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Does defense really win championships?

So how much does defense play a part in winning a championship? Jeff Wagner finds out
So how much does defense play a part in winning a championship? Jeff Wagner finds out 02:47

MINNEAPOLIS — Highlight dunks, sharp shooting and miraculous makes helped the Minnesota Timberwolves eliminate the Denver Nuggets in seven games. But fans watching the series feel it's the other side of the ball that Minnesota handles best.

"I think defense is what's really important and that's what's driving the Timberwolves," said Kalid Rooble as he took a break from shooting hoops at Peavey Field Park.

"How else do you make a comeback, right? You need stops," added Savior Allen Knight. "If you have a team that's known for defense, it makes a 15-point deficit not so daunting."

Across most sports, stopping a team from scoring carries a physical badge of honor. College football coach Bear Bryant once said, "Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships." He won six national titles at the University of Alabama.

Thomas Burkett is a statistician who combined his skills with his love for sports.  

"It's one of those things you hear all the time," Burkett said.

While a senior at the University of South Carolina, he did his honors college thesis on whether defense actually wins championships as it relates to the NBA.

"I looked at 10 seasons of NBA data (2010-2011 – 2019-2020). So, that's 300 teams worth of data," he said.

So, does Burkett believe defense wins championships?

"I would say yes, but I think it takes away a lot of the context of how important offense is as well," he said.

Burkett used several intricate, highly processed equations to come to that conclusion. He incorporated stats that fans understand like steals, blocks, rebounds and more on a per-game basis. He used them when comparing teams that won a championship to those that did not win.   

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets - Game Two
Nikola Jokic is fouled driving against Kyle Anderson and Karl-Anthony Towns in Game 2 Getty Images

Which defensive stats are the best indicators of a championship team?  

"The defensive model found that steals and blocks, as far as championship-winning teams, were the most predictive," he said.

Another key equation involved a team's defensive rating, which means how many points they allow per 100 possessions. He compared the team defensive rating of championship teams versus non-championship teams. He found that championship teams had a mean team defensive rating of 104.22, while non-championship teams had a mean of 107.60. The lower the number, the better the team defense, inferring that team defense is important to winning a title. 

The Timberwolves finished the 2023-2024 regular season with the NBA's top defensive rating. How does that translate to the playoffs?

Of the 10 championship teams in Burkett's study, only one had the top defensive rating in the regular season: the 2015 Golden State Warriors.

Two of the 10 teams finished with the top offensive rating, which is points scored per 100 possessions.

What's maybe more important is the net rating. That's when you subtract a team's defensive rating from their offensive rating. Essentially, how good are they overall? Of the 10 champions in Burkett's study, nine of them finished in the top five for net rating in the regular season.

The Timberwolves offensive rating for the 2023-2024 season was 17th in the league out of 30 teams. But when you factor in their defensive prowess, the Timberwolves' net rating was ranked third overall. That's firmly in the wheelhouse of teams proven to win titles in recent years.

"We could rephrase the phrase as: Defense wins championships but with a strong offensive output, as well," he said.

He was quick to point out that his thesis only focused on 10 years of data, meaning a look back at several decades and continued research in the future might give a clearer picture. Scoring and three-point shooting in the NBA have risen significantly in this century, putting less emphasis on defense and more on points.

Burkett believes his data would be quite different if he incorporated teams from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when there was a great emphasis on defense and less on three-point shooting. 

"The (NBA) has changed so much that I think you'd find a much stronger association in the past (with team defense)," he said.

So far in the 2024 NBA playoffs, the Timberwolves have the number-two ranked net rating. The Boston Celtics hold the top spot.

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