Two years ago, the Celtics won the championship mostly because they had the best defense. The Spurs won several titles largely because of their defense. The biggest difference between the Lakers of 2 years ago and the Lakers of last year was... you guessed it, defense.
All of the top contenders boast good to great defenses. All the top contenders made changes this offseason. So it is worth a review of the competition and make a case for which team has the best defense (and thus perhaps the best shot at the title).
Understand first of all that there are no good defensive statistics (that I know of). Stats are by nature flawed, but useful in context and they give us a good frame of reference to start from. I'm sure you could make convincing arguments using more exotic stats, but I'll stick with the two most basic ones we've got: Points allowed and Field Goal Percentage (FG%).
Last year the Celtics had the 3rd best average points allowed (93.4) behind the Cavs (91.4) and Spurs (93.3). The Magic tied the Rockets for 6th at 94.4. The obvious outlier is the Lakers in 14th place giving up 99.3 points per game.
The major flaw with points allowed is pace of play. In other words, if your team plays at a faster pace or scores more points, then your opponent gets more looks at the basket and usually scores more. In short, you can have a good defense that gives up more points than another team that doesn't play as well on D.
So before we over analyze, we'll review the field goal percentage. Last year the Cavs and Celtics actually tied for the lead in FG% at 43.1% while the Magic were right behind at 43.3%. This time the Lakers showed up at 6th with 44.7% and the Spurs were down at 9th at 45.3%. For point of reference, the Kings were worst with 48.3%.
That sure was a lot of numbers. If you are anything like me, you skimmed that whole section. It's ok, I don't blame you. Let me sum up. The best teams pretty much had some of the best defenses in the league. Not shocking.
You could make the case that the Cavs were the best defense based on these numbers. You could make the case that the Celtics and Magic were not that far behind. I would say that the Lakers were better than they appear at first glance and the Spurs maybe were a little worse than they appear based on points allowed alone.
So what about this year? Who's primed to be the best this year? Lets look at it team by team.
Cleveland Cavs: As expected, LeBron leads by example. He's turned himself into a fierce help defender that habitually knocks shots into the 5th row with his elbow. Varejao is active and good at getting the charge calls and Big Z takes up some space in the paint. Big Ben is gone, but in his place is the even bigger Shaq. He's not going to be the force he used to be, but he's an imposing presence just by stepping on the court. Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon give them good depth at the wing as well. Credit Mike Brown with coaching these guys up on this end of the court. This team should once again be a force on defense.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics didn't slip that far from their breakneck pace of two years back, but losing KG for the end of the season didn't help. Assuming he's back to full speed, the C's will once again be a force. And assuming Rasheed is motivated (he should be) and Marquis performs as advertised, we can expect the bench to be extra stingy. Tom Thibodeau gets a lot of well deserved credit for his work with this team, but credit Doc for making it a priority and letting Tom do his job.
Orlando Magic: Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard sets the tone here. He changes a lot more shots than he blocks and he blocks more than anyone. Pietrus is known for his defense and Nelson is no slouch. How much will they miss Hedo? Will Vince Carter buy in and knuckle down? Those question marks are enough to wonder if this team has taken a step back though I'm guessing Van Gundy won't let them fall too far back.
Others: If fully healthy, the Spurs could be right in this conversation. If the Rockets still had Yao, they would have a better shot at being in the elite (especially with Ariza on board). How much will Ron Artest help the Lakers defense?
Conclusion: Obviously defense isn't the only factor, but it is a big factor. You could probably make a strong case for the Cavs, Celtics, or Magic for the best defense. Interesting that they are in the East as well. Expect the Finals representatvie to be the one that can lock down the other guys better. I'm obviously a little partial to the Celtics but I have a lot of respect for the other two teams as well Give me the Celtics by a hair.