Before the Boston Celtics put the spurs to the Brooklyn Nets and beat them 103-92 on Sunday, Boston stood 22nd in the NBA in Defensive Rating. The thing is, the Celtics still stood at 18-5 (they’re 20-5 now as this goes to press) thanks to the greatest offense in the history of the league if the season ended today.
This got me wondering. Which team posted the worst defense relative to the rest of the league while still managing to win an NBA title?
A simple enough bit of analysis. And because this is Pace and Space, let’s take it all the way back to 1951 (the furthest back that Basketball Reference is able to estimate Defensive Rating.) We’ll look at some contenders through the years. After all, going 22nd out of 30 teams isn’t quite the same as finishing sixth out of eight even though you represent the edge of the bottom quartile in both cases.
It’s also worth noting that all the components of team defense necessary to pinpoint these advanced stats didn’t exist before 1974. So take anything before then with a grain of salt.
We begin with…
1951 Rochester Royals (7th of 11 on defense, 1st on offense)
This is the first example in history of a team that succeeded in the same way Boston’s succeeded so far in the 2023 season. Rochester was just third in Net Rating. But they won a best-of-three against the Fort Wayne Pistons in the West semifinals. Then Rochester beat the Minneapolis Lakers in the West finals. Finally, the Royals won Game 7 against the New York Knicks for all the marbles.
Rochester played 13 out of a maximum 14 playoff games. The 2008 Celtics matched that dubious mark when they went 16-10 in the playoffs. Boston played 26 of 28 (an identical 92.86 percent) of possible playoff games. That run included a pair of win-or-go-home Game 7s in the first two rounds.
Also of note, this is the only championship in the history of the team that is now known as the Sacramento Kings.
1995 Houston Rockets (12th of 27 on defense, 7th on offense)
The thing you start to notice when you go looking for defensive outliers in a list of champions? Unsurprisingly, defense wins championships. Bill Russell‘s Celtics were the best defensive team in the league for 10 of their 11 championships and second in 1968. The Lakers were never a spectacular defensive squad in the 1980s. But they did hang around the top ten whenever they won it all.
Against that standard, the ’95 Rockets stand out. This is a team that snuck into the playoffs with the 6 seed. The roster was largely past the halfway mark to collecting Social Security. Defending their ’94 title, the team ran on fumes throughout the season. Only one player—a 25-year-old Sam Cassell—played all 82 games. Just about everyone else played fewer than 70.
But they put it together in the playoffs. Thanks to a little help from Nick Anderson‘s free throw shooting, a team that went into the Finals at 11-7 and played 18 of a potential 19 games in the first three rounds got a sweep over the Orlando Magic to bring home the second of two titles in the Jordan Interregnum.
Then the Bulls went 72-10 the next year. Oh well.
2001 Los Angeles Lakers (21st of 29 on defense, 2nd on offense)
The ’01 team? They dogged it in the regular season. Shaq popularized the idea of a team that could “turn it on” in the playoffs. Indeed, the Lakers went 15-1 in the postseason, losing only in Game 1 of the Finals. But the lack of effort until then was evident most clearly on the defensive side of the ball.
The Dark Ages were full of teams and players like that. It was the lowest of the low points for basketball in the United States. The Americans finished sixth at the 2002 World Championships. The USA took the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. A slew of “bad character guys” tarnished the league’s reputation. And indeed, this playground-ball mentality is the genesis of the NBA’s love of European players that continues to this day.
But someone had to win the championship. And it speaks volumes about the level of competition in the NBA in 2001 compared to now that a team could dog it in the regular season and still go 56-26 on their way to one of the most dominant playoff runs ever.
And that…well, that’s pretty much the list. The 2018 Warriors were 11th defensively, the 2016 Cavaliers and 2021 Bucks 10th, but that’s not enough to get a writeup.
In NBA history, two teams won titles with legitimately bad defenses. One won with a defense that was merely mediocre. And a few in the Stone Age were fifth out of eight teams, which can’t be said to count.
But otherwise? It’s true what they say. Defense wins championships. The Celtics are going to have to pull that Defensive Rating into the top ten if they want to make a serious deep playoff run, especially since great offenses have a far nastier habit of crashing out early…or do they? I don’t have the data to back that up…yet. You’ll have to wait for the weekend for that study.
Until then, stay tuned and thanks for reading!