The Greatest Defensive Teams in NBA History

In a basketball era where scoring is completely off the charts and the NBA seems to break its league-wide record for Offensive Rating with each passing season and with every made three-pointer, in a world gone mad where even centers like Brook Lopez are making eight triples in a game, and in a league where defense would, it seems, be a thing of the past, there are still great teams having great defensive seasons.

After all, if the average team scores 110.1 points per game (as the NBA is league-wide this year, with a 109.7 Offensive Rating because pace is crazy-fast at 99.7), holding a team under 100 (or, better yet, under 90) is one heck of an accomplishment!

While back in the Dark Ages, during the execrable 2003-04 season (plenty of great rookies that year, but the league was steaming hot garbage until LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and the rest of the 2003 draft class got good), teams combined a 90.1 pace (slowest ever in a non-lockout year; let’s not talk about 1999) and worst in the three-point era 102.9 offensive rating (same caveat about ’99) to put up an average of 90.1 points per game, which was—say it with me—the worst non-lockout offensive season in NBA history.

As with all defensive stats, lower is better, and bear in mind that a team that has exactly the same Defensive Rating as the league average will have a Defensive Percentage of 100.

Granted, we can only calculate Offensive Rating (and by extension Defensive Rating) back to the 1973-74 season, since that’s the earliest anyone bothered to count turnovers and offensive rebounds and therefore also the earliest season we can count pace, but this still gives us 45 years of basketball to plow through and do the math to determine who had the greatest defensive season in the history of the Association.

And piggybacking on yesterday’s thoughts about the Pacers, we’ll be using Defensive Percentage (that is, DefRtg/LgAvgDefRtg*100) to adjust for quality of league offense—using Defensive Rating and not points for game obviously already adjusts for pace so Mike Fratello’s Cavs and Doug Moe‘s wacky mid-80s Nuggets don’t end up looking like apples and oranges.

Of course, some of those Nuggets teams were atrocious on defense anyway, but it wasn’t because of their pace of play.

Anyway, let’s take the league leaders in Defensive Rating (including this year, through games of December 18, 2018) and list them by Defensive Percentage.

In reverse chronological order (won title, lost Finals):
2018-19: Oklahoma City (93.80)
2017-18: Boston/Utah (tie) (95.67)
2016-17: San Antonio (95.13)
2015-16: San Antonio (93.05)
2014-15: Golden State (96.02)
2013-14: Indiana (93.06)
2012-13: Indiana (94.24)
2011-12: Boston (93.88)
2010-11: Boston/Chicago (tie) (93.47)
2009-10: Charlotte (95.54)
2008-09: Orlando (94.09)
2007-08: Boston (92.00)
2006-07: Chicago (93.52)
2005-06: San Antonio (93.79)
2004-05: San Antonio (93.12)
2003-04: San Antonio (91.45)
2002-03: New Jersey (94.69)
2001-02: New Jersey (95.22)
2000-01: Phoenix/San Antonio (tie) (95.15)
1999-00: Los Angeles Lakers (94.33)
1998-99: San Antonio (92.95)
1997-98: Cleveland (94.35)
1996-97: Miami (94.28)
1995-96: Chicago (94.61)
1994-95: New York (95.84)
1993-94: New York (92.38)
1992-93: New York (92.31)
1991-92: San Antonio (96.21)
1990-91: San Antonio (95.74)
1989-90: Houston (95.65)
1988-89: Utah (94.16)
1987-88: Utah (95.46)
1986-87: Utah (95.75)
1985-86: Boston (95.71)
1984-85: Utah (95.83)
1983-84: New York (95.82)
1982-83: New Jersey (94.46)
1981-82: New Jersey/Seattle/Milwaukee (tie) (95.70)
1980-81: Phoenix (94.22)
1979-80: Kansas City/Philadelphia (tie) (95.92)
1978-79: Seattle (96.44)
1977-78: Phoenix (96.13)
1976-77: Denver (96.58)
1975-76: Golden State (96.13)
1974-75: Washington (93.45)
1973-74: Chicago/Milwaukee (tie) (95.80)

So What Have We Learned?

Well, for one thing, we learned that the team that led the NBA in Defensive Rating in the regular season has gone to the Finals 15 times in 45 full seasons, fully a third of the time, and they’ve won eight titles.

For another, Gregg Popovich deserves every accolade as one of the greatest defensive coaches of all time, as his teams have led the NBA in defense in seven seasons, including the single most dominant defensive season in NBA history in 2003-04.

It’s also worth remembering just how good the Knicks under Pat Riley were at uglying up a basketball game; their 1993 and ’94 seasons brutally murdered the fun basketball of the 1980s, as in a copycat league everyone wanted to play “Riley Ball” and that’s how we got a trend that hit rock bottom in the lockout year in 1999, and then spent the next five years crawling around barfing up the worst basketball NBA fans have been subjected to since Danny Biasone thought to himself that there ought to be a shot clock.

And how about that 2008 Celtics team that caught lightning in a bottle and put up, relative to league average, the second-best defensive season in NBA history?

Those Utah teams with a young Karl Malone and shotblocking legend Mark Eaton, those suffocating teams with Jason Kidd in New Jersey during the Dark Ages, Frank Vogel’s Pacers teams that had the misfortune of peaking when LeBron did…

There have been great NBA defenses. But in terms of not just playing great defense but standing out from the rest of the league and just putting anyone who had to play them on lockdown?

Your top 5 (not counting 1999, because that whole season has an asterisk next to it) are the ’04 Spurs, ’08 Celtics, ’93 Knicks, ’94 Knicks (!), and ’16 Spurs. Wouldn’t want to face any of them in a playoff series, really.

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