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The Greatest Defensive Teams of the Modern Era

You might recall a week or so ago, I took flak in these parts for writing that the 2008 Celtics should be in the discussion for the title of Greatest Defensive Team of the Modern NBA (i.e. since the league began using the three-point line in 1979-80). The post was intended to start the debate, not finish it.

It was based on some very basic research—I simply looked up, via Basketball Reference, every team since 1980 that had posted a defensive efficiency of less than 100; that is, teams that allowed fewer than 100 points per 100 opponent possessions. There were 46 such teams, or about 1.5 per season. But there was an interesting if expected anomaly in the data: Of those 46 teams, 34 played between 1998 and 2004, when hand-checking was basically legal and defense ruled the game. I decided, for the sake of brevity and because I can play dictator here, to toss all of those teams out and focus on those that played before and after the Hand Check Era.

Some readers didn’t like that and accused me of rigging the “research” to spit out the result I wanted—that the 2008 Celtics were the greatest defensive team since 1980. A couple of those readers suggested the results might have more validity if I compared the defensive efficiencies of each of those 46 teams to the league average efficiency  in the season each of them played. That way, we could find out which team’s defense stood out the most among its in-season peers.

One of those readers, Shahe Bagerdjian, did that research for us on his blog Mad Buckets. And guess what, all of you nay-sayers? By this measure, the 2008 Celtics ranked as the second stingiest team of the post-1980 era. The 2008 C’s allowed 98.9 points per 100 possessions in a season during which teams scored, on average, 107.5 points per 100 possessions—a monster gap of 8.6 points/100 possessions.

In the discussion? I’d say so. Here’s the top 8, courtesy of Shahe and Mad Buckets, where you can go read his entire post and the stats behind it.

Picture 45

As I had suspected, ranking the teams this way shoves the Hand Check Era teams down in the rankings—except, that is, for the 1999 and 2004 versions of the San Antonio Spurs.  And one of those teams—the 2004 version—ekes out the victory here over the ’08 Celtics with a gap of 8.8 points per 100 possessions between their own defensive efficiency (94.1) and the league average in ’04.

Damn you, Popovich and Duncan.

So it turns out that just tossing out an entire era of defensive teams was indeed a mistake (and, by the way, one I wouldn’t have made had I attempted an exhaustive study).

Is this more thorough method of comparison perfect? Probably not. But it’s a rather big step in the right direction.

Another thing I must grudgingly admit: Shahe’s method gives fans of the hated Riley-era Knicks something to crow about. A decade and a half later, most NBA writers and pundits dismiss those mid-1990s Knicks teams as thugs who ruined the game with a physicality designed solely to defeat Jordan. There is truth in that. But whatever their methods, those Knicks were one of the consistently outstanding defensive teams in NBA history.

Here’s hoping the 2009 Celtics pop up on this list a year from now.

  • i think the celtic 2007-08 team was the greatest defensive team ever and i base this on the comments of players who played against them. ask tracy mcgrady and other players who faced them, hell ask the coaches who seen this team. there hasn’t been a better defensive team for the entire year ever. the spers were really good but not as dominant as this team.

  • sorry i meant spurs

  • Brendan Jackson

    I’d be interested in seeing some transition D numbers between these two teams stack up. This is probably only because it’s fresh in my mind but I remember that Celtics team being a little quicker than that Spurs team. I really have no idea or evidence to back that up though.

  • Lakers Fan

    This looks about right.

    Curiously, the rankings would stay the same if you changed the list to "Most likely To Whine Like Little Girls About Any Fouls Called On Them"

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  • Brendan Jackson

    Oh yeah, Sasha Vujucic, definitely not a whiner. He's such a man.

  • celts fan no. 1

    this is of course a celtics blog..who else would they praise? orlando?la? piece of crap made up by stupid bloggers to “glorify’ their team.

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  • kyle

    Celtics are geriatric one-hit wonders. How many years between your last two championships–22? Maybe you’ll see your next one in 2030.

    Anyone want to take bets on when KG goes down in a crumpled heap? I’ve got mid-November.

  • numbers dont lie. sure they are #2 overall, but they won more games than the #1 team, including an NBA championship. All while maintaining a higher pace and a much much higher Off Rating. Both of which would usually tire out a team playing so hard on both ends.

  • What your missing is the fact the pistons in 2004 were vastly improved on defense after acquiring Rasheed Wallace.

    That champion ship team was the best defensive team ever… not the same team that played more then half of the season.