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The Sports Daily > Analyzing The League
Elite Teams vs Top Defenses

To be elite is defined as, “a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.”

For this piece, let’s define ‘elite’ regarding NBA teams as teams that are currently winning over .600 over their basketball games. As of 10:40 PM CST, Tuesday March 28, eight teams fit this definition: The Golden State Warriors (60-14), San Antonio Spurs (57-16), Houston Rockets (51-23), Boston Celtics (48-26), Cleveland Cavaliers (47-26), Washington Wizards (45-28), Utah Jazz (45-29) and Toronto Raptors (45-29).

Tuesday evening, the Warriors were on the road and defeated the Rockets. While that game was in session, I looked up what the Rockets’ record was against the Top-11 defenses in the NBA. It turns out when Houston faces good defensive teams, that becomes a problem for them in the win’s category. After the loss to the Warriors, the Rockets fell to 14-17 against the Top-11 defenses in the NBA.

If the Rockets, considered one of the elite teams in the NBA, have so much trouble against top-level defenses, I became eager to know if any of the other top-tier teams were just as bad against that competition, and who was the best?

To find out, I’ve taken each of the eight teams listed above and compiled their records against the Top-11 defenses in the NBA. Using the Defensive Rating metric, the Top-11 defenses are the:

Spurs 100.7 Points Per 100 Possessions

Warriors 101.0 PP/100

Jazz 102.5 PP/100

Hawks 103.3 PP/100

Heat 104.1 PP/100

Pelicans 104.1 PP/100

Grizzlies 104.4 PP/100

Raptors 104.9 PP/100

Celtics 105.4 PP/100

Thunder 105.4 PP/100

Pistons 105.4 PP/100

Next, the table below lists each of the records of the elite team’s vs those defenses listed above.

Team Record vs. Best Defenses
Warriors 19-6
Spurs 17-6
Celtics 15-11
Raptors 14-11
Cavaliers 14-13
Wizards 12-13
Rockets 14-17
Jazz 11-14

Lastly, the chart below shows the winning percentage of those elite teams against the top defenses of the NBA.

Some of those top-level defenses are going to be in the playoffs in a few weeks. Top defenses try to take away your strengths and work to force you into your weaknesses. For the Rockets Tuesday night, the Warriors tried to take away the Rockets’ 3-point shots, as Houston shot just 5-of-31 from beyond the arc, which were both below their season average for makes and misses from deep. Houston had to adjust their attack on offense by getting more points from the paint (54) and more free throw attempts (39). Still, even in making the adjustment, Houston wasn’t able to climb back from the 22-point hole the Warriors had put them in earlier in the game.

When teams don’t have an even balance on offense AND defense, it can often be difficult to try to win ball games when the strength of the team is limited. For the Rockets, Wizards, and Cavaliers, who all rank in the Top-10 offensively, when their offenses get limited just a bit from good defenses, they might have trouble making stops on the other end, as they all rank below league average defensively. For a team like the Jazz, who are good at defense, but barely have an above league average offense, facing a good defense just limits their opportunities on offense even more than usual.

While these are mostly just samples of 21-30 games for the elite teams in the NBA, the upcoming playoffs will show which of these teams can make the right adjustments in a series when the good defenses take away the most common things they want to do in a ball game.

Stats via NBA.com/stats