Post-game Reactions

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:

Picture 29

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.

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Zach Lowe

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  • Losston

    SMH..the ad is blocking the article. another L for boston

  • Dave

    What a reach. Wave away three-dozen teams with an arbitrary distinction, then crown your team the best of the "truly elite" defensive teams. LOL, fanboy! Somehow everyone else gets placed within a context, but your 1-year wonder is for the ages. Spare me.

  • Zachary Kolodin

    This ad is insanely annoying. Can’t even read the article.

  • I know (and great name, by the way). We are working on it.

  • (Or I should say, people with more technical ability than I are working on it. I just hit the keys with my fingers)

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  • jonh hark



    ESPN SUCKS FROM THE UK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • It should be fixed. Thanks for helping us identify the problem.

  • Laker Fan

    I just read an article on another blog that had Pierce running his mouth about how the celtics are the team to beat. D E L U S I O N A L ! Then I realized it's been so long since I've had to tell you guys to suck it. So I get hereto do just that and you have this horse s%^t article up. Also D E L U S I O N A L . . . . maybe there is something in the water in Boston that is affecting you guys. Call the epa, im concerned for you.

  • T-Hug

    Please, how thoughtless can you get. I'm almost embarrassed to respond to this. By your own (relatively arbitrary) decision to dismiss teams from the hand-checking, your (equally arbitrary) decision to either ignore older teams or measure them by a yardstick based on modern statistics (which aren't applicable or even available for older teams), and your reliance upon the (relatively arbitrary) measure of "Defensive Efficiency", there's still no logical way to deduce that the Celtics of '08 were "the best defensive team of all time". The Spurs have a better rating! So you use a completely skewed methodology designed purely to prove your own point and yet manage to get it wrong anyway. That's not just your garden-variety idiocy. That's SPECTACULARLY stupid.

    Don't get me wrong, I have much respect for the Celtics' team that year. They were fab. But the idea of comparing teams from different years is flawed to begin with. Why can't you just accept the fact that they were the best team in the NBA that year and enjoy it? Jeez…

  • Gerrit

    You should compare the teams defensive efficiency to the league average that year. That would give you a better idea of how good these teams were relative to the prevailing offenses and defenses of the day.

  • i think you are on the right path, but you cant just DISMISS those teams from the deadball era. yes, that era sucked, and yes, hand checking sucked.

    but in jordan's era really really good scorers werent just shut down, they were thrown down. may i suggest that instead of throwing away that era, keep it. But you now need to change how you define the stats.

    Dont just look at their overall efficiency rating, but look at how much it varies from the overall average. Scoring in the nba as well as efficiency have both increased over the past decade or so. The year the Spurs (2005) set that Low (great) defensive mark, teams werent scoring as much or as efficiently as teams did in 2008.

    What i suggest you do is rank all the teams based on overall efficiency, then rank them based on the Delta(variance) from the league average.

    you can also adjust each season to be a % below average then find out what the overall NBA defensive efficiency average is has been since the 1979-80 season and adjust the figures to represent a true overall NBA Defensive Efficiency leaders.

  • All great suggestions, particularly the guys talking about rating teams by their departure from the median def efficiency.

    This post was just meant as a quick, fun discussion-generator, not a definitive conclusion about who is the best ever. That would obviously require a very rigorous analysis best saved for another day.

  • okay, i made a few revised sheets. How do i email you guys?

    or you can email me and ill forward it.

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  • Chronz

    Its not that difficult bro, its pretty much common sense. You dont compare across eras without accounting for league averages.

    IIRC The C’s had the 3rd best Defensive Efficiency above league average in NBA history.

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