I Wanted to Blame the Celtics, but Can’t

Published: January 14, 2008

Every season, various NBA analysts will produce a column about scoring in the NBA.  These columns always focus on the offensive side of the game, and declare the season a success if lots of teams are scoring more than 100 points a game.  (I'm not really a fan of this, since I get a lot of satisfaction when Paul rips an opposing guard for a fast-break, the team forces a 24-second violation, Chandler or David West force a bad shot inside, or when Peja moves his feet on defense. Hell, my buddy and I drink every time Peja rebounds.  Maybe I'm weird, but I enjoy defense.)

Anyways, when those inevitable columns come out, you can expect them to declare this season a success.  Just like last year, there are 9 teams scoring more than 100 points a game, and what's more, they are getting more shots because the pace factor of games are up!  Yay!  The league wants to be Phoenix – all scoring and no defense!  Go NBA!

Well, any article declaring that will be wrong.  The story of this season is not a continuation of improving offense, it's of an improved defense all through the league.(I prefer to say defensive improvement and not offensive ineptitude.  What can I say, I love the NBA?)  Last season, NBA teams averaged 106.4 points per posession.   This season that number has dipped to only 103 points per posession.  So then, how are teams still keeping their scoring numbers up?  The afore-mentioned increased pace of the league.  Last year the average posessions per game for a team was 92.5.  This season teams get slightly more than 95 posessions per game.  On average, you'll now get to see your team shoot 2.5 more times per game, unless you're a Knicks fan, then you get to see that many more turnovers.

Before I had looked into the numbers today, I had somewhat assumed the reason for the impressive defensive numbers was the Celtics.  The Big Three + Rajon Rondo have led that team to a Defensive Efficiency rating of 92.9.  To put that in perspective, it's the 2nd best non-lockout defensive effort in the past 25 years.  Only the NBA Champion Spurs of 2003-04 sported a better one at 92.3, and the next closest is the '93-'94 Knicks with a rating of 95.5.  The Celtics have been nothing short of spectacular.

With such an impressive defense operating in Boston replacing last year's dismal one, I had assumed their excellence was skewing the overall numbers.  I was wrong.  The league as a whole has improved it's defense, and not just the good teams – the bad teams are better at defense as well.  There were 5 teams last year that gave up 110 points per 100 posessions: Memphis, Milwaukee, Washington, Seattle, and Portland.  This year, there are none.  Not one.  The worst defensive efficiency mark in the league is the Timberwolves at 108.9.  There were 10 teams that gave up more points per posession than that last year.

So what does that tell us?  Maybe increasing the pace makes people shoot worse? The league average field goal percentage is 45.8,   and last year it was 45.2.  Or perhaps teams haven't started to tank their seasons yet, hoping for a better lottery position.  It could also be certain good teams haven't hit their stride yet.  Probably it's a combination of the three.

Still, any way you look at it, expect better defense while watching the game this year.  Hope you don't mind.

Oh, and here's a chart with each teams defensive improvement.  You'll notice that nearly everyone has improved.  A bunch of teams have managed to improve by going from Abysmal to Awful(Grizz, Bucks, Sonics).  In fact, a team has to either be really screwing up(Bulls, Cavs), or to have been already playing defense on a really high level(Spurs) to have not improved at this point. Even the Knicks have improved by 0.6.  I bet Isiah will mention that at some point.


 Team '06-'07 Def Efficiency  '07-'08 Def Efficiency  Improvement 
 Celtics  107.2


 Lakers 109.0  101.0  8.0 
 Wizards 110.9  103.1  7.8 
 Hawks 108.2  101.6  6.6 
 Hornets 106.7  100.1  6.6 
 Blazers 110.2  103.8  6.4 
 Sonics 110.4  104.2  6.2 
 Nuggets  105.6 100.1  5.5 
 Grizzlies 112.4  107.4 
 Bucks 112  107.3  4.7 
 Pistons 103.9  99.5  4.4 
 76ers 106.8  102.5  4.3 
 Clippers 105.5  102  3.5 
 Bobcats 107.7  104.5  3.2 
 Kings 108.1  104.9  3.2
 Jazz 107.3  104.2  3.1 
Nets  106.2  103.2  3.0 
Raptors  105.8  102.9  2.9 
Pacers  105.6  102.7  2.9 
Warriors  107.4  105  2.4 
Suns  106.4  104.3  2.1 
Magic  104.4  102.4  2.0 
Rockets  100.0  99.3  0.7 
Knicks  108.9  108.3  0.6 
Mavs  102.9  102.8  0.1 
Heat  104.7  105.1  -0.4
Spurs  99.8  100.4  -0.6 
Timberwolves  108.1  108.9  -0.8 
Cavaliers  101.3  103.2  -1.9 
Bulls 99.4  102.6  -3.2 

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