NBA defensive rankings: Thibs’ Knicks rise, Heat still warming up

By Matt Fitzgerald
Feb 7, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks speaks with Julius Randle #30 during the game against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden on February 07, 2021 in New York City. Mandatory Credit: Mike Stobe/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

NBA defensive rankings: Modern pro basketball features tons of up-and-down action, numerous possessions and tons of scoring, so it’s worth looking into how every team stacks up in Sportsnaut’s NBA defensive rankings.

Throughout the 2020-21 NBA season, we’ll be updating how all 30 squads rank in terms of their defensive prowess. A variety of factors, key stats from NBA.com and personnel are all considered.

Due to the shortened 72-game schedule and a relatively small sample size to date, there’s plenty of room for this list to continue fluctuating.

Related: NBA Power Rankings – Suns and Blazers making their mark out west.

NBA defensive rankings: Teams with obvious shortcomings

20. Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA defense rankings: Oklahoma City Thunder
Jan 4, 2021; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) is defended by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Darius Bazley (7) and guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

These Thunder just keep on rolling, replacing Steven Adams with Al Horford and adding more backcourt experience in George Hill to compensate for the lacking presence of Chris Paul, who’s now in Phoenix.

Head coach Mark Daigneault is only 35 years of age, yet Oklahoma City is already buying into what he’s preaching. Should that continue, look for the Thunder to remain feisty, even though they’re clearly starved of blue-chip talent, which does have some impact on their defensive prowess and ability to remain relevant in the West.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Thunder, check out #ThunderUp rumors, rankings, and news here.

19. Denver Nuggets

NBA defense rankings: Denver Nuggets
Dec 25, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) passes to guard Paul George (13) as Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) and forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) guard in the first quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Few teams were as hurt by the short offseason than Denver. After a surprise run to the Conference Finals, the Nuggets stumbled out of the gates in 2020-21, and their defense — or lack thereof — was a big reason why.

Between Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton and Gary Harris, though, at least Denver has some serious wing defenders who have gotten more on the same page of late to help put together a competent unit. Part of the reason the Nuggets have rebounded from a rough start is their incremental improvement defensively, their ability to keep teams off the offensive glass — they lead the NBA in fewest second-chance points allowed — and improved 3-point field goal defense.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Nuggets, check out #MileHighBasketball rumors, rankings, and news here.

18. Cleveland Cavaliers

NBA defense rankings: Cleveland Cavaliers
Dec 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) gathers the loose ball against Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (23) during the first overtime period at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Wow, what a difference a season makes. Under new coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the Cavs are forcing 16 turnovers per contest to rank fourth in the NBA and are a surprise East playoff contender. Although the absence of Kevin Love looms large in terms of limiting their rebounding, Cleveland is downright harassing the opposition, thanks to transcendent effort from its young, promising backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.

The question is, can the Cavs hang in the playoff picture as the regular season goes on? Andre Drummond’s presence on the inside gives them a chance, and newly arrived big man Jarrett Allen supplies Cleveland with another strong board man and rim protector. Unfortunately, the Cavs had to face the Clippers, Bucks and Nuggets after a win over Minnesota to open February, and as of this writing, are on a four-game losing streak.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Cavaliers, check out #BeTheFlight rumors, rankings, and news here.

17. Indiana Pacers

NBA defense rankings: Indiana Pacers
Jan 2, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) shoots the ball while Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) defends in the first quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

One may view the Pacers‘ No. 2 worst 3-point field goal defense as a red flag. However, opponents attempt the sixth-fewest number of treys per game versus Indiana, so its dynamic perimeter platoon and collective ability to rotate on the arc represent an elite defensive team that’s on the same page.

In addition to having an excellent on-ball guardsman in Malcolm Brogdon, the Pacers are strong in the paint as well. Center Myles Turner is an excellent rim protector who’s averaged 3.6 blocks through 22 games, while Domantas Sabonis is athletic, aggressive and excellent at cleaning the glass to prevent second-chance opportunities.

Read More: NBA trade rumors: Latest updates leading up to the March 25 deadline

16. San Antonio Spurs

NBA defense rankings: San Antonio Spurs
Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) and San Antonio Spurs guard Keldon Johnson (3) during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Popovich is still at the helm, so you know San Antonio is going to be able to figure something out to remain competitive out west.

The Spurs roster really needs work. It’s a testament to Popovich’s coaching ability that San Antonio is rated this high in defensive aptitude. While its lack of size hasn’t stopped the team from cleaning the glass on defense, the Spurs are the most disciplined team in terms of averaging the fewest turnovers in the league, and they also foul at the NBA’s lowest rate, averaging only 17 per game. Those factors feed their defense as much as anything else.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Spurs, check out #GoSpursGo rumors, rankings, and news here.

NBA defensive rankings: Gifted teams with obvious potential

15. Boston Celtics

NBA defense rankings: Boston Celtics
Dec 25, 2020; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving (11) passes the ball with Boston Celtics point guard Marcus Smart (36) defending during the third quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The C’s are underachieving early on defense. It’s probably an aberration. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown are two of the best perimeter defenders in the sport, so it’s very unlikely they won’t pick up the slack as Boston navigates a middling beginning to the 2020-21 campaign on defense.

Also worth noting is the offseason acquisition of Tristan Thompson. He’s one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the league, an excellent rebounder and an athlete in the frontcourt the Celtics simply lacked last season. Nevertheless, Boston does rank 17th in defensive rating to date, so its slot at No. 15 in this update is more reflective of upside and the presence of coach Brad Stevens than legitimate production.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Celtics, check out #Celtics rumors, rankings, and news here.

14. Toronto Raptors

NBA defense rankings: Toronto Raptors
Jan 2, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) loses control of the ball against Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) during the fourth quarter at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

A disastrous stretch early in 2020-21 proved to be temporary adversity. Thanks to players like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry, Toronto still has lots of willing defensive players who’ve helped coach Nick Nurse’s squad get back on track in short order.

Cold shooting (44.7% as a team through 22 games) has far more to do with the Raptors‘ discouraging 11-13 record thus far than defense. As they keep picking up the slack on offense, their defense should follow and justify this early high ranking in spite of a sub-.500 mark.

Read More: Why the Miami Heat should explore a trade for Kyle Lowry in 2021

13. Miami Heat

NBA defense rankings: Miami Heat
Sep 30, 2020; Orlando, Florida, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra reacts during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in game one of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was necessary to penalize Miami for its slow start on defense. Yes, Jimmy Butler has been hurt and dealing with COVID-19 in the early going, and after all, this team was shorthanded in the NBA Finals and had a quick turnaround from the Orlando bubble. However, the team is riding a three-game winning streak in early February and is picking up the slack on the defensive end.

As coach Erik Spoelstra continues to work through slightly different personnel and Butler works his way back into All-Star form, look for the Heat to continue ascending, because defense is the root of their team identity and organizational culture.

Read More: How Jimmy Butler can keep improving for Miami Heat in 2020-21 NBA season

12. Charlotte Hornets

NBA defense rankings: Charlotte Hornets
Jan 2, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) drives to the basket against Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3) and forward Gordon Hayward (20) during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The story of Charlotte is how much of an impact high rookie lottery pick LaMelo Ball is having. Considered a real wild card prior to the season tipping off, Ball’s length, playmaking ability and surprisingly *passable* effort on defense and versatility on that end of the court has helped the Hornets sting those who had low expectations for them and emerge as a spunky upstart squad capable of being in the postseason.

Charlotte forces 15.8 turnovers per contest, which helps Ball break out in transition and helps flip momentum quite often. Whether it’s a sustainable situation remains to be seen, as the Hornets expend lots of energy every night to stay competitive. Give them credit for their effort to date, though.

Related: Top 10 NBA Rookie of the Year candidates – LaMelo Ball now running away with it.

11. Phoenix Suns

NBA defense rankings: Phoenix Suns
Jan 1, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5) shoots the ball over Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) and guard Chris Paul (3) in the fourth quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul and Devin Booker are an excellent backcourt, center Deandre Ayton continues to make strides, Mikal Bridges is a strong defensive player and Jae Crowder also arrived in the shortened offseason from Miami to provide a key, quality wing defender the Suns previously lacked.

All these elements combine to make Phoenix a legitimate contender in the West. That eight-game winning streak in the Orlando bubble wasn’t a fluke, and upgrading from Ricky Rubio to CP3 at the point guard position only helped the Suns’ outlook for 2020-21. Their defensive form is slipping of late, so it’ll take a big collective effort to reascend to the top-five where they were in our initial rankings update.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Suns, check out #RisePHX rumors, rankings, and news here.

10. Memphis Grizzlies

NBA defense rankings: Memphis Grizzlies
Jan 3, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) goes to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas (17) during the second half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Ja Morant being out for so long had to frustrate the Grizzlies, who played long stretches last season without another of their young, rising stars in Jaren Jackson Jr.

With Jackson yet to make his 2020-21 debut, though, Morant has been back, there’s not a lot for Memphis to look forward to in the immediate future. The young core players are stepping up and led the Grizzlies on a five-game winning streak to improve to 7-6 a while back. The team has crashed a bit back to earth since then, but as long as they keep jelling and playing hard on defense, Memphis could be bringing back those gritty glory days of the Tony Allen and Marc Gasol heyday.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Grizzlies, check out #GrindCity rumors, rankings, and news here.

9. Los Angeles Clippers

NBA defense rankings: Los Angeles Clippers
Sep 15, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) handles the ball while Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George (13) and forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the first half in game seven of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Still somewhat of an enigma, we may not know just how good the Clippers are on defense unless Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play together consistently enough, or what their ceiling is prior to the postseason. Kawhi in particular is fond of resting throughout the regular season in favor of load management, and defense tends to be more relaxed prior to the playoffs anyway.

Following a 17-8 start, it’s clear the sheer presence of George and Kawhi alone make L.A. a high-upside defensive outfit. Adding a shot-blocking presence like Serge Ibaka only helps, and point guard Patrick Beverley remains one of the most tenacious on-ball defenders in the Association.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Clippers, check out #ClipperNation rumors, rankings, and news here.

8. Houston Rockets

Jan 22, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Houston Rockets head coach Stephen Silas prepares to draw up a play during the second quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden was a shadow looming over the entire organization, and since his departure in a trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Houston is actually playing some really solid D.

New coach Stephen Silas has been mixing up lineups and seeing who he can count on amid a rebuild. Right now, the Rockets just don’t have a lot of high-end talent on their roster, yet they’re still in the NBA’s top 10 in field goal percentage allowed.

Read More: NBA rumors: Houston Rockets GM hints more trades coming after James Harden blockbuster

7. Atlanta Hawks

NBA defense rankings: Atlanta Hawks
Jan 2, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) is blocked by Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) in the third quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Center Clint Capela is making his long-awaited impact on Atlanta and is living up to the hype thus far. Capela used to be really the only rebounding threat for Houston. Now, he’s helped to transform one of the NBA’s worst defenses from last season into a respectable unit thanks in large part to his glass prowess.

Swingman De’Andre Hunter is a uniquely versatile piece who can make life tough on the opposing team’s best scorer. He and Capela are big reasons to believe in the Hawks‘ promising start, and as Rajon Rondo expands his role, he’ll be a big help on defense, too. Atlanta can stay here near the top of the NBA’s defenses. It’s just a matter of whether or not Capela can stay healthy.

Related: Check out our NBA TV schedule. Covering every game from now to the Championship.

NBA defensive rankings: Elite units early in 2020-21 season

6. Golden State Warriors

NBA defense rankings: Golden State Warriors
Jan 1, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (left) loses control of the ball against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) in the first quarter at the Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Draymond Green almost single-handedly gets the Dubs this high up. Under head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors have struggled when they don’t have all their pieces in the lineup. Klay Thompson’s absence certainly would loom large for any team, to be fair.

The thing is, if Green maintains his caliber of play going forward, newcomer Kelly Oubre Jr. locks in and Andrew Wiggins lives up to his full potential, Golden State has a chance to really ascend in these NBA defensive rankings as the squad remains in Western Conference playoff contention.

5. New York Knicks

NBA defense rankings: New York Knicks
Dec 29, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Thibodeau was always going to bring defense to the Big Apple. The question was simply how soon it would start working, and it appears New York’s young core is already adapting Thibodeau’s system and seeing it click.

Given the innate limitations of such a young roster and how Thibodeau notoriously loves to drive his better players into the ground in terms of minutes played, it’ll be interesting to see if the Knicks can maintain their spot here. As of this update, they’re top-six in defensive rating, giving up 108.1 points per 100 possessions, and lead the NBA in field goal defense (43.5%).

Read More: Winners and losers from blockbuster Derrick Rose trade to the New York Knicks

4. Milwaukee Bucks

NBA defense rankings: Milwaukee Bucks
Dec 30, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) drives the baseline against Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday (21) and center Brook Lopez (11) in the second quarter at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

With Jrue Holiday arriving in an offseason trade, reigning Defensive Player of the Year and MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo locked into a long-term max contract and Khris Middleton still in the fold, Milwaukee has an exceptional trio of defenders. That type of size and athleticism on the outside is uncommon.

Plus, Brook Lopez can still get it done as a shot-blocker in the rare instances where opponents successfully keep getting penetration and Giannis and Co. can’t recover when they’re beat off the dribble. It’s all a recipe for consistent success that should carry the Bucks deep in the playoffs.

Read More: NBA playoff predictions: Projecting East and West top 8 seeds, 2020-21 postseason bracket

3. Utah Jazz

NBA defense rankings: Utah Jazz
Dec 17, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) battles LA Clippers center Ivica Zubac (40) and LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) for rebounding position during the second quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Rudy Gobert is simply a fantastic interior defender. His patrolling the paint on its own is enough to place Utah in the top 10. Veteran point guard Mike Conley is also showing signs of his prime form from his Memphis Grizzlies prime, and is among the more underrated stoppers in the game.

Coach Quin Snyder just knows how to get the Jazz in tune as a functioning unit. They’re essentially the Celtics of the West, even adding some offensive firepower to help complement their defense better. If Utah wants to continue competing with the West’s elite, it’s vital the team continues to defend well. The Jazz are third only to the Knicks and Warriors on opponent field goal percentage (43.9%).

Related: NBA Power Rankings – Suns and Blazers making their mark out west.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

NBA defense rankings: Philadelphia 76ers
Jan 30, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and guard Ben Simmons (25) during a free throw against the Atlanta Hawks in the second quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons alone makes Philadelphia a seriously stout defense. Upgrading from Brett Brown to Doc Rivers as head coach has only helped both players in that aspect.

In the midst of a 12-6 start, the Sixers are third in field goal defense, fifth in points allowed in the paint, defensive rating, and blocks per game. They also lead the league in average steals per night. Tobias Harris is a versatile forward who can guard in the paint and on the wing as well, so as long as Philly remains healthy, it should remain among the league’s elite defenses this season.

Related: 50 Top NBA players of 2021 – Ben Simmons plummets, Jaylen Brown soars.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

NBA defense rankings: Los Angeles Lakers
Dec 22, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and forward Anthony Davis (3) wait to enter the game against the LA Clippers in the third quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Lakers lost Dwight Howard to Philadelphia, Rajon Rondo to Atlanta and JaVale McGee to Cleveland, the roster is better as a whole. Former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol is in at center, Dennis Schroder and Wesley Matthews upgraded the team’s wing defense and there’s still the presence of superstar Anthony Davis to account for.

LeBron James isn’t quite what he once was athletically, but he’s still the best player in the game, with the versatility to guard all five positions. This gives coach Frank Vogel endless lineup flexibility, and given how well he schemed up the defense en route to the Lakers’ NBA championship, look for them to maintain their status as an elite defensive outfit that currently boasts a No. 1 defensive rating at 104.5.

Related: NBA MVP – Ranking the top-10 candidates for 2020-21, Joel Embiid now favored.