The NBA has created rules to support a flashy offense-based brand of basketball. This was primarily done to improve viewership and overall enjoyability. However, most of the teams that have excelled in the NBA Finals and clinched the championship have all done so because of their superior defense.
It is easy to forget the importance of a solid defensive unit until a championship is on the line. Although injuries played a role, the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets team is a perfect example of a team that failed to make a deep run in the NBA playoffs due to an over-reliance on their offense. Concurrently, the superior Milwaukee Bucks defense made the difference in the 2021 NBA Finals, where both teams were firing on all cylinders offensively.
While we reinforce the importance of defense, it is not to disregard or trivialize the need for great offense. The LeBron James-led LA Lakers suffered a great deal after losing their two superstars to injury. They were knocked out in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs due to offensive inefficiencies but finished the season as the No. 1 ranked team in defensive rating.
As we anticipate another defensive masterclass in the 2021-22 season, here are the top five best defensive teams in NBA history.
#5 1989-90 Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons have had several eras with different defensive set-ups in the NBA. However, the Bad Boy era, which ran from 1986-1991, was the most dominant defensively. With players like Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman on the roster, they practically bullied their way to championships.
Rodman was a crucial part of the lineup as his energy was infectious. With him as a starter, the Pistons went on a 33-10 run. However, they went 26-13 when he came off the bench.
The Detroit Pistons were the sole reason Michael Jordan did not win a championship early in his career. In the 1989-90 NBA season, they completed a back-to-back after defeating the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1 in the finals.
#4 1993-94 New York Knicks
Pat Riley had a successful run as the LA Lakers head coach, winning four NBA titles in his nine years as head coach. While the Lakers were flashy, he took over the reins at the New York Knicks in 1991 and turned them into defensive maestros.
Not only did the Knicks' roster look tough, but they had an innate understanding of the game. That season, they allowed only 91.5 points per game and finished second in the Eastern Conference with a 57-25 run. Added to that, they made 4.7 blocks and 9.2 steals per game.
The Houston Rockets put a dent in their near-perfect season by defeating them 4-3 in the NBA Finals. Although they did not clinch the title, they put together an intimidating defensive front all season long.
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#3 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs
Although the San Antonio Spurs' 2003-04 team failed to compete for the NBA championship, they remain the best defensive team in the franchise's history. While Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs to several impressive defensive outings, none tops what they achieved in the 2003-04 season.
The San Antonio Spurs were looking for a second consecutive NBA title and did well enough, even without David Robinson. They allowed only 84.3 points, had 6.5 blocks, and 8.1 assists per game. As impressive as that sounds, they had no answer for Derek Fisher's 0.4 seconds shot to complete an LA Lakers 0-2 series comeback in the Western Conference semi-finals.
#2 2007-08 Boston Celtics
The 2007-08 season was the year the Boston Celtics won their 17th NBA championship, all thanks to the efforts of Kevin Garnett on defense. Garnett was brought in alongside three-point specialist Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo in Beantown.
From the jump, it was evident that the C's were more interested in beefing up their defense as the team was loaded with stellar All-Defensive players, past and future.
Garnet was off to a flying start in his first season as he helped the Celtics to a 66-16 run, earning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award for his contributions.
The Boston Celtics successfully limited their opponents to 90.3 points per game while averaging 4.6 blocks and 8.5 steals. Following an impressive playoff run, they thrashed the LA Lakers 4-2 in the NBA Finals.
#1 2003-04 Detroit Pistons
Rasheed Wallace was the final piece that took a defensive Detroit Pistons team to elite status. His partnership with Ben Wallace was seamless, leading to one of the best defensive set-ups in NBA history.
The Detroit Pistons went on an incredible five-game run late in the season, limiting their opponents to under 70 points. For the entire 2003-04 NBA season, they allowed 84.3 points per game.
If the Spurs had overcome the Lakers and reached the finals, it would have been a battle between two elite defenses.
Regardless, the Pistons averaged seven blocks and eight steals per game in the regular season. They also registered a record-breaking 19 blocks against the Indiana Pacers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Lakers did not stand a chance in the NBA Finals as the Pistons clinched their third franchise championship in five games.