Predicting NBA’s Defensive Hierarchy in 2019-20

Offense will always be king of the NBA. It creates superstars, packs arenas and boosts television ratings. There’s something captivating about how the sport’s top-scoring wizards make plays and create shots.

Thus, it’s exceptionally difficult to play defense at a high-level thanks to the abundance of offensive talent and game rules that cater to scorers. In any given season, only a small handful of teams can typically stop opponents consistently. And those clubs are often the ones who survive deep into the playoffs.

Entering the 2019-20 campaign, several new-look rosters will try to out-duel some of the league’s more familiar contenders. But the NBA’s power rankings and playoff results will hinge largely on who can develop defensive chemistry and fight the league’s offensive trends. Who will get stops?

I broke down the top tier of the league and identified who will emerge as the five best defensive teams next season. Defensive rating projections are based on personnel, coaching strategy and who I believe will stay engaged on that end.

Defensive Rating and other Advanced Stats gathered from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

5. TORONTO RAPTORS

2018-19 Defensive Rating: 107.1, 5th in NBA

2019-20 Defensive Rating Projection: 108.0, 5th

There were a few worthy candidates for the No. 5 defensive ranking, including the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. But I trust The North a little more.

Losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on defense would absolutely cripple most teams. And it certainly won’t be a cinch for Nick Nurse’s club to excel without them, especially in the postseason. However, the defending champs are still stocked with dependable, experienced guardians who will keep them near the league’s upper echelon, at least in the regular season.

The Raptors still have Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol as a strong first layer. OG Anunoby is entering his third year and probably hasn’t reached his enormous potential yet. And other role players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Stanley Johnson should all provide adequate bursts.

Guarding the three-point line might be trickier without Leonard and Green. But communication will keep Toronto well-protected. Most of the Raptors’ veterans take pride in defense, and they’re vocal leaders who coordinate rotations smoothly.

Toronto checked opponents pretty well when Leonard was off the floor last season. In fact, they had a better defensive rating when he sat (106.6) compared to when he was on the court (109.0). I’m not saying they can sustain that for 82 games, but the post-Klaw Raps will do more than just hold their own thanks to chemistry, personnel and familiarity with an effective scheme.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

Jan 16, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) battles for the ball with LA Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) and guard Patrick Beverley (21) in the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Defensive Rating: 111.5, 21st in NBA

2019-20 Defensive Rating Projection: 107.9, 4th

Doc Rivers’ 2018-19 Clippers had the worst regular-season defensive rating among the 16 playoff teams, but we’re banking on them making a significant leap on that end due to their acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Even if George is out for a few weeks while recovering from his shoulder injury, L.A. will be a dangerous defensive unit by midseason.

It’s not just about their combined talent level improving a club that already has competitors like Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. It’s about the Klaw and PG-13 serving as interchangeable defensive weapons.

They’re both at that sweet spot in their careers where they have sharpened their defensive craft and are still young enough to each unleash athletic carnage for 70 games per year. (Factoring in off nights and “load management” still typically allows for one of the two to still be on, giving the Clippers a luxury of overlapping defensive weapons.) L.A. held opponents to 34.3 percent from three-point range last year (5th in NBA), so I’d anticipate similar or improved results with the new duo plugged in. 

When Rivers has top-end defensive talent at his disposal, he usually makes the most of it. His Clippers teams have been in the middle tier lately, but this influx of wing stoppers gives Doc a chance to flex the defensive chops that have been mothballed since his Boston Celtics days (and beginning of the Clippers stint) a decade ago.

Los Angeles doesn’t have elite shot-blockers, so they’ll give up some interior buckets when the perimeter gambles don’t pay off. However, the three-headed monster of Leonard, George and Beverley won’t let opponents get into a rhythm much at all.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

Mar 20, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots while falling past Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Defensive Rating: 110.0, 15th in NBA

2019-20 Defensive Rating Projection: 107.5, 3rd

Even after losing Jimmy Butler this offseason, the Sixers might actually improve defensively in 2019-20. Five-time All-Star and frontcourt savant Al Horford is in the fold to back up Joel Embiid. Backcourt stopper Josh Richardson from the Miami Heat is another talented acquisition, along with rookie stopper specialist Matisse Thybulle. And hopefully, Philly will get a full, healthy season from defensive prospect Zhaire Smith, who played just six games for Philly in 2018-19.

These additions afford Brett Brown some depth and lineup flexibility. He can push the starting unit—which includes elite rim protector Joel Embiid and three-position defender Ben Simmons—because he knows he can give them a breather with quality relievers. The departure of an aging J.J. Redick could also be addition by subtraction defensively.

Philly’s defense is unique compared to other teams because it presents so much size without sacrificing much agility at all.

It has 13 players with a wingspan 6’10” or greater, including eight players with at least a 7’0” wingspan. Simmons’ defensive foot speed and hands continue to be underrated talents, and Philly is armed to clean up the defensive boards once again. They were third in the league last season with 36.1 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions. 

2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS

2018-19 Defensive Rating: 105.2, 1st in NBA

2019-20 Defensive Rating Projection: 106.2, 2nd

Last year’s regular-season champs are running back a nearly identical roster in 2019-20. The talent and continuity should make for another successful year defensively. Milwaukee’s combination of size and effort on that can be downright suffocating at times.

Last season, the Bucks were committed to walling off the middle and keeping slashers out of the paint. They held opponents to a league-low 47.9 percent on two-point field goals and a league-low 40.6 points in the paint per 100 possessions (per NBA.com). Only one other team in the league held foes below 50 percent on two-pointers (Utah, 49.6).

Giannis Antetokounmpo gets much of the defensive kudos, and deservedly so. His length and disruptive energy often single-handedly ruin opponents’ well-executed plays.

However, Eric Bledsoe is often the engine behind Milwaukee’s security drive. When he’s engaged (which is most of the time), he delivers the total package. His agility and strength complement his tremendous instincts and quick hands, and he’s great at fighting through screens and sticking with drivers. Few players have his combination of strength, lateral nimbleness and alertness.

Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe will lead a defensive-minded rotation that’s similar to last year’s. Notable newcomers Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver are all dependable veterans who will assimilate to the game plan, while Khris Middleton, George Hill and Brook Lopez have all been positives within the scheme.

Expect Milwaukee to post some of the league’s best defensive numbers once again.

1. Utah Jazz

Mar 29, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) shoots the ball against Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Defensive Rating: 105.7, 2nd in NBA

2019-20 Defensive Rating Projection: 106.0, 1st

As long as Rudy Gobert is patrolling the paint, the Jazz will have formidable security. Even when Utah isn’t executing its rotations perfectly, the Stifle Tower’s enormous reach often compensates by deterring drivers and altering countless shots.

No one should ever take his range for granted: His knack for showing as a help defender and recovering to his man remains unmatched. It’s part of the reason why he was in the NBA’s top five in defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus during each of the past five seasons.

But exactly how good will Quin Snyder’s roster be on that end in 2019-20? Even Gobert needs a bit of help, and the team’s defensive ceiling will depend on how consistent his supporting cast is.

Utah’s rotation underwent key changes this summer: Gone are notable pieces like Jae Crowder, Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio in favor of Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis. Bogdanovic is a below-average stopper, but Conley and Davis are positives. Davis was one of Brooklyn’s best defenders last season, and Conley will bring the same steady perimeter positioning and timing we’ve seen throughout his career.

The retooled lineup may suffer early growing pains while acclimating to each other, but Utah will rise toward the top of the defensive food chain. Not only is Gobert a special specimen, but Snyder fosters a commitment to challenging opponents and preventing easy buckets.

His teams do a good job stifling mediocre ball movement, tempting opponents to try to beat them off the dribble. Expect them to post another terrific defensive rating in 2019-20 even if they have to build toward it all season.

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