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’ve been updating how teams stack up in defensive prowess. A variety of factors, key stats from NBA.com and personnel are all considered.
NBA defensive rankings: Solid teams with obvious potential
15. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are starting to put everything together at the right time. Over the last 15 games, they rank seventh in defensive rating, but our rankings are looking at the full body of work for the season. Boston has often disappointed, which is why the C’s are only 15th right now. They edged out Washington for inclusion here.
14. Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray’s torn ACL is a huge setback, but between Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton, Denver has some serious wing defenders to field a competent unit. Part of the reason Denver have rebounded from a rough start is their ability to keep teams off the offensive glass and not allowing second-chance points.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Center Clint Capela is making his long-awaited impact on Atlanta. 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, as he leads the league with 14.5 boards per contest.
12. Toronto Raptors
Thanks to players like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry, Toronto still has lots of willing defensive players. Despite key stars missing time for COVID-19 protocols previously to throw off team chemistry, Toronto still ranks sixth in defensive rating over the past 15 games as of this update.
11. San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich is still at the helm, so you know San Antonio is going to be able to remain competitive out west. The Spurs roster really needs work. It’s a testament to Popovich that San Antonio rates this high. What stands out most about the Spurs is their discipline. They allow the fewest points off turnovers, and don’t give opponents many quality looks from the perimeter.
NBA defensive rankings: Squads just outside the league’s elite
10. Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green almost single-handedly gets the Dubs this high up. The Warriors have struggled when they don’t have all their pieces available, and their form hasn’t held over the course of the season. Stephen Curry has been counted on to light it up every night for the Dubs to even have a chance.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
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. The Bucks are a no-brainer top-10 defensive team.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have stabilized around the .500 mark thanks largely to playing hard on defense. Memphis could be bringing back the gritty glory of the Tony Allen and Marc Gasol heyday, as the squad ranks third in turnovers forced per contest and creates the fourth-most steals on average.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
We may not know just how good the Clippers are on defense unless Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play together consistently enough. Kawhi in particular is fond of resting for load management, and defense tends to be more relaxed prior to the playoffs anyway.
It’s clear the sheer presence of George and Kawhi alone make L.A. a high-upside defensive club. Adding a shot-blocking presence like Serge Ibaka only helps.
6. Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler was hurt and dealing with COVID-19 early. The team was shorthanded in the NBA Finals and had a quick turnaround from the Orlando bubble. However, Miami picked up the slack on the defensive end in tremendous fashion when Butler got healthy.
As coach Erik Spoelstra has continued to sift through slightly different personnel, the Heat had reestablished themselves as a defensive juggernaut Their recent inconsistency knocks them down a ways, though.
NBA defensive rankings: Premier units of the 2020-21 season
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Coach Frank Vogel schemed up the defense that led to the Lakers’ NBA championship, and he’s gotten creative to keep LA among the league’s best defensive outfits despite long-term absences from superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. When both return, Los Angeles could well ascend to No. 1 on this list in short order.
4. Phoenix Suns
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.
3. Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert is simply a fantastic interior defender. Veteran point guard Mike Conley is also showing signs of his prime form from his Memphis Grizzlies heyday, 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.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
The duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons alone makes Philadelphia a seriously stout defense. The Sixers are second in defensive rating, second in steals per game and lead in average blocks. Tobias Harris is a versatile forward who can guard in the paint and on the wing as well, so in this edition of NBA defensive rankings, Philly earns its No. 2 spot.
1. New York Knicks
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. The Knicks are top-three in defensive rating and lead the NBA in field goal defense (44.1%).
NBA Defensive Player of the Year (Bonus)
No NBA Defensive Rankings would be complete with a look at the prospective Defensive Player of the Year. Here’s a quick top-5: