Can the NBA Elite Still Win with Defense?

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterNovember 8, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 6: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reaches for a rebound during the NBA basketball game on November 6, 2012 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Shane Bevel/Getty Images)
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The "space and pace" ethos has conquered the NBA, as teams seek out floor-spacers to turbo charge their offenses. "Defense wins championships" is the adage, but elite teams are becoming defined by their offense.

Meanwhile, Chicago soldiers on as the best defensive team of the last three years. The Bulls were ranked No. 1 in regular-season defensive efficiency in 2010-11, as well as in 2011-12. This year, so far, the Rose-les Bulls are ranked first right out of the gate.

Tom Thibodeau's team will play top D, but it won't always be taken seriously as a contender. The Bulls had their backers in the 2011 playoffs. Then, they had fewer backers in 2012. Now, even with Rose, many question whether such a one-dimensional team can win it all. 

Of the top five defensive teams last season (Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Miami), only Miami could have credibly have been considered a contender (There are Celtics fans who disagree, but no, testing Miami's limits in Bosh's absence does not make a contender, at least to me). 

Of course, Miami did win the title, but the direction it chose to go in during the offseason is quite interesting. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were brought into the fold and defensive ace Joel Anthony was relegated to bench duties. It would seem that three pointers and the spacing that comes with that are preeminent for last year's title winner. 

Out West, offense is king. The San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder were considered equivalent title threats to Miami last season, and these teams were ninth and 11th in defensive efficiency, respectively. On offense, the Spurs and Thunder paced the league with San Antonio ranking first and Oklahoma City ranking second. 

The San Antonio offense is all the more striking because this used to be a grind-it-out defensive squad. The mid-2000s Spurs bored the masses with their rugged post play, and sticky defense, keyed by Bruce Bowen. But, perhaps sensing change in the form of the NBA's eradication of hand-checking, Gregg Popovich fashioned the quick, beautiful "motion weak" offense to power the Spurs towards more three pointers and easy layups. 

This year, there isn't much reason to believe that San Antonio and Oklahoma City have made great strides defensively. The young Kawhi Leonard could help San Antonio get there, and the same goes for Serge Ibaka and the Thunder. But for now, the Western Conference's top teams are offense-oriented. 

Of course, I'm leaving out one particular Western Conference contender, though it hasn't looked the part of late. The Lakers added Dwight Howard, after notching a mere 14th rank in defensive efficiency last season. Los Angeles is something of a throw back with its big, lumbering frontcourt and lack of three-point shooting. At present, it is difficult to know what they are, or how they plan on approaching a title run. 

In the end, defense is an important component of any contending team—it just might not be as all important as it was in the past. The Finals winner flaunted a top-two defense in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Then, the rules changed, and Dwyane Wade marched to the line and championship victory for the defensively lackluster Miami Heat. 

Order was later restored when defensive stalwarts San Antonio and Boston claimed the next two titles, followed by a Los Angeles team that was passable defensively, claiming the next two. Then, Dallas won the title with a sixth-ranked D, and Miami won it with the fifth.

We're not exactly in a "defense optional" revolution, but the main contenders are offense-oriented at present. Until a team can mix Thibodeau's defensive prowess with a fluid "pace and space" offense, it would seem that the best teams are more formidable on the fun side of the floor. Can an elite defense win the title? Sure, it just seems that the very best defensive teams aren't well positioned to do it—Miami excepted.