Does Having a Top Defensive Team in the NBA Translate to Wins?

Historically, top-five defensive teams win a lot of games and usually make the playoffs. Could a rare exception happen this season?

Here at numberFire, we have been releasing our power rankings in forms of team previews, once per weekday. At this point of the rankings, we are at playoff teams - at least, that's what the algorithms say.

Speaking of our algorithms, they predicted that the Memphis Grizzlies would go 41-41 this upcoming season, which would be a drop of nine wins from last season. To be fair, our algorithms think the Western Conference as a whole will even out a bit, with the lower teams from last year getting a little better. Even still, nine wins is a big drop and would likely leave them out of the playoffs.

And this led to many conversations about the Grizzlies this week. Fellow numberFire writer Russell Peddle and I pondered this week what the average number of wins for a top-five defense has historically been. The Grizzlies were sixth this past season in adjusted defensive rating, but were first in the league the season before when they had a full season of a healthy Marc Gasol.

I decided to look more into this topic, and to see what sort of company the Grizzlies would be in if they both had a top-five defense and missed the playoffs. As it turns out, it’s pretty rare.

I went back as far as we had defensive rating data (1986 was the first year), skipped shortened seasons, and averaged the number of wins top-five defensive teams ended up with.

Teams StudiedAvg WinsPlayoff TeamsNon-Playoff Teams
Top-Five Teams13552.71296

As you can see, top-five defensive teams typically win a lot of games, which helps to fuel the “defense wins championship” claim. Also, as you would expect, there is a strong correlation between top-five defenses and making the playoffs.

Out of the 135 teams eligible for this study, only 6 of them missed the playoffs - the 1986 Knicks, 1997 Cavaliers, 2002 Heat, 2003 Nuggets, 2011 Bucks, and 2013 Wizards.

Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Marc Gasol is as good a defensive threesome as you’ll find in the NBA, so there is a good possibility – barring injuries, of course – that the Grizzlies can get back into that top-five range this season. If so, they would find themselves in rare company if they missed the playoffs. However, in the Western Conference, it's certainly a possibility.

And they were very close to top-five last year, even with Gasol’s injury. They were just 0.63 points per 100 possessions (according to adjusted defensive rating) worse than the fifth-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder.

Interestingly, the Grizzlies last year were about the same defensively with and without Marc Gasol on the floor, according to However, that was far from true two years ago, and my money would be on the trend reversing back to that.


Opponent PPPOpponent TS%
Grizzlies with Marc Gasol1.05853.8%
Grizzlies without Marc Gasol1.05753.3%


Opponent PPPOpponent TS%
Grizzlies with Marc Gasol0.98651.1%
Grizzlies without Marc Gasol1.08154.1%

If Gasol can be the defensive force that he usually is, the Grizzlies should easily be in the running for best defensive team this season. However, the question is: Does that equal playoffs this year?

There are so many up and coming teams in the West – the Suns, Pelicans, and Nuggets will all be looking to move up – that it’s very difficult to project the playoff picture. As it usually does, a big part of it will come down to roster health. However, if you had to bet on a team, and you like defense, look for the Grizzlies to possibly outperform their projections.