Does Defense "Win" Championships?

by Jeff Fogle 1. February 2011 22:45

The Tuesday NBA card is light, with only four games. And, three of those are late starters. So, I wanted to spend some time today talking about a theme that often pops up in sports discussions, particularly those involving the NBA...

You often hear coaches, players, pundits, saying something along the lines of "defense wins championships." In baseball, it's more about pitching than defense...but the theme of run-prevention is the same. Crowds thrill to runs or points being put on the scoreboard, but the supposed "real" key to winning championships is keeping points or runs off the board.

Past stathead analysis has most prominently settled on the following sentiments (granting that there are now A LOT of statheads and there are probably many varying studies that are less prominent).

*In baseball, it's best to think of the interchange as half offense...and half pitching/defense. This was the Bill James framework presented in the old "Baseball Abstract" publications, and can also be attributed to "The Hidden Game of Baseball," which...if I remember correctly...said pitching was 44% of baseball rather than the much higher number you heard in the media of the 1980's (and well before).

*In all sports, offense looks to be just as important as defense in terms of how the regular season stat rankings predict championship success. Therefore, you can just as easily say "offense wins championships" as you could "defense wins championships." Which really means you should say neither.

I'm about as Jamesian as it gets in terms of philosophies. But, I think it's important to consider looking at the theme from another direction.

Not, DEFENSE wins championships...
but, defense WINS championships

When the trophy is on the line...during the playoffs and in the final series or championship showdown, the team that can "impose its will" most emphatically WHEN IT MATTERS MOST in terms of scoring prevention will be the winner.

Regular season rankings? Too much pollution involved with strength of schedule, injury issues, "pacing yourself" issues. In baseball, there are also ballpark issues, and "frontline" pitching issues because the very best pitchers get the bulk of postseason innings. The best regular season staff and the 7th best staff might actually be fairly equal in terms of frontline pitching. Who had the better regular season NFL defense between Indianapolis and New Orleans last year? If you look at yards allowed per game, it's one. If you look at points allowed per drive, it's the other.

And, besides, the truism was never "regular season defense wins postseason championships" anyway. People used the phrase to talk about Bill Russell owning the postseason paint during the Celtics dynasty...Bob Gibson being unhittable in the World Series...NFL defenses hitting people, and hitting them hard in December and January (in slow motion as narrated by John Facenda).

When you're IN the championship game...will defense win for you?  

Here are the per-inning scoring totals from this past October's World Series matching Texas and San Francisco. I've ordered them from low to high, giving one "x" to each team because each had a bottom of the 9th where they didn't bat.

Giants by inning: x-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-1-1-1-1-1-2-2-3-3-6

Rangers by inning: x-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-1-1-1-2-3-3

Yes, I typed in 31 zeroes for San Francisco, and 37 zeroes for Texas just to make a point!

Isn't that, for both teams, a case of pitching/defense imposing its will the vast majority of the time? Texas only broke through on 7 occasions in 44 half innings. Only thrice did the Rangers score more than one run in an at bat.

San Francisco won the series because they scored in 12 of 43 half innings, and topped 1 run 6 times.

If you look at it one way, San Francisco's offense outscored the Texas offense. Isn't it just as reasonable, though, to assert that both offenses were at the mercy of the other pitching staff as a general rule. Which was imposing its will? Run scoring, or run prevention?

How about last year's Super Bowl? I'll use possessions.

(Discounting kneel down drives)
New Orleans: 0-0-0-3-3-3-7-7
Indianapolis: 0-0-0-0-0-3-7-7

Again those are ordered from low to high rather than chronologically. That's 4 TD drives, and 8 goose-eggs for two great offenses combined. Even in one of the all-time "offense vs. offense" championship games in terms of media hype and regular season rankings, defenses imposed their will more than offenses did. You could easily say that New Orleans won with defense given those five goose-eggs. Note that the Saints defense also scored the clinching touchdown themselves on a pick six.

Did defense WIN the championship for the Saints, once the teams were on the field and battling heads up?

How about the BCS championship game between Auburn and Oregon that most of us watched recently? Here are the per-drive results from that game.

Auburn: 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-3-7-7
Oregon: 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-8-8

This was supposed to be the shootout of the century. Neither defense would be able to stop the other offense. Vegas anticipated a game in the 70's. Turned out to be mostly goose-eggs on a drive-by-drive basis.

Okay, the turf wasn't great, and each team had some long drives that should have put up points but didn't. Let's do LAST year's game between Alabama and Texas.

Texas: 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-3-7-8
Alabama: 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-7-7-7-7

It was a higher scoring game last season, but there were still 15 combined punts and 7 combined drives that ended in turnovers. Mostly drive goose-eggs.

If we're thinking of everything as "half and half" between offense and defense when championships are on the line, we lose site of the degree that scoring prevention imposes its will in big games. And, maybe we're missing out on key elements that are driving the results more than we realize.

Things are a bit different in the NBA, because shooting jump shots is an easy way of scoring relatively speaking. It's hard to hit a Tim Lincecum pitch with authority. It's hard to drive the field against the Alabama defense. NBA offenses aren't going to string together zeroes in a way that makes today's point the same way.

But, I do think it's commonly accepted that defense plays a large role late in an NBA title series. Note how combined scoring went down throughout last year's Celtics/Lakers finale. I'll use chronological order here to show you the decline.

Combined Scoring Games 1-7: 191-197-175-185-178-156-162

A couple games in the 190's, then more intense defense after that (probably with help from officials swallowing their whistles).

So, let's at least ponder the possibility that a defense's ability to impose its will becomes more important when championshps are on the line...and that a team's capability in that regard isn't necessarily as obvious as it seems in regular season stat rankings.

Don't think about the correlation between regular season rankings (which can get polluted in a variety of ways), and postseason success as the key. Think about the defensive capabilities inherent with the roster of players in competition...when a championship is on the line...and try to assess that team's ability to impose its will defensively on the outcome. Can the pitching staff post zeroes? Can a football defense force punts or earn takeaways? Can a college or pro basketball team deny scoring?

Can this defense WIN a championship? Make it an active verb! If you're watching games through that lens, your perspective might change on whether or not "defense wins championships" is a cliche.

Food for thought on a night with a light schedule...back again Wednesday evening...

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2/2/2011 5:39:35 PM #



You've hit the nail squarely on the head with this specific article.

There is a very good reason why I begin my evaluation of top teams in the NBA with my self-developed <a href="">Quality Index Rating</a> [QIR], which is comprised of:

Points Scored Differential
Points Allowed
Rebounding Differential

and ranks each of the 30 teams in the league.

When the game is on the line ... and, especially, in the playoffs, where there are only good-to-very good teams remaining ... it's the team that can actually <b>impose its will on its opponent</b>, <i>from a defensive and rebounding perspective</i> ... regardless of the tempo the game is played at ... that is <b><i>most likely to win</i></b>.

khandor Canada

2/10/2011 7:04:09 AM #

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