Best vs. Best (9/16/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

With actual NBA games still weeks away, I am left to ponder the universe in between frantically checking and worrying about my fantasy football team. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We've already established that I am not an astronomer, but I am also not a philosopher or physicist. So, we will not be directly answering that question here – though I suspect the Nobel minded amongst us have already cracked that code. What we can do, however, is twist the question and face it in the direction of my limited expertise – what happens when the best NBA offense meets the best NBA defense?

Let's begin by defining what I mean by “best” in this scenario. Instead of using raw points per game, we will again call upon efficiency numbers as the quantifier. At its most elementary level, the best offenses will score the most points on average in a single possession and the best defense will allow the fewest points on average in a single possession. Therefore, we can use the offensive and defensive ratings on to determine the best offensive and defensive team in any given season – O and D ratings are measured on a per 100 possession basis. Yes, the the highest statistically rated team may not actually represent the best due to a myriad of factors – including but not limited to rest, injuries, and trades – but it is best to start as simple as possible. So, we will focus on the efficiency metrics as the barometer for the unstoppable force and the immovable object.

Dating back to the 1983-84 season – the earliest season on with individual game offensive ratings listed – there have been 130 matchups between the highest rated offense and the highest rated defense, including the playoffs, with some exceptions. The 2000-01 season featured a tie for the best rated defense between San Antonio and Phoenix so I included both teams as the best in that season. Also, unsurprisingly, the 72-win 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were the only team to finish as the best offense and defense in the same season. As they could not play themselves – unfortunately cloning technology is lagging – I substituted the number two defense that season because it was the closest to the number one spot. Additionally, due to the shortened season, there was no best matchup in the 1998-99 season. The table below details the top offensive and defensive teams each season including how many times they played that season as well as the average ratings for top teams on each end.

Year Best Offense Offensive Rating Best Defense Defensive Rating Match-ups
2015-16 Warriors 114.5 Spurs 99.0 4
2014-15 Clippers 112.4 Warriors 101.4 4
2013-14 Clippers 112.1 Pacers 99.3 2
2012-13 Thunder 112.4 Pacers 99.8 2
2011-12 Spurs 110.9 Celtics 98.2 1
2010-11 Nuggets 112.3 Celtics 100.3 2
2009-10 Suns 115.3 Bobcats 102.8 2
2008-09 Trail Blazers 113.9 Magic 101.9 2
2007-08 Jazz 113.8 Celtics 98.9 2
2006-07 Suns 113.9 Bulls 99.6 2
2005-06 Mavericks 111.8 Spurs 99.6 11
2004-05 Suns 114.5 Spurs 98.8 8
2003-04 Mavericks 112.1 Spurs 94.1 4
2002-03 Mavericks 110.7 Nets 98.1 2
2001-02 Mavericks 112.2 Nets 99.5 2
2000-01 Bucks 108.8 Suns* 98.0 2
Spurs* 98.0 2
1999-00 Pacers 108.5 Lakers 98.2 8
1997-98 Jazz 112.7 Cavaliers 99.1 2
1996-97 Bulls 114.4 Heat 100.6 9
1995-96 Bulls 115.2 Sonics** 102.1 8
1994-95 Magic 115.1 Knicks 103.8 5
1993-94 Suns 111.7 Knicks 98.2 2
1992-93 Suns 113.3 Knicks 99.7 2
1991-92 Bulls 115.5 Spurs 104.1 2
1990-91 Bulls 114.6 Spurs 103.3 2
1989-90 Lakers 114.0 Rockets 103.4 7
1988-89 Lakers 113.8 Jazz 101.5 4
1987-88 Celtics 115.4 Jazz 103.1 2
1986-87 Lakers 115.6 Jazz 103.7 5
1985-86 Lakers 113.3 Celtics 102.6 2
1984-85 Lakers 114.1 Jazz 103.4 5
1983-84 Pistons 111.5 Knicks 103.1 11
Average 113.1 100.8
*Tie for best defensive rating
**Bulls finished best in defensive and offensive rating, so I chose #2 defense in their place

As it turns out, Mark Jackson might be on to something, great offense beats great defense. In this, albeit limited, sample of games between the juggernauts on each end of the floor, the offense held more weight. Looking at the offensive rating for the top offense – which corresponds to the defensive rating of the top defense – in each of these matchups, the average efficiency was 109.0 points per 100 possessions. For example, in their first matchup this past season, the Warriors offense had a 116.1 rating, which meant the Spurs had a 116.1 defensive rating. The 109.0 number clearly sits closer to the average offensive rating in the table above. If we break the range between the average top offense and top defense – 113.1 to 100.8 – into thirds, then 109.0 sits approximately one-third away from the top offense and two-thirds from the top defense.

It is worth considering that there is a lot of variance from game to game and teams do not just perform at their average every game. Factors like injuries, days of rest, and luck play a role in swinging a team's performance in any one game. To put the variance in perspective, the historically-great Spurs defense had defensive ratings ranging from 73.4 to 134 in individual games this past season. In an effort to mitigate single game variances on both sides of the ball I tried to include as many games as possible. This meant including playoff games, which, while the ultimate proving ground for these types of best versus best challenges, may not be comparable with regular season games given the dramatic differences in preparation and rest. With that in mind, we can say with a sliver of confidence it is indeed the unstoppable force, the best offense, which comes out on top.