Is roster continuity the key to team defensive success in the NBA?
By JAKE FISCHER
College Contributor Network
At 32-13, the Portland Trailblazers own the third-most wins in the entire NBA. Terry Stotts' team is still an offensive powerhouse, ranking 10th in offensive efficiency and boasting the sixth-best three-point percentage.
Portland's ascension to the upper-echelon of the league comes as the Blazers have drastically improved defensively, though. Last season, the Trailblazers finished 16th in defensive efficiency. Through 45 games this season, they've jumped up to fourth.
"You cover for each other on defense just as much as you help each other on offense, and familiarity helps you know where everybody's going to be," Wes Matthews told Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry. "I've been playing with Nic [Batum] for so long that I know when he's going to go take a stab at a ball, and he knows when I'm gonna take a stab at it."
Goldsberry goes on to hypothesize that newly constructed teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled defensively for lacking a chemistry Portland has. LeBron James and company rank 26th in defensive efficiency.
Matthews' comments make sense: the more time any human being spends around another, the better people understand and know one another.
Upon further investigation, familiar teammates do foster better defensive teams.
Golden State ranks first in defensive rating, limiting opponents to a stingy 96.9 points per 100 possessions. Eight of the Warriors' 10 players that play the most minutes were in Golden State last season. In Milwaukee, the second-best defensive team, eight of the Bucks' top 11 minute recipients are holdovers from a year ago.
Nine of Atlanta's (third-best) top 10 in minutes are from last year's team that took Indiana to seven games. The Blazers? Thirteen of their 15 players were in Portland last season. The Spurs (sixth-best) returned 14 players from their title team, only adding first-round pick Kyle Anderson and recently JaMychal Green on a 10-day contract. The Wizards (seventh-best) have nine of their top 12 in minutes returned for another year with Randy Wittman. And Oklahoma City (eighth-best) boasts eight of its top 10 in minutes as returners.
Houston (fifth-best) is the only team that ranks in the top 10 defensively whose rotation isn't comprised of mostly players from its 2013-14 team. Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverly still set the tone for the Rockets defensively, but Kevin McHale's rotation is back loaded with players like Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, and Kostas Papanikolaou that are newcomers to H-Town.
The worst defensive teams all aid the argument as well.
The Minnesota Timberwolves rank last in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Only seven of the Wolves' 15 players were on the team last season, and two of them, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio, have missed significant time due to injury.
The Lakers and Knicks then rank 29th and 28th in defensive efficiency, respectively. While these storied franchises are the two highest valued organizations according to Forbes, they have both undergone drastic roster transformations from a year ago, surrounding aging, highly paid wing scorers with many lower-level players.
Roster continuity could very well be the key towards building a top NBA defense. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues throughout the remainder of the season.
Jake Fischer is a junior at Northeastern University. He covers the NBA for SLAM Magazine and SB Nation, writes for the Boston Globe and lives and dies with the Philadelphia 76ers. Follow him on Twitter: @JakeLFischer