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The Three Different Paths of Three Top Defenses

How do you get stops amid an offensive boom? The Lakers, Cavaliers, and Mavericks are all doing it in their own ways.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James and Anthony Davis both rank in the top five among active players in career points per game—but their prolific points totals are not the main reason the Lakers are both the defending champions and the best team in the league this season. As LeBron said early last season, well before the Lakers went on their title run, “We are a defensive team. We want to be that—we want to be the best defensive team in the league.”

They didn’t quite get there last season—they finished third, albeit first in the West—but they’re accomplishing the task so far in 2020-21. If they maintain that ranking for the rest of the regular season, they will achieve a feat no LeBron James team ever has before.

Careful readers of this graph may notice that since 2011-12, LeBron’s teams have won the title every season they’ve ranked in the top 10 on defense, and they have failed to win the title every season they ranked outside the top 10. Keep this relationship in mind as this season continues.

But beyond the Lakers, the best defensive outfits so far this season are a much greater surprise. The no. 2 defense through Saturday’s games is Cleveland, which by NBA.com’s accounting ranked last just a season ago; no. 3 is Dallas, which wasn’t as awful as Cleveland but still finished just 18th last season. (After Dallas’s loss to Chicago Sunday, the Mavericks fell a fraction behind the 76ers for third place. But given all the strangeness around the 76ers’ COVID-19-related absences, as well as the fact that Philadelphia ranks only eighth on defense when stripping out garbage time, we’ll focus on Dallas here.)

Even more interesting than the surprise nature of these other teams, however, is how differently each member of this trio approaches its play on the defensive end. Defense in the NBA in 2020-21 is outrageously difficult; the past five seasons, counting this one, represent the five highest-efficiency seasons ever. But through a variety of philosophies, these three teams have so far succeeded in shutting down opposing scorers—or, at least, shutting them down as much as possible given the leaguewide scoring boom.

Los Angeles Lakers

Defensive Rating: 104.0 (1st)
Last Season: 106.1 (3rd)

The James-Davis–Marc Gasol frontcourt is as formidable as expected; lineups with that trio rank in the 96th percentile on defense so far, allowing just 100.5 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. (Those lineups rank in the 98th percentile on offense, too; the Lakers are incredible.)

But the Lakers’ defense is more than just a bunch of individual talents mashed together; it’s also fundamentally sound, making sure to cut off avenues to easy points. L.A. allows the second-lowest offensive rebounding rate in the league and the second-lowest free throw rate. (Unless noted otherwise, all contextual figures in this piece come from CtG, which strips out garbage-time stats.)

That’s a meaningful improvement on last season, when the Lakers ranked 13th in allowing offensive rebounds and 17th in allowing free throws. And they still ranked third in overall defense last season, despite those demerits—so they still have that solid foundation, and are now cleaning up any errors on the margins, too. The sheer size of their front line raises their potential here, as do contributions from the likes of new point guard Dennis Schröder, who’s pulling in a career-best 4.1 rebounds per game despite standing just 6-foot-3. LeBron is grabbing the highest percentage of available defensive rebounds in his career.

Admittedly, the Lakers have been a little lucky with opponent shooting. When they allow a corner 3, it goes in just 30 percent of the time, tied for the lowest percentage in the league. That figure will rise as the season continues; last season, the Lakers were just average in this area, at 39 percent.

But overall, the defense should continue to excel like almost no LeBron unit before—not just because of the starting frontcourt, and not just because of coach Frank Vogel’s established defensive bona fides, but because the rotation has no easily exploitable weak links. According to FiveThirtyEight’s player rating system, every Lakers starter is about an average defender or better, and among the regular reserves, only Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris dip below average. And even if that first line of defense falters, well, they always have James and Davis on the back line to clean up any rotation messes.

Here is the secret benefit of LeBron and Davis’s presence on the same team: Because they’re good for 50 points a night, the Lakers can surround them with teammates who, in LeBron’s words, best form a “defensive team.” That’s why Gasol, signed in free agency, is such a perfect fit—even more than the offensively oriented Montrezl Harrell—even though he averages only 4.4 points per game, with the third-lowest usage rate in the league.

Almost no other team in the league can rely on this particular strategy. There’s a reason the Lakers are favorites to win another title. (Post–James Harden trade, the Nets probably will try the same as they round out the rest of their rotation with more trades and buyout searches.)

Cleveland Cavaliers

Defensive Rating: 105.0 (2nd)
Last Season: 114.8 (30th)

The 2018-19 Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference. The 2019-20 Cavaliers rank third worst. Yet now the Cavaliers look like a fringe playoff contender solely because of their newfound defensive prowess.

The Cavaliers aren’t just working to force opponents into inefficient shots; their goal is to prevent any shots at all. Cleveland is forcing turnovers on 18.8 percent of opponents’ possessions, per CtG, best in the league; last season, the team ranked just 25th in forced turnover rate.

The frontcourt pairing of Larry Nance Jr. and Andre Drummond deserves much of the credit. Nance leads the league in steals, at 2.4 per game, and Drummond (1.7) is tied for seventh. Among players who have appeared in at least 10 games, they rank first and third, respectively, in deflections.

Drummond is a nuisance for opponents at the rim, too. He’s working on his fourth consecutive season of at least 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game; the only players with more such seasons in a career are Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Julius Erving.

A concerted approach to inducing turnovers doesn’t always succeed. In Jim Boylen’s hectic defensive scheme, the Bulls forced the most turnovers last season—but in doing so, they sacrificed the rest of their defensive fundamentals, allowing the highest free throw rate in the league and the most shots at the rim.

Not so for Cleveland. The Cavs rank fourth in opponent free throw rate, and while they permit a decent number of looks close to the basket, opponents have shot just 57 percent against Cleveland at the rim—the lowest mark in the league.

Part of this turnaround is the result of new personnel. Drummond played just eight games for Cleveland last season after a midseason trade. Nance was rarely a starter, playing only about three-quarters of the minutes that he is now. Rookie Isaac Okoro profiles as a “superb defender,” according to Kevin O’Connor’s draft notes, and he’s playing a whopping 37 minutes per game; no other member of this rookie class is in the 30s.

Most of all, J.B. Bickerstaff is the full-time head coach now after taking over on an interim basis near the end of last season. And he knows that his team’s moribund offense—which, right now, is scoring fewer points per 100 possessions (100.8) than any team in half a decade—means the only way to win games is to seek turnovers and the ensuing transition opportunities.

“We’ve got to make the game as ugly as we possibly can,” Bickerstaff said recently. “And we’ve got to hang our hat on our defense, and then take advantage of easy opportunities. We need to find a way to manufacture offense by our defense, turning people over, getting deflections and then getting out, throwing the ball ahead and scoring some easy ones, too.”

While the Cavaliers’ half-court offense is dead last in efficiency by a frightening margin (just 83.6 points per 100 possessions, versus a league average of 95.4), it adds more points from steals than any other team. So in this fashion, a turnover-centric defense, when done right, can go beyond merely limiting opponent points to boost a stuck offense, too.

Two main questions linger as to whether Cleveland can maintain this kind of defensive pressure over the full season. First is how Bickerstaff juggles a rotation full of big men, with Jarrett Allen joining via trade and Kevin Love expected to return from a calf injury; before Love’s absence, Nance was either coming off the bench or starting at small forward. Will the team trade Drummond, a free agent after this season?

Second is whether the Cavaliers buckle under the burden of all the transition opportunities they allow. Teams score much more efficiently in transition than in the half court, and while the Cavaliers benefit from this pattern when they get out and run, they also suffer on the other end. In large part because the Cavaliers miss so many shots, leading to rebounds and outlets going in the other direction, they allow 18.9 percent of opposing possessions to start in transition—the highest rate in the league.

Dallas Mavericks

Defensive Rating: 105.5 (3rd)
Last Season: 111.2 (18th)

The Mavericks set an NBA record for offensive efficiency last season, but the defense was largely nondescript, ranking in the middle of the pack in most statistical and stylistic categories. Sometimes it was much worse. The Clippers poured in 121.4 points per 100 possessions in Dallas’s playoff loss. Although Kristaps Porzingis’s mid-series injury inflated that number—he missed the Clippers’ 154-point explosion in Game 5—the Clippers spent the whole series finding open shots wherever they wanted, and ended with 50/40/81 shooting splits.

So Dallas entered the offseason knowing it had to seek out more balance. “When you establish that you’re a galactically successful offensive team, but below average defensively, that’s not going to win you a championship,” coach Rick Carlisle said before the season.

That adjustment came in two parts. First was a personnel shift, as the Mavericks added the bruising James Johnson and, more importantly, swapped marksman Seth Curry for 3-and-D wing Josh Richardson. That latter trade was as clear a mission statement as possible: The Mavericks were willing to sacrifice some of their unmatched offense for better defense on the wings.

The second part was tactical. Carlisle offered a revealing quote when play began in the bubble last summer. “We want to be a better team protecting the rim,” he said. “We still want to be effective at protecting the 3-point line. It’s hard to do both.” He’s right: Modern offenses are designed to make it nearly impossible to defend both the rim and 3-point line, the two most efficient scoring areas on the court. But Carlisle continued, hinting at which direction he’d lean if he had to pick one: “Right now, the rim has got to be a priority.”

It sounds like Carlisle has been watching the Bucks, who fashioned one of the best defenses in NBA history by walling off the rim and letting opponent 3-pointers fly. Last season, Milwaukee allowed 29 percent of opposing shots to come at the rim (best in the league), versus 39 percent from distance (28th). The Mavericks this season have allowed 30 percent of opposing shots to come at the rim, versus 38 percent from distance—nearly identical figures to the Bucks a season ago.

Granted, the two teams are not entirely the same. Most notably, the Bucks weren’t just stingy with overall rim opportunities; they also allowed the lowest accuracy on shots at the rim (55 percent), thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Lopez twins. The Mavericks, conversely, are allowing opponents to shoot 70 percent at the rim so far, 29th in the league—although Porzingis’s recent return from injury should help.

One area ripe for regression in the other direction is Dallas’s 3-point defense. Mavericks opponents have hit just 31.5 percent of their non-garbage-time 3s, the league’s lowest mark, even though 3-point defense is largely random. Last season, for comparison, the best 3-point defense was the Raptors at 34.3 percent—so Dallas’s opponents probably have, at minimum, 3 percentage points to rise over the rest of the season.

Analyzing individual game results shows some measure of the Mavericks’ luck. Duncan Robinson, for instance, shot just 1-for-8 from distance against Dallas on New Year’s Day—tied for the worst long-range showing of his career, on so many attempts. Paul George went 0-for-6 against Dallas, but he’s at a scorching 55 percent from 3 in all other games this season.

Looks like these won’t rim out all that often:

Dallas’s opponents won’t continue missing two-thirds of their wide-open 3s. Per NBA.com/Stats, that’s the second-lowest mark for any team’s opponents, a smidge ahead of Charlotte.

Yet the bet that Dallas—and Milwaukee, and other teams like Toronto, which allowed even more 3-pointers than the Bucks last season and finished second in defensive rating—is making is that those 3s will miss often enough that giving up those extra perimeter looks is worth devoting more attention to the rim.

That bet may well pan out. The NBA is a copycat league, and the Bucks’ regular-season dominance has certainly convinced other teams to follow suit. Some are taking Milwaukee’s approach to an even greater extreme: An astounding 47 percent of shots against the Pelicans have come from distance, as new coach Stan Van Gundy—a noted admirer of the Bucks’ strategy—rushes to cut off the basket and concede open 3s.

Dallas is benefiting from its shift in focus, and the new and improved defense has allowed the Mavericks’ to stay in the playoff picture despite Porzingis’s absence and Luka Doncic’s brutal shooting slump. Now, it’s Dallas’s offense that ranks in the middle of the league, while the defense is near the top of the leaderboard.

But the evidence also isn’t conclusive that this is a guaranteed defensive salve. Last season, the correlation between 3-pointers allowed and defensive rating was negative, meaning allowing 3-point attempts led to a lower (or better for the defense) point total—but so far this season, that correlation is positive, meaning allowing more 3-point attempts yields a higher (or worse) defensive rating. Perhaps the secret to stops is less allowing 3s, and more employing players like Giannis and Brook Lopez and Kyle Lowry and Gasol.

That’s part of the struggle for teams in this era of hyperefficient offense: For every Dallas, improving on defense while focusing on the rim, there’s also a New Orleans, struggling to maintain the proper floor balance. For every Cleveland, seizing on turnovers to boost a disastrous defense, there’s a Chicago, collecting steals but surrendering just about everything else. Defense is an intractable challenge, and there’s no one right approach to stopping a fluid pick-and-roll with three shooters spotting up for open 3s.

Except putting LeBron and Anthony Davis on the same team, it appears. That does the trick quite well.

Stats through Saturday’s games.