As I was poking around for information on Kevin Garnett’s statistical impact on Boston’s defense, I was reminded of just how amazing the 2008 C’s were on that end of the floor. That defensive efficiency rating of 98.9 points allowed per 100 possessions—that just looks nice on paper. Sort of like Pedro Martinez’s 0.73 WHIP in 2000. Just looks good. So damn out of the ordinary.
I decided to see how many teams had pulled off a sub-100 defensive rating since the league introduced the three-point shot in 1979-1980.
The answer: 46, according to Basketball Reference. That seems like a lot, right? Like what the Celtics did in 2008 wasn’t quite as special as we’d thought. The Celtics 98.9 ranking ranks 24th on that list. So, technically, 23 teams played stingier defense between 1980 and 2009 than Boston played in ’08. That just doesn’t feel right.
But take a second look at that list and you’ll find something both curious and obvious.
Of those 46 teams with sub-100 defensive ratings, 34 played during the hand-check glory years between 1997-8 and 2003-4. Think about that: Over those seven seasons, about five teams per season recorded sub-100 defensive ratings. In fact, the top 19 seasons on the list all occured in that span.
I know this isn’t news to people who follow the league closely, but people really should consider defensive numbers from those years in the same way we now consider earned run averages from the late 1960s, when Major League Baseball raised the mounds and hitters looked like me flailing away in Little League. (True story: My complete stats from one Little League All-Star game—0-0, two hit by pitches, two caught stealings at second base, the second one standing up because the ball beat me by so much there was no point in sliding).
Let’s toss out those 34 teams. That leaves us with the following truly elite defensive teams. First, from the pre-1998 era:
The C’s 98.9 beats all those teams except the (evil) 1994 Knicks (98.2, #14 on the overall list) and the 1983 Nets (a tie at 98.9)
And note: Not a single team pulled off a sub-100 rating between 1983 and 1993. The Bad Boys are nowhere to be found. The impact of NBA rules and edicts on the style of play is just collosal.
And here are the post-2004 teams, in reverse order of stinginess:
2007 Spurs (99.9)
2007 Bulls (99.6)–people forget how well Skiles had these guys playing D
2006 Spurs (99.6)
2008 Celtics (98.9)
2005 Spurs (98.8)
Let’s just say it: It’s not ridiculous to suggest the 2008 Celtics were the greatest defensive team in modern NBA history. The 2005 Spurs—also a championship team—would be in the discussion, as would the early 1990s Knicks teams, the Bad Boys (despite their non-presence here) and a bunch of other clubs.
But that’s an argument for another day. Today’s Friday. Let’s just appreciate one more time how damn great the 2008 Celtics were at shutting people down.
*Update—it actually is an argument (sort of) for today. The fine gentlemen of the Spurs-themed blog 48MinutesofHell weigh in here.