Quick Thoughts

1.    Champs and D:    We’ve taken a step back from the season thanks to Ed Weiland’s excellent draft coverage but now it’s time to take a quick look back at the Celtics’ run.  In the end, the Celtics excellent defense coupled with the inability of the Lakers to match up with Paul Pierce gave Boston another banner.  Indeed, the Celts’ were the best defensive this year (number one in points allowed per minute), but this serves as a nice jumping off point to test the old adage that “defense wins championships.” 

I’ve always intuitively rejected this thinking.  In order to win, you just have to outscore the other team, no matter how its done.  Of course, it seems a bit easier to build a good defensive team than a good offensive team because great offensive talent is not as readily available as the Bruce Bowens of the world.  I thought we’d take a look at all the title teams since 1979-80 (the start of the Magic/Bird Era) to see how each title team ranked offensively and defensively, figuring that this might reveal how a team is best balanced for a title run.  Anyway, here is each title and their rankings in points scored and allowed per possession: 

Year          Team        O-Rank    D-Rank

1979-80     Lakers         2nd            8th

1980-81     Celtics          5th            4th

1981-82     Lakers         2nd          10th

1982-83     Sixers           5th            5th

1983-84     Celtics          5th            3rd

1984-85     Lakers         1st            7th

1985-86     Celtics         3rd            1st

1986-87     Lakers         1st            7th

1987-88     Lakers         2nd           9th

1988-89     Pistons         7th            3rd

1989-90     Pistons        11th           2nd

1990-91     Bulls              1st           7th

1991-92     Bulls              1st           4th

1992-93     Bulls              2nd          7th

1993-94     Rockets       15th          2nd

1994-95     Rockets         6th         12th

1995-96     Bulls              1st            1st

1996-97     Bulls              1st            4th

1997-98     Bulls              8th            3rd

1998-99     Spurs           11th            1st

1999-00     Lakers          4th             1st

2000-01     Lakers          2nd           21st

2001-02     Lakers          2nd            7th

2002-03     Spurs            7th             3rd

2003-04     Pistons          18th          2nd

2004-05     Spurs             8th            1st

2005-06     Heat              7th            9th

2006-07     Spurs             5th            2nd

2007-08     Celtics           9th            1st 

As preliminary note, we are aware that the number of teams has increased significantly from 1979-80 to today but a raw ranking score still gives us some solid perspective, as leading a league of 23 teams or 29 teams are both impressive.  Getting to the data, being a “defense-first” team really isn’t a prerequisite to a title.  Of the 29 title teams above, 13 ranked higher offensively than defensively and 14 were ranked higher defensively than offensively and two teams were equally adept on both sides of the ball.  Moreover, teams that are most efficient offensively are just as likely as top defensive teams to win a title (six of each kind have won titles).  

No, there is no magic formula.  The fact is that both defense and offense matter.  The Magic Johnson Lakers were clearly offensively driven but their title teams were pretty good defensively.  In reality, to win a title you have to be at least above-average on both sides of the ball.  There are very few cases of a title team being below-average anywhere.  The only exceptions are the 2003-04 Pistons, who were the worst offensive team of any title winner, the 2000-01 Lakers, who were the worst defensive team of any titlist, and the 1993-94 Rockets, who were slightly below average offensively.  

The Pistons and Lakers were a bit funky and the data probably did not reflect their true proficiency.  The Pistons acquired Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline, which significantly improved the team’s scoring.  The 2000-01 Lakers were just a weird feuding bunch who sleepwalked through most of the season before turning it on and absolutely dominating in the playoffs.  Given that they were the best defensive team only a year earlier, their bad defense in 2000-01 can be tossed out as a fluke.  As for the Rockets, they were really a defense first unit who scored just enough to win and were conveniently matched up with a similar Knicks team in the Finals (the Knicks were 16th offensively and 1st defensively that year). 

Finally, this exercise gives us yet another chance to marvel at Michael Jordan and the Bulls.  They won in a myriad of way, shifting from an offensive group to defensive group when MJ slowed down.  To further the argument for the 1995-96 Bulls as the best team of All-Time we also see that they are the only post-1980 squad to league the NBA in offensive and defensive efficiency in the same season. 

2.    Seattle Blues:    In less fun news, the Sonics have reached a settlement with the city of Seattle that will probably allow them to leave town for Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season.  Just to recap, the suit was initiated to determine whether the Sonics were bound to honor the last two years of their lease with the city or whether they could buy out of it now.  The Sonics’ contention was that they could pay out a sum (the total rent was about $22 million for the next two years) and split town now, while Seattle was asserting that there was a special value to keeping the team in town apart from the cash value of the lease and that the new owner Clay Bennett had negotiated for the funding of a new arena in bad faith.  The Sonics had countered by asserting that the lease and facilities guaranteed that the team would loss a ton of cash because it lacked luxury boxes and other amenities.  Ultimately, pragmatism prevailed and Seattle opted for a larger pile of cash ($45 million) to let the Sonics go to Oklahoma City.  Seattle also got to “keep” the Sonics’ 41-year history so that they might have an opportunity to get a new “Sonics” team in the future, though the arena question remains unresolved. 

What was most fascinating was watching David Stern’s take on the Seattle controversy and the lawsuit.  Stern publicly and fully supported Bennett, despite the fact that Bennett and his crew had made some embarrassing public gaffes where they basically admitted that they bought the team to move it.  For Stern, however, the primary issue seemed to be that he’d stand 100% ownership in the support for a publicly funded arena.  While this is probably the position that Stern has to take lest he erode the ability of future owners from negotiating for new buildings.  But the there has to be some worry that moving teams to smaller cities after arena battles go awry creates a danger of the NBA teams retreating from stronger potential markets.  

Indeed, the NBA’s last two moves haven’t gone too well.  The move of the Grizz from Vancouver to Memphis has not been great.  New ownership has retreated from funding the Grizzlies once they started losing money in Memphis.  The move of the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans was even worse.  Before Chris Paul fell into their lap, the Hornets struggled in New Orleans and there is frankly no guarantee that the funds are sufficient in New Orleans (even before Katrina) to support a team long term unless they are title contenders.  With that backdrop, going from a major West Cost city to Oklahoma City, seems risky.  In its defense, Oklahoma City supported the Hornets quite well the times when they played there but it remains to be seen whether this market has the same potential as Seattle. 

Finally, I am aware that the former owner of the Sonics Howard Schultz has initiated a lawsuit where he is trying to rescind his sale of the Sonics because he feels that Schultz violated a clause that directed Bennett to attempt to negotiate for a new arena in Seattle in good faith.  In theory, this could bring or keep the Sonics in Seattle.  I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one.  While contract are generally enforced as written, my gut doubts that a throw away line in a contract with respect to the intent of the parties trumps millions of dollars passed around several years after a deal was fully executed.  Still, I suppose anything is possible…

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