NBA defensive rankings: Modern pro basketball features tons of up-and-down action, numerous possessions and lots of scoring, so it’s worth looking into how every team stacks up in Sportsnaut’s NBA defensive rankings.
Throughout the 2021-22 NBA season, we’ll be updating how teams stack up in defensive prowess. A variety of factors, key stats from NBA.com and personnel are all considered.
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20. Charlotte Hornets
Injuries down the stretch to Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball played a big role in Charlotte’s late-season collapse. Still, the Hornets were a swarming, pressure-inducing defensive unit throughout the season, forcing the ninth-most turnovers in the NBA and tied for 12th in points allowed per game. Don’t sleep on Charlotte as Ball enters his second season. This team is coming on strong.
19. Boston Celtics
Quite the opposite of the Hornets, Boston is searching for answers after an underwhelming season that resulted in Danny Ainge leaving the front office, and Brad Stevens moving from his head coaching post to take that spot. Still, the appeal on paper with this team lies in Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, two of the game’s best perimeter defenders. Let’s see how new coach Ime Udoka handles this talented bunch, and how the C’s address the point guard position. Al Horford, who Stevens acquire in the Kemba Walker trade, is also a big help to Boston’s frontcourt defense.
18. Toronto Raptors
Even with a bad stretch across the last 15 games, the Raptors, while they had a down season, still showed they were bought in to what coach Nick Nurse was preaching. They ranked fourth in steals and blocked shots, and were 15th in defensive rating. Depending on what happens with floor general Kyle Lowry and who they take fourth overall in the NBA Draft, Toronto could really make some huge improvements to the roster this summer.
17. Indiana Pacers
Even as the Pacers were quitting on their coach Nate Bjorkgren last season, ultimately leading to his firing after just one year, they were still playing quality defense. That’ll happen when you have an elite shot-blocker like Myles Turner and a tone-setter in the backcourt like Malcolm Brogdon. Under the new leadership of Rick Carlisle, don’t be surprised to see Indiana transform into a top-10 unit.
16. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans simply never put everything together at the right time. Over the last 15 games, they rank second in defensive rating, but our rankings are looking at the full body of work for the season. New Orleans has often disappointed, which is why the Pels are only 16th despite their recent surge on that end of the court.
15. Chicago Bulls
Under the guidance of new head coach Billy Donovan, even though the Bulls didn’t win enough down the stretch to make a push for the playoffs, they’re quietly stringing together strong defensive performances. Over their last seven games, they were No. 7 in defensive rating, just one slot behind the New York Knicks’ elite defense. Donovan’s imprint should be all over this Chicago squad in Year 2.
14. Washington Wizards
We really saw what Washington can do when Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal are firing on all cylinders toward the end of the regular season. Not only does the Wizards’ superstar backcourt put immense pressure on opponents with such dynamic offense, but their effort on defense rubs off on the entire team. That improved D is a big reason Washington shockingly surged into the postseason.
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13. Brooklyn Nets
Let’s be honest: it’s largely about offense for the Brooklyn Nets, but to their credit, they were dominant against Milwaukee when stretching their series lead to 2-0 in the conference semifinals. Unfortunately, injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving were too much for Brooklyn to overcome. Those three need to be healthy to get a proper read on how the Nets are defensively. It’ll be interesting to see how this squad looks next season depth-wise, too.
12. Los Angeles Clippers
We were waiting to see just how good the Clippers can be on defense with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George playing together consistently. Kawhi in particular is fond of resting for load management, and that didn’t end up helping in the end, as Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL during the postseason.
The good news is, George and other LA players have stepped up on both ends of the court since Leonard went down, but the Clips’ forecast for next season is cloudy because of Kawhi’s uncertain future.
11. Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray’s torn ACL was a huge setback, but between Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. alone, Denver has some serious wing defenders to field a competent unit. Part of the reason the Nuggets rebounded from a rough start was their ability to keep teams off the offensive glass and not allowing second-chance points. They’ll need to continue those efforts into next season to remain a top team in the West.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies stabilized a little north of the .500 mark for the season 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 ranked third in turnovers forced per contest and created the most steals on average in 2020-21. That’ll take some of the sting out of losing to Utah in the first round.
9. Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler was hurt and dealing with COVID-19 early. The team was shorthanded in the NBA Finals, had a quick turnaround and looked gassed when they got swept by the Milwaukee Bucks. However, coach Erik Spoelstra is one of the game’s premier tacticians, and the Heat should reestablish themselves as a defensive juggernaut next season. They may even bring in another star to join Butler, which would help the cause.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Coach Frank Vogel schemed up the defense that led to the Lakers’ NBA championship, and he got creative to keep LA among the league’s best defensive outfits despite long-term absences from superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. When AD went down in the Lake Show’s opening-round loss to Phoenix, it showed just how valuable he is. As long as the rotation is decent around LBJ and AD, the Purple and Gold should remain a top-10 defensive unit at least.
7. Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green almost single-handedly held the Dubs up early. The Warriors had struggled without all their pieces available. Stephen Curry was counted on to light it up every night for the Dubs to even have a chance, which eventually culminated in a play-in tournament loss to Memphis. Reasons for optimism into next season: Golden State ranked No. 2 in defensive rating over the last 15 regular-season contests, and Klay Thompson is finally coming back.
6. Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert is simply a fantastic interior defender. Veteran point guard Mike Conley also showed 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, but injuries to Conley and a collective letdown cost Utah dearly against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Jazz need another wing defender to take that next step.
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5. Philadelphia 76ers
The duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons alone makes Philadelphia a seriously stout defense. Unfortunately, an injury hit Embiid again during the playoffs, and Simmons may not be on the team next season after the Sixers’ disappointing playoff exit. Nevertheless, the Sixers finished second in defensive rating this season, tied for first in steals per game and second in average blocks. Until Simmons is traded, Philly still earns a top-five spot in the NBA defensive rankings.
4. 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 were top-four in defensive rating and led the NBA in field goal defense (44%). They just didn’t have enough talent on offense to best Atlanta in the playoffs.
3. 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 led the league with 14.3 boards per contest.
The Hawks’ dominance over New York was a defensive master class, and they demoralized Philadelphia en route to a Conference Finals berth.
2. 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 fearsome defensive unit, although lacking frontcourt depth and size cost the team a title versus Milwaukee.
1. 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 around, 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 have the talent of an elite defensive team, and they showed the grit it took to win a championship when they put all the pieces together in the NBA Finals.