The NBA Teams that Could have Been Great if They Played Adequate Defense

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As the old saying goes, “offense win games, but defense wins championships.” These NBA teams from a certain year played very good offense. All of them played an offense that was top five in the league in efficiency, and half of these teams finished 1st or 2nd in points per game. Offense was never the question with these teams, and some of them had unbelieveable personel on that side of the court, but whether it was due to effort, coaching, or another reason, these teams just didn’t play enough defense. All of these teams finished in the bottom five in defensive efficiency for their given season, and half of them finished dead last in that category.

2009 – 2010 Toronto Raptors

Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images

These Toronto Raptors finished the season 40-42, but they could have been a 50 win team with the right defensive coaching. This team, like all on this list, was loaded with talent. They had Jarrett Jack (11.4 points and 5.0 assists per game) and Jose Calderon (10.3 points and 5.9 assists per game) at point guard. They had DeMar Derozan (current two-time all star) and Marco Bellineli (significant contributor to 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs team) at shooting guard.

They had Hedo Turkoglu at small forward, who averaged 16.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game the season before on the 2009 Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic team at small forward. Down low they had 2006 1st overall pick Andrea Bargnani (17.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game,) a young Amir Johnson (6.2 points 4.8 rebounds per game,) and the star of the team was Chris Bosh, who averaged 24.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Rounding off the bench was Marcus Banks, Sonny Weems, Antoine Wright, Reggie Evans, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Rasho Nesterovic, and Patrick O’Bryant.

This team was loaded with offensive talent, which, to head coach Jay Triano’s credit, he utilized well in a season in which the Raptors had the 5th most efficient offense. The team finished dead last in defensive efficiency, however, with 113.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. This figure is also 10th worst by any team since the start of the three point era.

Besides increased effort and better technique, a simple fix would have been to give Amir Johnson (17.7 minutes per game) more of Bargnani’s 35.0 minutes per game. Bargnani has always been a defensive liability, and a tired Bargnani is even worse. Amir Johnson had the best net rating on the entire team (124 offensive and 110 defensive,) while Bargnani had a negative net rating (108 offensive and 113 defensive.) Johnson getting increased minutes helps this team both offensively and defensively.

2008 – 2009 Phoenix Suns

NW Sports Beat
NW Sports Beat

The 2008-2009 Phoenix Suns shocked the world by missing the playoffs. How could a team with so many future hall of famers miss the playoffs? The 46-36 2009 Suns had a good record, but it is not even close to what it could have been with a better defense. This could have been another 60 win team like the 2005 and 2007 Suns teams. They had Steve Nash (two-time MVP still in his prime) and a young Goran Dragic (future 20 point per game scorer for 48-34 Phoenix Suns in 2013-2014) at point guard. They had Jason Richardson (16.4 points per game,) Leandro Barbosa (14.2 points per game,) and Raja Bell (9.6 points per game) at shooting guard.

At small forward, they had Grant Hill (former seven time all-star, 12.0 points and 4.9 rebounds per game,) Jared Dudley (5.5 points per game 39.4% three point shooting,) and Matt Barnes (10.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.) At power forward they had Amare Stoudemire (all-star, 21.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game) and Boris Diaw (8.3 points per game.) At center they had Shaquille O’Neal (hall of famer to be, 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game) and Robin Lopez (3.2 points and 2.0 rebounds per game.) The Suns rounded off their bench with Sean Singletary, Dee Brown, Alando Tucker, Lou Amundson, Stromile Swift, and Courtney Sims.

There could very easily be four hall of famers on this team between Nash, Hill, Stoudemire, and O’Neal with a great supporting cast. It is shocking that this team missed the playoffs even in a strong Western Conference that season. This team had the 5th worst defense in the NBA that season in terms of efficiency, which is shocking with great defenders like Raja Bell and Matt Barnes on that team with Shaquille O’Neal protecting the rim.

There are no excuses as to why this team didn’t play defense. This was a team of veterans that all have found great success on other teams (or years.) If any coaching decision would be done to improve their defense, however, they should have played their bench more. The Suns should not have played Amare Stoudemire 36.8 minutes per game with Robin Lopez only getting 10.2 minutes per game. That 10.2 minutes per game also accounts for the increased minutes from Lopez with the injury to Stoudemire that caused him to miss 29 games. This team, no matter how many games Stoudemire missed, still drastically underperformed.

2005 – 2006 Seattle Supersonics

o_mari / 2K Forums
o_mari / 2K Forums

The 2005-2006 Seattle Supersonics had a great offense. It was 3rd in the entire NBA that season. Their defense, however, was dead last. Their defensive rating of 114.4 was the 4th worst mark by any team in a season since the start of the three point era. This team could not play defense to save its life, which it didn’t, as they finished with a 35-47 record to miss the playoffs by a good margin despite having such a good offense.

At point guard, Luke Ridnour and Earl Watson averaged a combined 23 points, 12.4 assists, and 6.0 rebounds. Neither of them were elite by any means, but they ran the team well. At shooting guard, Ray Allen was one of the best players in the entire NBA with 25.1 points per game. Backing him up was the exciting Ronald Murray (9.9 points per game.) At small forward, Rashard Lewis played excellently with 20.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. He was an all-star the previous season. Backing Lewis up was Damien Wilkins (6.5 points per game.)

At power forward, the Supersonics had four solid players in Nick Collison (7.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game,) Vladimir Radmanovic (9.3 points per game and 36.7% from three,) Chris Wilcox (14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game,) and Reggie Evans (5.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.) At center, there was a hole of sorts, and the position was mainly shared by Johan Petro (5.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game) and Robert Swift (6.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.) The bench was rounded out with Mateen Cleaves, Mike Wilks, Rick Brunson, Noel Felix, Mikki Moore, Vitaly Potapenko, and Danny Fortson.

Even without a more developed center and without Chris Wilcox for 53 games, this team still should have been better. This team went 2-13 in games they allowed at least 115 points to be scored by their opponents. Their is no excuse for allowing 115 points to a team, especially when the pace the Sonics played was only 11th fastest in the league. The best moves for this team defensively would have been, after playing with more effort, to get rid of Ronald Murray, and anyone besides Allen and Lewis, for a defensive player. Murray was responsible for NEGATIVE .7 win shares, but his cheap contract and scoring could have been attractive to a team. This team could have been dangerous with some defense.

1995 – 1996 Charlotte Hornets

Dan Worthington / Washington Post

The Charlotte Hornets were for so long associated with defensive toughness when Alonzo Mourning was the leader of this team. When Mourning was traded, however, that defensive edge and identity left Charlotte too. The Hornets fluorished on offense with their new pieces from the trade, but their 5th ranked offense was held back by the 3rd worst defense in the entire NBA.

At point guard, the Hornets had all-star Kenny Anderson (15.2 points and 8.6 assists per game) and an assortment of back-ups. At shooting guard, the Hornets had sharpshooter Dell Curry (14.5 points and 40.4% three point shooting) and Kendall Gill (12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game) before he was traded for Anderson. At small forward the Hornets had all-star Glen Rice (21.6 points per game,) Darrin Hancock (4.3 points per game,) and Scott Burrell (13.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.)

At power forward, the Hornets had two-time all-star Larry Johnson (20.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game.) At center they had Matt Geiger (11.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game) and an aging Robert Parish (3.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.) They rounded off their bench with Anthony Goldwire, Khalid Reeves, Michael Adams, Greg Sutton, Muggsy Bogues, Corey Beck, Pete Myers, Rafael Addison, Gerald Glass, Joe Wolf, George Zidek, and Donald Hodge.

This team should not have missed the playoffs. They were a 50-win trade before the Mourning trade, and that trade wasn’t lopsided in fairness. Anderson, Rice, and Johnson have all been all-stars, and they had a fair supporting cast. To improve defensively, they should have cut down on Rice (39.8 per game) and Johnson’s (40.4 per game) minutes. They also should have pushed the pace. The Hornets only played the 18th fastest pace despite being a perimeter oriented team. Playing to their style of play would have made them more comfortable defensively.

1989 – 1990 Atlanta Hawks

Tim DeFrisco/NBAE/Getty Images
Tim DeFrisco/NBAE/Getty Images

It was weird to see a team that won at least 50 games under the excellent coaching of Mike Fratello the previous four seasons go 41-41 and miss the playoffs in 1990. This team actually improved in offensive rating from the previous season’s 112.2 to 113.0 one in 1990. One would think that with losing Reggie Theus and acquiring Kevin Willis that it would be the defense that improves, but that didn’t happen, and the Hawks missed the playoffs despite having great hall of fame talent.

At point guard, the Hawks had notorious 5’6″ dunker Spud Webb (9.2 points and 5.8 assists per game,) Doc Rivers (12.5 points, 5.5 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game,) and Kenny Smith (7.7 points and 4.3 assists per game.) At shooting guard they had John Battle (10.9 points per game) and John Long (8.4 points per game.) At small forward, the Hawks had hall of famer Dominique Wilkins (26.7 points and 6.5 tebounds per game.)

At power forward, the Hawks had Kevin Willis (12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game,) Cliff Levingston (6.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game,) and Antoine Carr (7.6 points per game.) At center, the Hawks had hall of famer Moses Malone (18.9 points and 10.0 rebounds per game) and Jon Koncak (3.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.) The Hawks rounded out their bench with Sedric Toney, Haywoode Workman, Wes Matthews, Roy Marble, Duane Ferrell, Mike Williams, and Alexander Volkov.

This team should not have finished third to last in defensive efficiency. The ways they could have improved their defense was by holding Wilkins and Malone accountable. They only combined for 3.5 defensive win shares after getting a combined 6.8 in 1988-1989. Then going with a more physically able back-court would have helped. Webb was only 5’6″, and Battle was only 6’2″ at shooting guard. Rivers (6’4″) should’ve been starting over one of them. This could have been another 50 win Hawks team, but no one was held accountable to play good defense.

1981 – 1982 Denver Nuggets

Vin Getz / Sports List of the Day
Vin Getz / Sports List of the Day

The worst culprits of not playing defense equal to offense would be the 1982 Denver Nuggets. This team had a historic offense, they had the number one offense in 1982 and the 14th best offense since the beginning of the three point era, but their defense was even worse than their offense was good. The 1982 Nuggets had the 6th worst defense since the start of the three point era. They did make the playoffs with a 46-36 record, but they could have been the champions had they been coached defensively.

At point guard, the Nuggets had Billy McKinney (10.8 points per game) and Kenny Higgs (7.5 points and 5.2 assists per game.) At shooting guard they had T.R. Dunn (8.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game) and the famous David Thompson (14.9 points per game,) who was Michael Jordan’s favorite player.

Their front court, however, was historic. They had Alex English (25.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game) and Glen Gondrezick (8.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game) at small forward. At power forward, the Nuggets had Kiki Vanedweghe (21.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game) and Cedrick Hodges (6.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.) At center, the Nuggets had Dan Issel (22.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game) and Dave Robisch (12.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.) They rounded out their bench with David Burns, John Roche, and James Ray.

This team could have seriously won it all. Thompson, English, Vandeweghe, and Issel were all established stars. They scored 126.5 points per game! The problems came from letting their opponents score 126.0 per game. I said earlier that Seattle letting their opponents score 115 points in 15 games was unacceptable, well Denver letting their opponents score 126 on average is plain absurdity. The only way to fix a defense that poor is with a serious increase in effort. It was a real shame the world couldn’t see the league’s best offense make it further than the first round of the playoffs.

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