Defense wins championships. Over the years, the same concept is continuously preached… all the while Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Michael Jordan rule the world with unmatched offense. However, in the end over the past 25 years, that theory has been proven correct more consistently than not.
Over the past 25 years, 20 teams that went on to win titles were top 10 in defensive points allowed. This year is no different. Looking at the team defense of the final eight teams remaining in the playoffs today, six are in the top 10 statistically in points allowed per game. Defense still rules the hardwood; just look at the Memphis Grizzlies. As the Grizzlies wrestled away control of their series with the defending Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder, winning the last three games to go up 3-1, they are beginning to show similarities to one of the last truly great “teams” to win a NBA championship.
The Grizzlies are clearly more reminiscent of the 2004 Detroit Pistons than they’re of the fast-paced 1987 Los Angeles Lakers. But before we anoint the Grizzlies and get too far ahead of ourselves, what do the numbers say?
Both defenses were consistent and stellar. This year, the Grizzlies have held their opponents to under 90 points 43 times (58 for the 2004 Pistons) in an era where offense is more emphasized. The rule changes this past decade allow offensive players more room, allowing for today’s more skilled perimeter players to look virtually unstoppable at times.
Defensively, that Pistons team was historically great. They dictated the pace of the game with two legitimate big men in the paint clogging the lane, making it difficult for perimeter-oriented scorers to get easy baskets. That extended out to the perimeter, allowing their guards and wings to be very aggressive on the ball. Yet, conceptually, each team used very similar philosophies that all started with rugged man-to-man defense.
Marc Gasol and Ben Wallace, while stylistically different, were both Defensive Players of the Year and anchors for the defense. Those two were also the identity. Wallace was wild, vibrant and exciting to watch, spurning the “Fear the Fro” signs. He made it cool to wear a comical Halloween wig out in public. He was the league’s most unlikely emotional leader on a championship team. Gasol is the same type of underdog leader.
After being a throw-in in a trade for his brother that launched the Los Angeles Lakers to three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, Marc Gasol has risen to the top of the NBA as a borderline star. He is one of the best interior defenders, team defenders and team players in the league today.
The Pistons and Grizzlies both employed Tayshaun Prince as a defensive specialist on the perimeter and used him exclusively as a defensive nuisance for the opponents’ best offensive player. Zach Randolph and Rasheed Wallace have the obvious correlation as the castaway talents that never met their potential until landing on the team that was able to maximize their talent as monster low-post players.
Fundamentally, the difference is on the perimeter. Mike Conley Jr. and Tony Allen (3.7 combined steals per game) are ball-hawking defenders that are capable of taking players out of the game no matter their name or star power. While Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton were quality defenders, they were not great individual defenders (2.4 steals) and made their keep because of the best defensive frontline in years.
Wallace was the Pistons only All-Defensive Team member while Gasol, Allen and Conley all made the First or Second Teams this year. Defense is more widely recognized and applauded with advanced stats, but the other difference is that the Grizzlies are a similar yet better offensive team.
There aren’t many “me first” shot-taking, boisterous offensive players on the Grizzlies — they traded away two of the best in that regard in Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. The 2004 Pistons were very similar. Balance was the key to each team’s offensive attack. Spreading the field goal attempts around. No pecking order. No set shooter with the shot clock winding down or at the end of games.
If there is ever a rarity in the NBA, it is when a team can win a championship without a 20-plus point per game scorer. Only the 2008 Celtics (Paul Pierce, 19.6), the 2004 Pistons (Richard Hamilton, 17.6), the 1990 Pistons (Isiah Thomas, 18.4), and the 1989 Pistons (Adrian Dantley, 18.4, and was traded halfway through the season) were able to win without those dynamic, high-scoring playmakers.
While those Pistons taught the world to “Fear the Fro,” these Grizzlies are marching to “Whoop that Trick,” with the proverbial “trick” being opposing offenses.
Will Memphis make the Finals?
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