0+0.4
1985-86Houston Rockets107.6107.2+0.4

If you've got some elite NBA memory, you'll know the Cavaliers aren't in great company.

Yeah, the 2000-01 Lakers crushed the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the Finals, but the 2014-15 Cavs lost in six games, as did the 1980-81 Houston Rockets.

The 1982-83 Lakers were swept by the 76ers. The Rockets lost in six games to the Boston Celtics in the 1985-86 Finals, and the 1997-98 Utah Jazz fell 4-2 to the Chicago Bulls in the final year of the Jordan era.

So, in case you lost track: only one NBA Finals winner had a defensive rating worse than the league average since 1979-80.

And sure, there's more to it than just this.

The 1980-81 Rockets were just 40-42 on the season, the 1982-83 Lakers lost James Worthy to a broken leg in early April, the 1997-98 Jazz had to deal with one of the best teams of all-time, and the 2014-15 Cavaliers had to do the same while facing injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

And a fair question to ask is whether or not it's simply normal for a team's defense to struggle after winning a title.

After all, that outlier Lakers team boasted a defensive rating that was 5.9 points better than the NBA average in 1999-2000 before taking a drastic step backward in their title defense season.

Post-Title Defense

Flat out, it's common for teams to get worse defensively after winning the title.

Of the 38 defending champs from the 1979-80 season onward, 25 posted worse relative defensive ratings the following year than during their title run.

Now, as hard as it is with so many stats and teams to break down, we're trying to focus solely on the Cavaliers here.

Among these 38 champs, Cleveland's relative defensive rating from 2015-16 (1.9 points better than the league average) ranked just 28th during their title season. They couldn't afford to go downward much more this season, as only once has a team actually dropped to the wrong side of league average in defensive efficiency and won a title.

In all, Cleveland's net difference (they're allowing 3.2 more points per 100 possessions from last year to this year) is the fourth-largest drop for a title team from one year to the next.

But, to reiterate, it's not uncommon to see title teams decline defensively. In fact, that's what happens more often than not -- 68% of the time since 1979-80.

And then they just ramp it up for the playoffs, right?

Defense Wins Championships(?)

The final step we'll be looking at is the belief that these teams might just turn it on in the playoffs. Is it true?

To find out, we'll examine each champion's relative defensive rating in the playoffs. That is to say that we will be looking only at the playoffs and how the championship team's defense fared in the postseason compared to their peers.

In these 38 championship seasons, only four times did a team post a relative defensive rating worse than the playoff average.

The 1999-2000 Lakers were actually 3.3 points worse than the average defense in the playoffs. This is despite having the sixth-best regular season relative defensive rating (5.9) of all champs since 1979-80.

The 1994-95 Rockets were 1.6 points worse than the average playoff squad. The 1987-88 Lakers were 1.0 point worse, and the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks were 0.3 points per 100 possessions worse than the playoff average.

If the Cavaliers repeat, they would become the second team to win a title after posting a worse-than-average defensive rating since 1979-80, along with the 2000-01 Lakers.

The 2016-17 Cavaliers aren't the 2000-01 Lakers of course, but just know this: that Lakers team did turn it on in the playoffs. Their defensive rating (97.9) was 6.6 points better than the playoff average that year, an 8.4-point improvement over their regular season relative defensive rating (+1.8).

No championship team has turned it around quite like that before, though 10 others improved by at least 1.5 points over their regular season rate.

What It All Means

It's a lot to take in, and a lot of it depends on your perspective.

But at the end of the day, the Cavaliers -- assuming no major shifts in defensive efficiency over the next 12 games -- would have one of the worst regular season defenses by a champion ever if they were to repeat.

That's in addition to the fact that they were one of the weakest defenses by a championship team in the past four decades last season (28th in regular season relative defensive rating and 31st in the playoffs).

With a defensive rating of 108.1 with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson all on the court this season, perhaps the Cavaliers are just barely better than the average NBA defense even at their best -- like they were last year.

The weak defense absolutely plays a big part in their relatively low championship odds (just 7.0%, per our algorithms), but as long as their core four can play better-than-average defense like they have this season during the playoffs, the defensive issues are looking like little more than a standard, post-title decline.