Over the weekend, the LeBron-and-AD-less Lakers blew out the Harden-less Nets by 25, surprising just about everybody in the basketball world, including, I suspect, even LeBron and AD, who were in street clothes on the bench and were clearly loving every single minute of the game.
Andre Drummond bullied LaMarcus Aldridge inside, and Dennis Schroder got the best of Kyrie Irving, getting into his head and ultimately causing Kyrie’s frustrations to boil over into an early-third quarter meltdown that saw both Kyrie and Schroder get ejected. The Lakers were also hot from three, converting over 50% of their attempts, while the Nets shot just 5/27 from three.
I don’t know if the Nets just had a bad shooting night or if the Lakers were playing great perimeter defense, but the Lakers do have the top defense in the NBA currently, with a defensive rating rating (DRtg) of about 105, meaning they allow only 105 points per 100 opponent possessions. ESPN has them rated #1 in defensive efficiency this year, too.
The Nets are rated just 25th in both categories. Now we know the Nets’ defense is a liability, but the conventional wisdom is that it really doesn’t matter because they’re so historically stacked on offense. I obviously don’t need to get into detail on that; we all know they’re a superteam.
More broadly, there’s a growing sense that maybe defense doesn’t really matter anymore in the NBA as long as you just have enough offensive firepower. If you can score 130 points a night, then what does it really matter if you allow opponents to score 119 a night?
Well, if we look back at the recent history of the NBA Finals, we can see that there is indeed a correlation between strong defense and success. Only twice since 2000 has a team that ranked outside the top-10 in DRtg won the Championship, and only 7 of the past 21 NBA Finals were won by the team that ranked lower in regular season DRtg:
This chart shows the Finals teams from each conference since 2000. It has their regular season DRtg rank, their actual DRtg, and then a net figure that shows how much better or worse the Champion that year was than the runner up in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions.
As we can see, the average NBA Champion has been about 1.6 points better per 100 possessions defensively.
One thing to take note of is how effective the Warriors were defensively from 2015-2019. People think that because they were so good on offense, they were bad on defense. Well, that wasn’t the case. From 2015-2017, they ranked 1, 6 and 2 in DRtg. And in 2018, they ranked 11th, but their Finals opponent, Cleveland, ranked 29th. In 2019, the year the Warriors lost to Toronto, the Warriors had slipped to 13th in DRtg.
The biggest deficit between a winning team and a losing team was the Lakers and 76ers in 2001. The Lakers that year ranked just 21st in DRtg while Philly was 5th. Philly was 5.9 points better per 100 defensive possessions during the regular season, the second-largest disparity behind the 2017 Warriors being 6.3 points better than the Cavaliers per 100 defensive possessions.
But if we look at 2000 and 2002, the Lakers were much better on defense than they were in 2001. Maybe the 2001 Lakers slept-walked through the regular season and were on a Championship hangover, and then turned it on for the playoffs. I’m not sure. But clearly they were much better defensively than their regular season DRtg–they proved it in 2000 and 2002. And if we look at the postseason stats, it’s a whole different story: the 2001 Lakers were the best defensive team in the playoffs, indicating they flipped the switch after going through the motions in the regular season. I would not read too much into 2001 and say, “See? A bad defensive team can totally win!”
We know there’s a clear correlation between defensive prowess and winning title. Obviously it’s not everything, or else the top defensive team in the league would win the championship every year.
So where do the Lakers and Nets rank this season?
That is a wide disparity. If the Lakers and Nets met in the Finals, it would be the widest disparity in DRtg since 2000. And if the Nets were to win, they’d be bucking two decades of history.
Now, all that said, I don’t want to read too much into this DRtg stat. I still think the Nets are the favorites to win the Championship this year. They’re unbelievably stacked on offense. And the league has changed a lot in the past few years; the league is geared way more towards offense now. I mean, the Lakers are #1 in DRtg for 2021 allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions, yet in 2008, the #1 DRtg team, the Celtics, allowed 98.9 points per 100 possessions. Scoring has gone up a lot.
But then again, it’s all relative.
At the end of the day, the data shows a clear correlation between defensive prowess and success in the playoffs. Defense wins championships in the NBA. It has historically and it has in recent years. Maybe the Nets are going to be the team to break that rule. They’re certainly well-equipped to do so.
But the Nets’ weakness on defense is indicative of what could be their true “fatal flaw.” It’s a symptom of the real problem I see with them.
It’s that they’re soft.
I don’t mean they’re soft mentally, although I’m sure a lot of people would say they are. I don’t want to get into psycho-analyzing their players and all that. I’ll let you do that yourself.
I mean the Nets just aren’t physically intimidating and tough. There’s no real bullies on that team. I don’t see a whole lot of nastiness and toughness in them. KD and Kyrie are finesse players. Harden is, too, although he’s more physical than people give him credit for.
But it’s really not about the superstars, it’s about the role players. Your superstars can be finesse if you have some tough role players.
The KD Warriors had Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Those are tough players who don’t slack on the defensive end. They also had Kevon Looney, who is just a mean, tough dude. He played much of the 2019 Finals with a fractured collarbone.
People assumed the Warriors were soft because they were so good offensively, but the unsung heroes of that dynasty were their gritty role players.
The NBA playoffs get rough and violent, especially on the inside. A lot of the time, the refs put the whistles away and let the teams play, and you need dudes who can just bully people inside and get buckets. Flat-out.
Soft teams with no interior presence tend to get weeded out and exposed in the playoffs. It’s just how the NBA has historically worked.
I know the Nets have Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, but when have either of those guys ever been known as tough? As in, putting the ball on the deck and backing somebody down and muscling your way to the rim–just physically overpowering another grown man against his will?
The Lakers, on the other hand, have toughness in spades. LeBron is obviously the human freight train. AD straight-up abuses people. Montrezl Harrell is the epitome of bully-ball down low. Andre Drummond is a beast in the paint and was abusing Aldridge all night on Saturday. Marc Gasol is one of the all-time great rim protectors and has won a Defensive Player of the Year way back when. Even Dennis Schroder is scrappy as hell and can get to the rim. The list goes on: KCP, Markeiff Morris, Wesley Matthews. These are all grown men who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Alex Caruso is grit personified.
I just see the Lakers as a way tougher team than the Nets. The Lakers’ entire roster is basically tough guys, yet the Nets, I don’t know if they have one guy on that roster that I’d characterize as “tough.” Maybe Jeff Green? But even though he’s a tough veteran player, he’s not a bruiser inside.
Blake Griffin would be the best candidate, but he’s just not the same guy anymore. He might honestly be the most important player on that team in terms of a guy who needs to step up and bring the toughness come playoff time. If anyone on that team can be the Tough Guy, it’s him. But we haven’t seen that out of him in a long time. And generally you need more than just one Tough Guy.
Even in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Nets may run into some problems. The 76ers are a tough team. Joel Embiid might be the biggest bully in the league. Giannis is as physically dominant a player as we’ve ever seen in NBA history. The Miami Heat are a tough, gritty team.
If you can bully the Nets inside and protect the rim, and force them to become a jump-shooting team, you have a chance to beat them. There’s arguably no team in NBA history better equipped to winning as a jump-shooting team, but generally jump-shooting teams lose in the playoffs.
There’s a clear trend in NBA history: defense and toughness win championships. The Nets may have offensive firepower for the ages, but they aren’t great on defense and they don’t have tough guys.
It might be their fatal flaw.