That was the question asked of me in the middle of February by Kevin Pelton. You might remember Mr. Pelton from such KnickerBlogger guest posts as “Steve Nash For MVP?” and a 6 part “Knicks Roster Analysis” during last summer. Two weeks prior, I named 5 teams I thought could win the championship: the Spurs, Heat, Suns, Mavericks, and Pistons. Despite their record, Seattle didn’t make the cut. So I guess I owe my guest blogger and the rest of Sonic-nation a little explanation.
Admittedly, Seattle has a lot going for it this year. They hold the 4th best record in the league, are second in the NBA on offense, and have more depth than the Suns or Heat. Since they hired the premier mind in the basketball statistical community, you’d think a APBRmetric blogger would take to them like Michael Jackson to a lollipop convention (and that’s the last one of those jokes, ever). However the “APBRSonics” have one big weakness, their defense.
Currently Seattle’s defense is a pitiful 25th, allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions. To put that in context, they rank just above the Lakers, Hornets and Knicks, which is not exactly championship territory. The Sonics have success with shutting down guards, but visiting big men are lighting up the Northwestern sky. Just take a look at the shooting percentage by position:
It’s certainly obvious that the Sonics have trouble handling taller players. Radmanovic, Fortson, and Evans have unique skills on the offensive end, but none are good defenders. Seattle’s other frontcourt players, Collision and James, are foul prone as both average more than 8.5 infractions per 40 minutes. Seattle’s front office should be commended for having such depth at the 4 & 5, but so far they haven’t been able to put forth a good defensive effort.
Which brings us back to the point at hand: can the Sonics win the championship with their defense? To answer the question, we should take a look at what kinds of teams take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Scanning over the last 20 years, only one champion has had a sub par defense. If we broaden our scope to include runner-ups, 2 more teams emerge.
The 1986 Rockets lost in 6 to the Celtics, but with their 15th ranked defense (out of 23 teams) they were lucky to make it that far. While the Rockets had to beat a superior team in the Lakers that year (.756 win%), no other West team had better than a .600 winning percentage. Having a dominant East and a weak West gave Houston an easier path to the Finals. This year’s Sonics isn’t comparable to those Rockets, because Seattle faces a tougher road to the finals, since they will likely have to beat two top teams (the Spurs and Suns).
One more difference between the 1986 Rockets and the 2005 Sonics is that Houston made a late season change which radically altered their defensive outlook. Point guard Allen Leavell broke his wrist midseason, and Coach Bill Fitch turned to 6’8 Robert Reid, where his obvious size advantage helped solidify the defense. While smaller guards might have been able to drive past Reid, twin towers Olajuwon and Sampson were behind him to deal with such matters. Unlike this Houston team, Seattle is strong in the backcourt and weak in the frontcourt.
It would be 12 years before another mediocre defensive team would make a Finals appearance. The 1998 Jazz, like the 2005 Sonics, had tough division rivals. Five Western teams finished with a winning percentage of .680 or better. Utah did have two advantages the Sonics won’t. First and most importantly, they had home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Secondly Stockton, Malone, and company had the league’s best offense. In fact the team that most resembles this Utah club is not the Sonics, but rather the Suns. Currently Phoenix is neck & neck with San Antonio for the #1 spot in the West, they have the NBA’s #1 offense, and their defense is closer to the median. If the Suns can get home field throughout the playoffs, they can look back at this Jazz team for inspiration.
The most recent team in this micro-study is the 2001 Lakers. The middle of the threepeat dynasty’s defense was a pitiful 19th during the regular season. This seems to be a bit of an outlier, because the year before Los Angeles had the NBA’s best defense, and the year after ranked a respectable 7th. Like the 1986 Rockets, the team was reconstructed as the season wore on. For the playoffs, the Zen Master sat guys like Isiah Rider, Ron Harper, and Horace Grant in favor of better defenders Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Robert Horry.
During the playoffs, the Lakers defense stepped up to the task enabling them to sweep a statistically superior team. In the 2001 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs scored 90 once, and didn’t break 83 in any of the other games. While Duncan had a 40 point outburst in the second game, Los Angeles allowed only one other player to score more than 8 points. In the final two games, they held the Big Fundamental to an average of 12 points. It appears that the Lakers played better in the playoffs, whether by better effort or by personnel changes. Of these three historical teams, the 2001 Lakers team most resembles today’s Sonics. That Seattle has so much depth means they could do the same, based on opponent.
That only 3 teams out of 40 have gone to the Finals doesn’t speak extraordinarily well of the Sonics chances. However, it also means that a flawed team can make it to the ultimate round if they receive a good defensive effort in the playoffs. Seattle’s one hope is that they have matched up well against the best teams in the league. Against my top 5 the Sonics are an impressive 7-4, and consider that they have gone 4-0 with Ray Allen in the lineup against the NBA’s two favorites (Miami & San Antonio). To do that with a statistically inferior team means you’re either lucky, or you’re doing a phenomenal job in matching up against great teams. Although it’s the players that earn the victory on the court, if the Seattle SuperSonics prosper in the playoffs it will be a credit to their coaching staff and scouts.