HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — “Defense wins championships” may feel like a cliché, but there’s a lot of truth to it.
Of the 24 teams to make The Finals over the last 12 years, 23 ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency during the regular season, and the 24th – the 2006 Dallas Mavericks – ranked 11th. Over the same span, six teams that ranked 13th or lower in offensive efficiency made The Finals.
The San Antonio Spurs improved from 11th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to third last season, a big reason why they came just a few seconds from their fifth championship. The Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies got themselves into the conference finals with the two best defenses in the league.
The Brooklyn Nets? They weren’t getting anywhere close to The Finals with the league’s 19th best D. In fact, they couldn’t get to the conference semis because they played some of the most atrocious defense you’ll ever see and allowed the injury-depleted Bulls to score 62 points in the first half of Game 7 of the first round.
Since the Nets had no way of getting Dwight Howard or Andre Iguodala this summer, about the best thing they could do was add Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko. At this point, Paul Pierce is almost an after-thought acquisition because of how important KG and AK-47 will be.
Garnett is the best defender of the last decade. In fact, of the 275 players who have logged at least 5,000 minutes over the last six seasons, none has had a lower on-court DefRtg than Garnett. Over his six years in Boston, the Celtics allowed just 96.0 points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the floor and 101.4 with him on the bench.
Lowest on-court DefRtg, last six seasons
Minimum 5,000 minutes played
OffRtg = Team points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Team points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Team point differential per 100 possessions
(Curious who’s at the bottom of this list? The answer: Charlie Villanueva (109.8), Andrea Bargnani (109.5) and Ryan Gomes (109.2).)
Of course, though Garnett continued to have a big defensive impact last season, he is now 37 years old and limited to 30 minutes per game, maybe less. That’s why landing Kirilenko with their tax payer’s mid-level exception on Thursday was so huge for Brooklyn.
(By the way, the MLE only became available when the Nets couldn’t reach a buyout agreement with Bojan Bogdanovic – whom they drafted in 2011 – and his Turkish team. Whoever that GM is in Turkey, he shouldn’t ever have to buy a drink in Park Slope or Fort Greene.)
Kirilenko doesn’t have nearly the same on-court numbers as Garnett (his teams have allowed 103.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court over the last six years), because the Jazz were more of a middle-of-the-pack defensive team while he was there and last year’s Timberwolves were same. But both were better defensively with Kirilenko on the floor. He has all the tools – length, athleticism and instincts – of a great defender.
Plus, the Nets have added a great defender for when Garnett rests. In fact, if Kirilenko plays the same 32 minutes per game that he played last year, he can spell both KG and Pierce at the two forward spots and the Nets won’t have to rely on Reggie Evans nearly as much as they did last season.
Even if Pierce or Garnett are out with an injury, the Nets have fill-in starters in Kirilenko and Evans. Joe Johnson is able to slide over the the three, Mason Plumlee is a rookie who looks ready to contribute and Mirza Teletovic as a stretch four. Though Kirilenko will take some of his minutes, Teletovic’s ability to recover from a rough rookie season and spread the floor will still be important.
When the Nets committed $313 million to Deron Williams, Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez a year ago, many of us thought they were locked into that group for years to come. But we should have never underestimated the power of owner Mikhail Prokhorov‘s deep pockets. They’ve managed to add Pierce, Garnett, Kirilenko and Jason Terry, while retaining Andray Blatche, who gave them big production off the bench last season. Luxury tax be damned, this is the best top eight in the league.
Blatche, of course, is mostly getting paid by the Wizards. But while Kirilenko is a bargain at $3.1 million per year, he’s really costing the Nets upwards of $15 million when you factor in the additional luxury tax they will have to pay.
So Prokhorov is clearly all-in for a championship in the next two seasons. You never know what’s going to happen over the next 11 months, but Prokhorov and GM Billy King have done everything they can to put their team into position to compete for a championship. And it starts with what should be a much improved defense.