NBA defensive rankings: Celtics and Lakers start on top

By Vincent Frank
Sep 15, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Bam Adebayo (13) blocks a shot by Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during overtime in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

NBA defensive rankings: Heading into the 2020-21 NBA season, there’s going to be a lot made about star power on offense. But as we saw with the Lakers and Heat taking on one another in last season’s Finals, there’s something to be said about an elite defense. It’s in this that we give you our initial NBA defensive rankings for the 2020-21 season.

NBA defensive rankings

20. Chicago Bulls

Chicago finished last season 14th in the NBA in points allowed at nearly 110 per game. However, the team’s NBA defense rankings will increase dramatically in 2020-21 under Billy Donovan. He led tremendous groups on defense during stints with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Florida Gators. It’s also important to note that Zach LaVine has upped his game big time on defense.

Related: Top 50 NBA players of 2020-21

19. Cleveland Cavaliers

Kevin Love remains a liability on defense from the four spot. The good news for Cleveland is that two-time All-Star Andre Drummond returns at center. He’s led the NBA in defensive wins shares two times during a brilliant career. A lot of the Cavs’ success on this end of the court will be reliant on the young backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.

18. Memphis Grizzlies

Despite giving up nearly 114 points per game last season, Memphis has the youth to improve in our NBA defense rankings throughout the 2020-21 season. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have talent to do their thing on defense. Meanwhile, Memphis has two tremendous wing defenders in that of Kyle Anderson and Justise Winslow.

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

17. Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic is the major wildcard here. Simply put, he’s among the worst on-ball defenders when it comes to star players in the NBA. Dallas did improve on this end of the court by trading a defensive-challenged Seth Curry to the Philadelphia 76ers for one of the better wing defenders in the Association, Josh Richardson. That will help Dallas improve big time in 2020-21.

16. Brooklyn Nets

Without Kevin Durant for the entire 2019-20 season, Brooklyn took a major hit on defense. In fact, this unit ranked 19th in points allowed at 112.3. Durant’s ability to guard all five positions will loom large, making up for Kyrie Irving’s struggles on defense. Meanwhile, DeAndre Jordan returns to the Nets with two All-NBA Defensive Team honors under his belt.

15. Phoenix Suns

NBA defense rankings: Chris Paul, Suns
Mar 6, 2020; New York, New York, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) reacts during the second half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Kelly Oubre stings a bit when it comes to the Suns’ presence on this NBA defense rankings list. However, Chris Paul will now be paired with Devin Booker in the back court. The future Hall of Famer is a nine-time NBA All-Defensive Team performer. Adding more intrigue here, Phoenix also boasts a solid frontcourt defender in that of Jae Crowder.

Related: Winners/losers from Chris Paul trade

14. Charlotte Hornets

LaMelo Ball should be a near All-NBA Defensive Team performer as a rookie. He’s shown some brilliant flashes on that side of the ball. It’s going to be huge for a Hornets squad that ranked in the top-12 of the NBA in points allowed a season ago. There’s also every reason to be high on young forwards Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington from a defensive perspective.

13. Orlando Magic

En route to earning a playoff appearance a season ago, Orlando yielded the fifth-fewest points in the NBA. It goes to show us where head coach Steve Clifford’s focus is on in Orlando. Former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz has proven to be a tremendous on-ball defender. Meanwhile, All-Star center Nikola Vučević has improved big time on that end of the court in recent seasons.

12. Utah Jazz

Rudy Gobert. That’s pretty much all we need to know as it relates to a Jazz defense that ranked in the top-10 of the NBA in points allowed a season ago. He’s legitimately the best interior defender in the Association. The Jazz’ elevation to elite status in our NBA defensive rankings this coming season will rely heavily on recently-extended guard Donovan Mitchell. He took a step back in that area last year.

11. Golden State Warriors

NBA defensive rankings: Draymond Green, Warriors
February 27, 2020; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) argues with NBA official Tyler Ford (left) against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second quarter at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Klay Thompson to a season-ending torn Achilles is going to hurt these Warriors big time. Simply put, he’s the best defensive guard in the NBA. However, Golden State did add a three-and-D wing in that of Kelly Oubre in a trade. He’s a tremendous on-ball wing defender. Draymond Green appears to be 100% healthy, which is a huge plus here. Golden State will have an ability to ascend our NBA defensive rankings moving forward on the season.

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

NBA defensive rankings: Top 10

10. Detroit Pistons

Injury-plagued All-Star Blake Griffin remains a major liability on defense. However, the Pistons can make up for that with the likes of Dewayne Dedmon and Mason Plumlee inside. Although, the addition of an elite defender in that of Jarami Grant makes Detroit a top-10 team in our initial NBA defensive rankings.

9. Denver Nuggets

Speaking of Jarami Grant, this loss stings a Nuggets team that finished last season ranked 11th in points allowed. However, the Nuggets’ ability to retain former NBA All-Defensive Team performer Paul Millsap can’t go unnoticed. Realistically, star guard Jamal Murray’s ability to improve on defense will likely be the biggest X-factor this coming season.

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

8. Oklahoma City Thunder

Major roster shake up. But one thing remains true. Oklahoma City boasts enough young talent to find itself within the top five of our NBA defense rankings once the 2020-21 season comes to a conclusion. It starts with elite perimeter defender Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and continues with Trevor Ariza at the wing. The only issue here might be inside with Al Horford’s struggles defending the interior.

7. Miami Heat

Andre Iguodala remains one of the best wing defenders in the NBA despite his drop off in production on offense. The recently-extended Bam Adebayo is coming off All-NBA Defensive Team honors. Like we’ve seen throughout his brilliant tenure in South Beach, Erik Spoelstra once again boasts one of the top defenses in the NBA. That obviously includes one Jimmy Butler.

6. Toronto Raptors

Ouch. Toronto lost its two best defenders to Los Angeles teams in that of the above-mentioned Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Even then, head coach Nick Nurse will field a tremendous defensive team in 2020-21. Kyle Lowry is a great on-ball defender. The addition of Aron Baynes also takes some of the sting off of losing both Ibaka and Gasol from a defensive perspective.

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

NBA defensive rankings: The best of the best

5. Los Angeles Clippers

Los Angeles might have lost something on offense by replacing Montrezl Harrell with Serge Ibaka. However, the latter is a much better defender. It’s not really that close. Obviously, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are among the best two-way players in the NBA, too. These Clippers will be elite on defense during the 2020-21 NBA season. That’s for sure.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Not only did Giannis Antetokounmpo earn his second consecutive NBA MVP award this past season, he won the league’s top individual defensive honor. That’s how well-rounded the game’s best player has become. However, the Bucks’ success on defense has as much to do with Khris Middleton’s performance in the wing. He’s an elite on-ball defender.

Related: Winners/losers from NBA trade season

3. Philadelphia 76ers

Ben Simmons might have some issues as it relates to expanding his game on offense. That’s fine. It is what it is. With that said, he’s a top-five individual defender in the NBA. New front office head Daryl Morey also added All-Defensive Team performer Danny Green in a trade this offseason. He’s going to make this unit absolutely elite on defense.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

NBA defensive rankings: Lakers
Nov 12, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and teammate Anthony Davis (3) against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James might have taken a step back on defense in recent seasons. But the future Hall of Famer is spot on when he gives effort. Anthony Davis is absolutely legit on that end of the court, too. While Los Angeles will struggle on defense with Montrezl Harrell, the addition of former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol will loom large.

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

1. Boston Celtics

You didn’t think we forgot about the Celtics, right? the recently-extended Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are already tremendous three-and-D performers. Marcus Smart is among the best defensive plyers in the entire league. Meanwhile, Boston added to this unit big time by signing a stud interior defender in that of Tristan Thompson.