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.
NBA defensive rankings: Teams with obvious shortcomings
20. Oklahoma City Thunder
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.
19. Denver Nuggets
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.
18. Cleveland Cavaliers
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.
17. Indiana Pacers
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.
16. San Antonio Spurs
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.
NBA defensive rankings: Gifted teams with obvious potential
15. Boston Celtics
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.
14. Toronto Raptors
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.
13. Miami Heat
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.
12. Charlotte Hornets
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.
11. 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. 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.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
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.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
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.
8. Houston Rockets
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.
7. Atlanta Hawks
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.
NBA defensive rankings: Elite units early in 2020-21 season
6. Golden State Warriors
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
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%).
4. 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 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.
3. Utah Jazz
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%).
2. Philadelphia 76ers
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.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
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.