Tuesday November 18th, 2014

Good defense starts inside. That basketball truism surely predates the NBA, but it remains a strong guiding principle today, even as offenses stretch out more and more every year.

Over the last few seasons, “rim protection” has evolved from buzzword to full-on, league-wide fetish -- and for good reason. In 2013-14, nine of the NBA’s top-10 defenses also ranked in the top 10 in opponent field goal percentage within five feet. Conversely, seven of the 10 worst defenses finished in the bottom 10 in defending the basket area. 

Teams that were capable of protecting the basket area were also among the league’s top performers overall. Nine of the NBA’s top-10 rim-protecting teams advanced to the playoffs. Meanwhile, eight of the NBA’s bottom-10 rim-protecting teams went to the lottery. Yes, hole-in-the-middle Dallas gave San Antonio a scare in the first round and Miami’s star trio mostly covered up its middling interior defense, but those were notable exceptions. Three conference finalists -- Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio -- ranked among the league’s top-seven teams in protecting the rim. 

Last season also served as an excellent reminder that a significant change to a team’s interior defense personnel -- something as simple as losing a center via trade, free agency or to injury -- can radically alter its capabilities. The eight teams that regressed the most defensively in 2013-14 all endured major defections on the inside.

Here’s a quick rundown of those teams, including their drop in defensive rating from 2012-13 to 2013-14 and their major personnel losses.

  1. Bucks (-6.6): Larry Sanders injured/suspended/briefly left earth to pursue career as space cadet.
  2. Jazz (-.4.8): Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap departed in free agency.
  3. Celtics (-4.8): Kevin Garnett was traded.
  4. Grizzlies (-4.7): Marc Gasol missed significant time with knee injury.
  5. 76ers (-4.5): Nerlens Noel missed season with knee injury; Spencer Hawes traded in midseason amid tanking fire sale.
  6. Lakers (-4.3): Dwight Howard left in free agency.
  7. Nuggets (-3.4): Kosta Koufos was traded; JaVale McGee missed significant time with injuries.
  8. Knicks (-3.0): Tyson Chandler missed significant time with injuries.

Now, predicting which teams will show the most defensive improvement in 2014-15 isn’t as easy as highlighting which teams have added (or regained) impact centers … but the early-season data suggest that’s a very good place to start.

Here’s a look at the NBA’s five most improved defenses through 10 games or so, including their jump in defensive rating in 2014-15 compared with 2013-14.

(Note: All numbers are through Nov. 17 and courtesy of NBA.com.)

  1. Bucks (+14.2)
  2. Rockets (+8.8)
  3. Grizzlies (+5.1)
  4. Warriors (+4.4)
  5. Blazers (+4.1)

As always, small sample-size disclaimers apply this early. Less than one month of hoops just isn’t enough time for everyone to play everyone, so even top-down, all-encompassing barometers like offensive and defensive efficiency won’t settle for quite some time. Nevertheless, these fast starters are worth exploring. Let's take a look at the most improved defenses in the league (and one other unit that bears watching).

Milwaukee Bucks (5-5)

2014 defense: No. 29 | 2015 defense: No. 2

The NBA’s most improved defense has benefited from the schedule: The Bucks have defeated the lowly Sixers, the injury-ravaged Pacers and Thunder, and the Dwyane Wade-less Heat. That leaves one quality win, against the Grizzlies, which came at home and went down to the wire.

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Even though the young Bucks aren’t likely to maintain a .500 record, there’s plenty of cause for big-picture cheer. Last season, largely because of Larry Sanders’ never-ending string of issues, Milwaukee's defense declined the most in the league. The exact opposite has happened in coach Jason Kidd's first season, with Milwaukee improving from second worst to second best. A similar, gigantic leap helped propel the Bobcats (now Hornets) into the 2014 playoffs. The same result for the Bucks is asking a lot for a roster that needs to devote major minutes to developing Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, among others, but even dreaming of the postseason seemed far-fetched in September.

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The turnaround starts with the resuscitation of Sanders, who is quietly making a defensive impace again -- even if everyone was too busy chuckling at his shoot-at-the-wrong-hoop blunder to really notice. In 2012-13, when he averaged 2.8 blocks and earned a four-year, $44 million rookie extension, Sanders posted an on-court defensive rating of 98.8 (compared with an off-court rating of 105.6). His on-court defensive rating this season is a sparkling 91.6 (compared with an off-court rating of 97.4), as he’s averaging nearly two blocks in 22.4 minutes. The continued development of the long-armed John Henson and the return of Zaza Pachulia (who missed roughly half of last season due to injury) have given Kidd a nice base inside.

Milwaukee ranks third in opponent field goal percentage at the rim. That standing will almost certainly fall as the competition improves, but an engaged Sanders -- seen below, starting a fast break by doing the unteachable -- should continue to make this group so much more intriguing than last year’s train wreck.   

Houston Rockets (9-2)

2014 defense: No. 12 | 2015 defense: No. 1

Much like Milwaukee, there’s no doubt that Houston’s defensive ranking is heavily influenced by its schedule. Already, the Rockets have enjoyed games against the Sixers (twice), Lakers, Celtics, depleted Thunder (who managed only 65 points Sunday) and a Spurs team that rested Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

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Tougher roads are coming, but Houston's early returns are promising after the departure of three major-minute players (Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin) and a host of new additions (including Trevor Ariza, Kostas Papanikolaou and Jason Terry). 

After a 2013-14 season spent winning with elite offense and a postseason spent losing to Portland due to defensive matchup problems and breakdowns, Houston general manager Daryl Morey has preached the importance of winning with defense. And why not? All-Star center Dwight Howard is off to a strong start, averaging 2.6 blocks while covering ground inside and elevating quicker than he has since leaving Orlando. His on-court defensive rating of 90 (compared with 101.6 off-court) reflects the type of dominance Howard showed in Mexico City, when he memorably swatted a driving shot by No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.

A healthy Howard has captained premier defenses on a number of occasions, and he should expect to get some quality help from Patrick Beverley and Ariza. Finishing in the top 10 defensively is a reasonable, achievable goal for the Rockets despite their roster changes and limited length inside (besides Howard).

Memphis Grizzlies (10-1)

2014 defense: No. 8 | 2015 defense: No. 5

The Grizzlies are an NBA-best 10-1, and their dominant win over the Rockets on Monday makes them a real candidate for “league’s most impressive start.”

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This is really a return to normalcy more than anything else. The loss of 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol for 23 games was a game-changer last season. Although Memphis valiantly rallied to make the playoffs and finish with a top-10 defense, it was unable to replicate its '13 conference finals trip that was powered by the No. 2 defense. All of the major pieces -- Gasol, volume rebounder Zach Randolph, All-Defensive guards Mike Conley and Tony Allen -- are now back in place and playing heavy minutes. Surprise, surprise: Their collective defensive performance (97 defensive rating) is nearly identical to their '12-13 numbers (97.4).

Memphis should expect the world from itself defensively this season. A full year of a Gasol/Randolph/Kosta Koufos big man rotation is an imposing matchup nightmare for most rivals. Plus, the arrivals of Courtney Lee (acquired by trade last season) and Vince Carter (signed over the summer) and the return of Quincy Pondexter (injured last season) have de-emphasized the aging Tayshaun Prince, giving coach Dave Joerger more athleticism and versatility. The Grizzlies have the defensive talent, depth and experience to consistently impose their will and style on opponents.

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Golden State Warriors (8-2)

2014 defense: No. 3 | 2015 defense: No. 3

Although Golden State’s defensive efficiency is more than four points better than it was last season, its fortunes haven’t changed all that dramatically. Why? Because the Warriors are the only one of the top-six improving defenses to have played at an elite level last season, and the most important pieces (Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson) are all back.

First-year coach Steve Kerr’s mission could be boiled down simply: Improve the underperforming offense without screwing up the West’s top returning defense. That’s exactly what’s happened. Golden State has already tallied impressive victories over the Blazers, Clippers, Rockets and Nets, along with blowout victories over the Kings, Hornets and Lakers (twice). Bogut is the straw that stirs the Warriors' drink on defense: His on-court defensive rating (92.9) isn’t too far behind Howard’s, and he has Golden State among the five best rim-protecting squads.

Some lineup juggling is in store to accommodate the return of David Lee, but Kerr approaches that conundrum from a position of strength. Lineups that include Stephen Curry, Thompson, Green and Bogut are smashing the competition, regardless of whether the developing Harrison Barnes or Iguodala fills out the quintet. Kerr can therefore enjoy the luxury of working in the offense-first Lee gradually. Even better, Lee can potentially serve as a go-to scoring option off the bench, surrounded by the defensive-minded Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.  

A healthy Golden State team, balanced on both sides of the ball, has the potential to do major damage in the postseason. Kudos to Warriors management for methodically building a quality roster around Curry. 

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (8-3)

2014 defense: No. 16 | 2015 defense: No. 10

The Blazers did well defending the basket area and the three-point line last season, but those successes came with the strategic compromise of conceding lots of open mid-range looks. As the season wore on, Portland’s defense proved solvable to opponents, in part because the Blazers’ decrepit bench placed an undue burden on a well-balanced starting five.

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That well-told story is being rewritten. For one, Portland’s starters are carrying a lighter load thanks to the offseason additions of center Chris Kaman and point guard Steve Blake and regular minutes for second-year guard CJ McCollum. For two, Portland’s bench has more than held its own during its expanded time.

Kaman, a 32-year-old 7-footer, has been key. Known primarily as an offensive player with nifty footwork and reliable mid-range shooting, Kaman has proved to be a vast upgrade defensively over last year’s backup center options, which included the undersized Joel Freeland and the raw Meyers Leonard. Now, coach Terry Stotts is free to keep two traditional big men on the court whenever he wants, as Freeland can slide to the four spot, Leonard can be used more as a stretch option and Thomas Robinson can be saved for situations that require a jolt of energy.

All that height, and continued progress from Lopez, has Portland ranked No. 1 in opponent field goal percentage within five feet. The Blazers’ team defense appears to reflect a newfound trust factor in its bigs: Fewer concessions are being made, even though Stotts has had to juggle lineups with the recent absences of small forward Nicolas Batum and All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Although Portland, like Houston, will still win first and foremost with its well-oiled offensive attack, the defense is finally approaching the point where blue-chip title contenders will need to take it seriously. The Blazers are on track to be a major player in the loaded West all season, even if their record (8-3) is padded slightly by a home-heavy schedule.

*** 

New Orleans Pelicans (5-4)

2014 defense: No. 25 | 2015 defense: No. 16

Another team to keep an eye on outside the five most improved defenses is New Orleans. Defensive progress was anticipated, given that: 1) the departure of Lopez and a host of other injuries ravaged last year's interior rotation, 2) GM Dell Demps traded a first-round pick for defense-first center Omer Asik, and 3) all-world big man Anthony Davis was set to enter his third season stronger and brimming confidence thanks to a solid FIBA World Cup showing.

Indeed, significant defensive progress has been made, and it's fair to expect even more. The Davis/Asik pairing is producing a stellar +8.9 net rating (105.3 offensive rating, 96.5 defensive rating). Asik was an awkward fit alongside Howard in Houston last season because the presence of two traditional 7-footers compromised the Rockets’ spacing and balance. That problem doesn’t really exist in New Orleans, where Davis has expanded his shooting range and is comfortable attacking the basket from the elbow or diving on high screen-and-rolls.

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Davis’ ability to seamlessly play both the four (with Asik) and five (alongside stretch forward Ryan Anderson) has allowed coach Monty Williams to play reserve centers Alexis Ajinca and Jeff Withey sparingly in favor of smaller lineups that include additional scoring options. The Pelicans’ shot distribution isn’t quite right -- Davis is ready for even more opportunities -- but the general approach is fairly sensible. The Pelicans’ defensive numbers likely undersell their ability because they have already faced the NBA’s top three offenses -- Dallas, Cleveland and Portland -- and drawn San Antonio with the Big Three in the lineup.

The biggest early takeaway of the season is just how quickly Davis has begun to meet his insanely high expectations. So far, the 21-year-old is building a case as the NBA’s MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. His Player Efficiency Rating of 37.1 is nearly nine points above anyone else's and his stat line (25.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 4.0 blocks, 2.3 steals) is cause for constant double takes.

Tying this back to rim protecting one final time, Davis has become the type of defender some opponents prefer to avoid rather than challenge, a la Roy Hibbert or Serge Ibaka. On any given night, Davis can be seen blocking, altering, challenging and dissuading shots anywhere from the rim to the three-point line, thanks to his wingspan, timing, instincts and willingness to use both arms. Those abilities led to nine blocks on opening night against the Magic. On Monday against the Blazers, he swatted two shots in two seconds (check the 1:34 mark of the video below).

With Davis playing at such a high level and the defense no longer abysmal, New Orleans would do well to approach the rest of this season with a playoffs-or-bust outlook. 

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