By Brian Weingartner
This is the second post in a series on low post defense and how it relates to teams winning the NBA Title. To read the first post look here.
There have been a lot of theories about what is the right the formula for winning an NBA Championship. Since Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant won their first title we’ve had the idea that you need three stars on your team to win. Then Jordan retired and we had to watch as people tried to figure out who the three star players were on the Rockets, Magic and Knicks. When Jordan returned and the Bulls ran off another three titles the three superstar rule was an easy fit again and everyone was happy. The Lakers with Shaq and Kobe had people starting to think that the three superstar model was replaced with a two superstar model. This was well and good until the Detroit Pistons went to back to back Finals, winning one of them without any clear superstars. Everyone was confused.
More recently in his The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons gives us The Secret. The Secret is the idea that only the teams that play unselfish basketball will win. Players must give up what would be best for themselves on an individual level for the betterment of the team. That might mean taking fewer shots, accepting a reduction in minutes, or embracing a specific role. I believe in The Secret, and I bet most of you do too. I would guess that when most of us learned how to play the game we had some version of The Secret drilled into us. As fans, we instinctively see it on the court when we watch a game. We know which players are playing too selfish to win, we notice which teams make the extra pass, and which teams play great team defense. With that said, while I believe in The Secret it’s near impossible to quantify, and honestly I am not sure that the team that most embraces The Secret actually wins all of the time. Last season, the Phoenix Suns team played more as team than anyone, but still lost to the Lakers. We also saw in the Finals where (and maybe I’m bias here) the losing team was actually the team that embraced The Secret more.
So if that’s the case, while The Secret is a huge part of the equation it’s not the whole story. Neither are having two, three, or even four superstars on a team. What made the Lakers the champions, but kept the Celtics, Suns, Cavs and Magic from winning the title is actually pretty simple. The Lakers played better low post defense than any of the teams they faced on their march to the title. People often talk about the Lakers’ length and size, but not always in terms of their defense and rebounding ability as much as they are just bigger than everyone else. Yet, when we honestly look back at game seven in the Los Angeles, which team had an easier time scoring at the basket? You could make the argument the Celtics were better at defending the low post up until Games Six and Seven, but once Kendrick Perkins goes down in the opening minutes of Game Six the clear edge went to the Lakers. This has stuck with me since I watched the Lakers celebrating that hard fought victory. I went back and looked at Finals after Finals and found something that, seemed a little surprising at first, but makes a whole lot of sense when you stop and think about it. Teams that defend the low post better than their opponents usually win in the Finals.
Looking back at the last 12 NBA Finals it is hard to make the argument that the team with the weaker low post defense ended up winning the title. The only exceptions in the last 12 years might be the 2007 Spurs that destroyed the just happy to be there Cavilers, and the 2005 Spurs that beat a defensively stacked Pistons team. In both cases Tim Duncan was involved, so I’m not sure how much of an argument you really could make given that Duncan is the best power forward to play the game. Going back another 10 Finals you run into one other possible exception, the 1994-1995 Knicks that lost to the Houston Rockets in seven games. All I can say is John Starks, Game Seven. Sorry Knicks fans, you probably should have won that series. I’m also sorry to bring that up since you knew that already.
That’s simple enough, but I decided to take it a step further. Every single one of the last 22 NBA champions has had one of the league’s no doubts about it premier low post defenders of the time on their team. I’m talking about guys that put up 4+ defensive win shares over a season and 1+ defensive win shares over the course of the playoffs. For those that not familiar with defensive win shares, it is a statistic tracked at basketball-reference.com that quantifies an estimated amount of wins a player contributes to his team through only his defense. Really, I’m looking at some great defensive players on good teams.
About 73% of the time over those 22 Finals the elite post defender was teamed up with other elite low post defenders or at the very least some pretty great ones. Here is a list of the top low post defenders on the last 22 NBA champions. It’s just 10 names long:
That’s just 10 guys over the last 22 years! That’s a crazy list when you think about it, and it gets a little bit crazier when you factor in that Garnett, Gasol, Wallace, Shaq, and Horace Grant were all top post defenders on teams that lost in the Finals. These guys might have not always have been the best player on their teams, but is there anyone on the list that would not be called one of the best defenders in the league while they were winning titles?
And before anyone tries to argue that Pau does not belong on the list, let me point out that Pau has been the best low post defender in the last two playoffs not named Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett. After KG eviscerated Gasol in the 2008 Finals, the Spaniard learned what took to be a championship level defender and has transformed himself from a soft but skilled big man into one of the 50 best players in the history of the game. Over the last two playoffs Pau has raised his blocks per game and his block % significantly from his regular season averages. Pau has been the best defensive player on two championship teams and the best all around player for one of those title teams. Even if you still want to disagree with my opinion that Pau is an elite guy at this point, you would have to concede that the combo of Gasol, Odom and Bynum is an elite defensive front line. If nothing else Pau looks like a Muppet when he gets pumped up and that has to be worth something.
While we are at it, here’s a list of they guys that also put up 1+ defensive win shares during the playoffs for a champion team, including one of the all-time great “steps up his game when it counts most” guys in Big Shot Rob.
The top five guys on that list have done it multiple times in the playoffs, and really the only guy that sticks out like a sore thumb is Antoine Walker. At the time Walker was playing along side Shaq and Udonis Haslem for the 2006 Heat, and obviously caught lighting in a bottle playing next to one of the all time great low post difference makers and another pretty solid one.
Maybe you are thinking that this only shows that low post defenders are merely a part of a great defensive team, and to a degree you would be right. Most of the teams I’ve looked at had elite wing or guard defenders, but not all of them. In a handful of cases the only elite defenders on a team were the guys down on the blocks. Examples of teams like that are the 1994 and 1995 Rockets, the 1999 Spurs, and the 2000 Lakers and 2002 Lakers. Of course, Olajuwon, Duncan and Shaq anchored those teams, but that’s still 23% of the last 22 champions that didn’t need an elite wing or guard defender.
Sure, a team wants as many great defenders as they can get, but if they don’t have the low post guy, it appears to be too much to overcome. Without an elite low post defender, a team can win a bunch of games over the course of an 82 game regular season and maybe win a few rounds of the playoffs. A team might even be able to sneak into a Finals (There are two Portland Trail Blazers teams where Buck Williams was the best low post defender), but sooner or later a team needs an elite guy to protect the rim, and at the very least, make the other team work for their points close to the basket.
Here is a side note to all of this that I can’t stop thinking about. How would history be different if Michael Jordan did not “retire” the first time? I can’t stop thinking what if the Chicago Bulls with Jordan, at the peak of his abilities, met the Houston Rockets in the 1994 and 1995 Finals. The argument I’ve laid out to this point is that the team with the best low post defense wins the NBA title. If that is true than when we compare the top post defenders on Bulls and the Rockets in 1994 and 1995 we get this:
Houston – Hakeem Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe, and Robert Horry; all three played at an elite level in those playoffs.
Bulls – Horace Grant, Luc Longley, Bill Cartwright; only elite guy in that mix is Horace Grant.
Houston – Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry, Pete Chilcutt; Olajuwon and Horry played at an elite level.
Bulls – Toni Kukoc, Will Perdue, and Luc Longley; no elite defenders.
The conclusion has to be if the Bulls make the Finals both years, the Rockets win at least once and maybe even both times. Would that change how we thought of Jordan? Would many of us consider Michael Jordan the best player in the history of the game if he loses once or twice to Olajuwon in the Finals? Would we still put Olajuwon on the same rung as Shaq and Moses Malone if he ended up winning only one title and losing one to Jordan? History has a funny way of working out sometimes.
Ok, so let’s review. Over the past 22 years, the NBA team with the best low post defense has won the NBA title with only three possible exceptions. In those three cases, the team that won despite maybe being weaker in terms of post defense included the best power forward ever in Tim Duncan, and one of the top five centers ever in Hakeem Olajuwon. Two of those three series went to seven games. The third series (Spurs/ Cavaliers) was a sweep, probably showing that the Cavaliers came out of a weak Eastern Conference and none of Cleveland’s post defenders were truly elite guys. Over the course of the last 22 seasons, the NBA Finals have gone to seven games three times, Houston/Knicks (1994), Spurs/Pistons (2005), and Lakers/Celtics (2010). In all three cases, both teams were stacked in the frontcourt.
I’m not trying to say that you don’t need other great players or a great offense to win a title. Jordan, Pippen, Bryant, and Pierce would all have something to say about that. What I’m trying to illustrate is that there is an aspect of the game, that at least to me, seems to be a key component to winning a championship and I think it is being over looked or taken for granted most of the time.
I think I’ve made a fairly strong case here, so I’m going to keep running with it. In my next post I’m going to looking at what this all might mean for the Miami Heat. In the posts after that one I’ll look at the Boston Celtics (this is a Celtics site after all), and other teams that might be ready to make a run at the 2010-2011 title.