Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How this year's title contenders compare to past NBA champions

There are, by my count, eight legitimate (or semi-legitimate) title contenders in the NBA this year - seven teams that are winning more than 2/3 of their games, plus the Warriors who are 7th in overall efficiency. I wanted to look at how those contenders compare to the past ten NBA champions in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency.

I'm using offensive (defensive) efficiency index, which basically means comparing each team's points scored (allowed) per 100 possessions to their league average that year. A higher offensive index (and lower defensive index) is better.

Here we go - and remember, teams want to be as close to the top right corner of this chart as possible:

(Having trouble seeing the chart? Click here.)

Some takeaways:
  •  Everyone considers the 2014 Heat legitimate title contenders - and rightfully so, given their track record and ability to seemingly "turn it on" in the playoffs. (And presumably more minutes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.) And it seems an increasing number of fans and media are placing the Clippers and Rockets into the contender bucket as well, especially with how well Blake Griffin played in Chris Paul's absence, and Dwight Howard's impact on the Rockets' half-court D. But it's worth noting that no champion in the past 10 years as been as average on defense as the 2014 Heat, Clips, or Rockets. Every one of those recent champs was at least 4% better on defense than the league average, and half of them were at least 7% better than average. The Clips are actually tied with the 2006 Heat right now, so it's certainly possible they overtake them soon. Now for the optimists out there, take a gander at those three teams on offense -  they're more efficient compared to their peers than any recent champ, except for last year's Heat squad. This year's playoffs could be more offense-first than any recent edition.
  • Except that Indiana is prominently involved. This year's Pacers aren't LIKE the 2004 Pistons - they ARE the 2004 Pistons. The raw numbers (and the early-season ascent of Paul George) might mask that fact, but consider how the league has evolved over the past decade. The average team in 2004 scored 102.9 points per 100 possessions, and in no season since then has the average been below 104.6 pts / 100 possessions. This year, the league average is a hair under 106 pts / 100 possessions. When you account for more dynamic offense across the board, Indiana this year looks even better on defense (thanks, Roy Hibbert!) - and even worse on offense.
  • The Spurs and Thunder. I mean, what is there to say? They've probably been the most impacted by injuries (Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker) of any of this year's top 8, and yet they still sport the best balance of elite offense and really superb defense. I don't think most fans recognize how incredible Tim Duncan has been on both ends of the court this year - he's top-five in the NBA in both blocks and defensive rebounding while leading the Spurs in total minutes. As for OKC, I'm really intrigued by the proximity of this year's squad to the 2009 Lakers on this chart - that seems like an excellent comp, in terms of one elite scorer (though Kevin Durant is more efficient than Kobe Bryant five years ago), an All-Star #2 on offense, and an underrated smothering defense.
  • Maybe I should stop calling the Blazers a contender. Adjusted for pace and season, they're less efficient on defense than the "Seven Seconds or Less" 2006 Suns. And their Damian Lillard-fueled offense is outstanding... but still only 4th-best in the NBA. That's not a recipe for winning two payoff rounds, much less four.
  • The Warriors, though - OK, they have to make the playoffs first. Fine. But the defense is right in line with championship standards. On the other side of the ledger, raise your hand if you thought a Stephen Curry-led offense would be less relatively efficient than the 2005 Spurs.
Data sources: NBA.com/stats, basketball-reference.com


  1. This is great stuff. Where would the Bulls sit on this chart, considering they are now being talked about as semi-legit contenders?

    1. Hi twc, the bulls would be literally off the chart on the left side. Their defensive efficiency index would be about 93, which would be better than the majority of recent champs. But their offensive efficiency would be around 94-95, much worse than even this year's Pacers. And bad offenses tends to regress even further in the playoffs, which I think is the biggest problem with them being considered semi-contenders.