Defense wins championships” is an old basketball (and, more generally, sports) mantra. It was around when I first watched NBA basketball in 1997 and it persisted through when I last closely followed it in 2016. In the 2000s, when I perhaps most closely followed basketball (with the caveat that I was still a kid for most of that decade), it was used in conjunction with the idea that “jump shooting teams don’t win championships” to denigrate the chances of the Dirk Nowitzki-era Dallas Mavericks and the Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns. The Mavericks would eventually win a championship in 2010-11 (albeit with a more defensive squad than some of their early 2000s teams), and the Suns were not far off in 2006 and 2007. While that mantra was always more than a bit silly – for example take note of Michael Jordan’s shot chart in the 1997-98 season along with that championship Bulls team’s lack of high usage interior scorers – we can safely say that the Golden State Warriors put the idea to rest in the mid 2010s. For fun, I decided to conduct a quick study to assess whether defense does win championships.

(I will concede that I have an ulterior motive in that the chart I am making for this article will allow me to substantially shorten another article I am working on.)

Understanding Our Project

I found a few statistical assessments of whether defense wins championships. Courtney Williams assessed which aspects of a team’s defense are most meaningful to championship prospects. In 2014, Adam Fromal found that defense wins championships… but so does offense. I will confess I had an idea before searching for articles and one article I found was somewhat in line with my idea:

Another key equation involved a team’s defensive rating, which means how many points they allow per 100 possessions. He compared the team defensive rating of championship teams versus non-championship teams [from 2010-11 through 2019-20]. He found that championship teams had a mean team defensive rating of 104.22, while non-championship teams had a mean of 107.60. The lower the number, the better the team defense, inferring that team defense is important to winning a title.

Offensive rating measures points scored per 100 possessions. Defensive rating measures points allowed per 100 possessions. These per-possession stats are useful because they adjust for pace in a way that raw points per game and points allowed per game do not. A team that plays at a fast pace is likely to score more but also give up more points than it would if it walked the ball up the court and soaked up the shot clock.

To illustrate the significance of per-possession stats vs raw stats, let us examine the case of the 2014-15 champion Golden State Warriors. That was the first of three championships in four years for the Warriors during which Golden State broke another long-held mantra that fast-paced jump shooting teams were not championship material. Let us examine the Warriors’ regular season rankings that year. There were 30 teams in the NBA in 2014-15, just as there are today. The Warriors averaged 110.0 points per game and allowed 99.9. Their 110.0 points per game was first in the NBA while the 99.9 points they allowed was 15th. From these stats alone, one may imagine that the Warriors were a great offense and a mediocre defense. That belief would be half-correct – but to understand why we must consider pace. The Warriors averaged 98.3 possessions per game, which led the NBA that season. When we factor in pace, the Warriors averaged 111.6 points per 100 possessions, which was actually second best in the NBA. The Warriors allowed 101.4 points per 100 possessions, which was the best mark in the league. It turns out the Warriors were the NBA’s best defense and second best offense on a per-possession basis, not withstanding the raw points per game totals.

But were the Warriors a better offense than defense? That is a different question. In terms of a straight ranking, the answer would be yes since the Warriors were ranked first in defensive efficiency and second in offensive efficiency. However, what if we instead considered how the Warriors offensive and defensive efficiency compared to the league average offensive rating in the 2014-15 NBA season. I was inspired to try this approach by an old Bleacher Report list of the best offenses in NBA history. That list did nothing but figure out which NBA teams had the biggest positive differential between their offensive rating and the league average for the season in question. Under this approach, we find that the 2014-15 Warriors offense was actually slightly better compared to the NBA’s average that season than its defense (+6.0 vs -4.2). Of course, that Warriors team was dominant on both ends – but rankings aside, their offense was a bit more formidable than their defense in the regular season.

I decided to apply this approach to every NBA champion. For this survey, I will take the league average offensive rating and then look at how each NBA champion compared to the average for both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Since both of these depend on pace, I decided to see whether each NBA champion played faster or slower than the league average since the idea that NBA champions should not play at a high pace (mostly debunked by the 2014-15 and 2016-17 Warriors championship teams) was also popular back in the 2000s. However, we will not be able to apply this approach to every NBA champion. We have full offensive and defensive rating numbers and pace statistics only going back to 1973-74 (when turnovers were first tracked). Thus, I will examine every NBA champion since 1973-74. It is worth noting that the pre 73-74 stats would likely skew things toward defense since all available evidence indicates that the 11 Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics teams had historically great defenses and generally mediocre offenses. But to keep things consistent – we will start with 1973-74.

NBA Champions Rated By Relative Offensive and Defensive Ratings and Pace

Below, you will find a chart of how every NBA champion from 1973-74 through 2023-24 compared to the league averages in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and pace in their championship years. Note that these statistics only encompass the regular season, not playoffs. I obtained the league averages for offensive rating and pace from Basketball Reference. I then used Basketball Reference to look at the champions for each season and compared their individual offensive and defensive efficiency ratings and pace to the league average for their championship year.

SeasonNBA ChampionRelative
1973-74Boston Celtics+0.9-2.6+1.2
1974-75Golden State Warriors+2.7-0.4+3.1
1975-76Boston Celtics+0.6-1.6+1.4
1976-77Portland Trail Blazers+3.7-1.5+1.5
1977-78Washington Bullets+0.4-0.4+1.4
1978-79Seattle SuperSonics-1.1-3.7-2.4
1979-80Los Angeles Lakers+4.2-1.4+1.0
1980-81Boston Celtics+4.4-2.9-1.0
1981-82Los Angeles Lakers+3.3-1.4+2.2
1982-83Philadelphia 76ers+3.6-3.8-0.4
1983-84Boston Celtics+3.3-3.2-1.7
1984-85Los Angeles Lakers+6.2-0.9+1.1
1985-86Boston Celtics+4.6-4.6-0.9
1986-87Los Angeles Lakers+7.3-1.8+0.8
1987-88Los Angeles Lakers+5.1-0.7-0.5
1988-89Detroit Pistons+3.0-3.1-5.1
1989-90Detroit Pistons+1.8-4.6-3.9
1990-91Chicago Bulls+6.7-2.7-2.2
1991-92Chicago Bulls+7.3-3.7-2.2
1992-93Chicago Bulls+4.9-1.9-4.3
1993-94Houston Rockets-0.4-4.9-0.1
1994-95Houston Rockets+1.4-0.9+1.3
1995-96Chicago Bulls+7.6-5.8-0.7
1996-97Chicago Bulls+7.7-4.3-0.1
1997-98Chicago Bulls+2.7-5.2-1.3
1998-99San Antonio Spurs+1.8-7.2-0.3
1999-00Los Angeles Lakers+3.2-5.9+0.2
2000-01Los Angeles Lakers+5.4+1.8+0.4
2001-02Los Angeles Lakers+3.9-2.7+1.4
2002-03San Antonio Spurs+2.0-3.9-1.0
2003-04Detroit Pistons-0.9-7.4-2.2
2004-05San Antonio Spurs+1.4-7.3-2.0
2005-06Miami Heat+2.5-1.7+1.1
2006-07San Antonio Spurs+2.7-6.6-2.1
2007-08Boston Celtics+2.7-8.6-2.5
2008-09Los Angeles Lakers+4.5-3.6+2.6
2009-10Los Angeles Lakers+1.2-3.9+0.1
2010-11Dallas Mavericks+2.4-2.3-0.8
2011-12Miami Heat+2.0-4.4-0.1
2012-13Miami Heat+6.5-2.1-1.3
2013-14San Antonio Spurs+3.9-4.4+1.1
2014-15Golden State Warriors+6.0-4.2+4.4
2015-16Cleveland Cavaliers+4.5-1.9-2.5
2016-17Golden State Warriors+6.8-4.8+3.4
2017-18Golden State Warriors+5.0-1.0+2.3
2018-19Toronto Raptors+2.7-3.3+0.2
2019-20Los Angeles Lakers+1.4-4.3+0.6
2020-21Milwaukee Bucks+4.9-0.9+3.0
2021-22Golden State Warriors+0.5-5.1+0.2
2022-23Denver Nuggets+3.3-0.1-1.1
2023-24Boston Celtics+7.9-3.7-1.3

It became obvious as I was putting the list together that the previous 51 NBA champions did not have a general preference for defense over offense. The last 51 NBA champions have averaged approximately 3.5 points better than the league average in offensive efficiency and 3.3 better on defense (the 3.3 is rounded up – it is 3.53 vs 3.26 if we go one extra digit). Moreover, I found that more NBA champions than not (28 to 21) rated better relative to the league average on offense than defense. Two champions, the 1977-78 Washington Bullets (statistically the weakest of the 51 champions in our survey) and the 1985-86 Boston Celtics (one of the strongest champions) were equally strong relative to the league average on offense and defense down to a single decimal. I decided not to try to break those ties since that was not consistent with how I was conducting the survey as a whole to a single decimal point, so we end up with 28 champions with relatively stronger offenses, 21 with relatively stronger defenses, and two champions that rated equally strong relative to the league average on both sides of the court. Taking the median of each category tells a similar story: the median offensive and defensive ratings are both 3.3 points better than the league average.

On the whole, we can dispense with the idea that there is some general rule that defense wins championships as opposed to offense and replace it with a rule that should have been obvious – most champions are well above average on both sides of the ball.

48 of the last 51 NBA champions had a better offense than the league average. The three exceptions were the 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics, 1993-94 Houston Rockets, and 2003-04 Detroit Pistons. The Sonics had the best defense in the NBA in a weak 78-79 season, while the Rockets and Pistons were second best in 93-94 and 03-04 respectively. The Pistons of course had what may well have been the greatest defensive performance in NBA history in the comically slow, low-scoring 2003-04 NBA playoffs, which I wrote about extensively in a separate article.

50 of the last 51 NBA champions had a better defense than league average (I suppose that is a notch in the “defense wins championships” belt). The lone exception is the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, which cruised to a 56-26 regular season before going on a 15-1 rampage through the playoffs that may well be the greatest postseason run in NBA history. Oddly enough, the Lakers had won the championship the previous season with a defense that rated solidly better than their well-above average Shaquille O’Neal-driven offense.

NBA Champions Rated By Offensive Efficiency Against NBA Average

Because we have all these numbers handy, we can look at the top and bottom 20 percent champions in offensive and defensive efficiency relative to the league average for their respective seasons. First, the top 10 and bottom 10 in terms of offensive efficiency vs the league average:

RankTeamORtg vs Avg
12023-24 Boston Celtics+7.9
21996-97 Chicago Bulls+7.7
31995-96 Chicago Bulls+7.6
41991-92 Chicago Bulls+7.3
41986-87 Los Angeles Lakers+7.3
62016-17 Golden State Warriors+6.8
71990-91 Chicago Bulls+6.7
82012-13 Miami Heat+6.5
91984-85 Los Angeles Lakers+6.2
102014-15 Golden State Warriors+6.0

The current NBA champion Boston Celtics had the best offensive rating vs league average – which I suppose is impressive in light of the fact that 2023-24 had the highest average offensive rating of any NBA season. Four of the six Jordan-led Bulls teams make our top-10 on offense, and I have reason to believe we will be hearing from a few of them again in short order. The dynastic trend continues with two of the five Magic Johnson-led Lakers champions and two of the four Stephen Curry-powered Warriors champions in the top 10. The second of the two “big three” Heat championship teams makes the list in eighth.

Now for the weakest offense champions:

RankTeamORtg vs Avg
511978-79 Seattle SuperSonics-1.1
502003-04 Detroit Pistons-0.9
491993-94 Houston Rockets-0.4
481977-78 Washington Bullets+0.4
472021-22 Golden State Warriors+0.5
461975-76 Boston Celtics+0.6
451973-74 Boston Celtics+0.9
442009-10 Los Angeles Lakers+1.2
412019-20 Los Angeles Lakers+1.4
412004-05 San Antonio Spurs+1.4
411994-95 Houston Rockets+1.4

The latter half of the 1970s saw the five fastest pace seasons and least efficient seasons in our sample. It was also a parity stretch – with four of the champions rating as not much better (or worse, in the case of the 78-79 Sonics) than the league average offensively. One fun note is that we see teams led by Stephen Curry (21-22 Warriors) and LeBron James (19-20 Lakers) on the weakest offense list after they combined to place three championship teams on the best offense list. Another notable is that both of the back-to-back Houston Rockets champions in 93-94 and 94-95 were bottom-tier championship offenses. The 94-95 team was weak in the regular season on the whole (46-36) but managed to topple four consecutive teams that had won between 57 and 62 games in the playoffs en route to the title. The 93-94 champion Rockets were stronger in the regular season for reasons you will see on our next chart.

NBA Champions Rated By Defensive Efficiency Against NBA Average

Now let us turn the page to defense and take a look at the best 20% championship defenses relative to the league average (note that minus is good in the context of defense).

RankTeamDRtg vs Avg
12007-08 Boston Celtics-8.6
22003-04 Detroit Pistons-7.4
32004-05 San Antonio Spurs-7.3
41998-99 San Antonio Spurs-7.2
52006-07 San Antonio Spurs-6.6
61999-00 Los Angeles Lakers-5.9
71995-96 Chicago Bulls-5.8
81997-98 Chicago Bulls-5.2
92021-22 Golden State Warriors-5.1
101993-94 Houston Rockets-4.9

The Boston Celtics lead both of our lists – but in this case we have the Kevin Garnett-led 2007-08 championship team instead of the more recent 2023-24 champion. They are followed by the much-talked about (on this site, at least) 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and then three of the five Spurs championship teams in spots 2-5. It is worth noting for fun that the Spurs in 2003-04 ranked ahead of the Pistons on defense in the regular season – but they ended up losing in the second round of the west playoffs. The 03-04 Pistons, 04-05 Spurs, 21-22 Warriors and 93-94 Rockets also appeared on the worst offense list, so now we see how those teams overcame their deficiencies with the ball. I was a bit surprised to see the 1999-00 Lakers so high on this list. When I think of that team, I think of Shaquille O’Neal throwing his fellow NBA-caliber seven-footers around like ragdolls on his way to a historically great single campaign. But the statistics show that Lakers team had a more dominant defense than offense – at least in the regular season.

The 1995-96 Bulls are the only one of the last 51 champions to rank in the top 20% in both relative offense and defense. The 2016-17 Warriors, which are often mentioned as the main challenger to the 95-96 Bulls claim as the greatest team of all time, just missed making it two teams with an 11th place finish on defense.

Now for the champions that had the weakest defenses relative to the league average in their championship years.

RankTeamDRtg vs Avg
512000-01 Los Angeles Lakers+1.8
502022-23 Denver Nuggets-0.1
481977-78 Washington Bullets-0.4
481974-75 Golden State Warriors-0.4
471987-88 Los Angeles Lakers-0.7
442020-21 Milwaukee Bucks-0.9
441994-95 Houston Rockets-0.9
441984-85 Los Angeles Lakers-0.9
432017-18 Golden State Warriors-1.0
411981-82 Los Angeles Lakers-1.4
411979-80 Los Angeles Lakers-1.4

Having noted that I was surprised to see the 1999-00 Lakers rank as the sixth best championship-defense relative to the league average, I was less surprised to see the 2000-01 Lakers rank as the worst defense by this metric (although I would not have expected them to be the worst by such a dramatic margin). As I noted above, that Lakers team played some uninspiring basketball in the regular season before a brilliant run through the playoffs to its second consecutive championship (conversely, the 1999-00 Lakers had a dominant regular season and were actually outscored in both the Western Conference and NBA Finals despite winning both series). The 2000-01 Lakers were much better on defense in the playoffs, going from having a 104.8 defensive net rating in the regular season to a stifling 97.8 rating in its 15-1 postseason run. The 94-95 Rockets were somewhat similar to the 00-01 Lakers (albeit more extreme) in having an uninspiring regular season leading into a remarkable playoff run – but it is hard to believe that a team anchored by the great Hakeem Olajuwon could ever be so close to the league average defensively.

Only two teams – the 1977-78 Washington Bullets and the 1994-95 Houston Rockets – rank among the weakest champions in both offense and defense. The Johnson/Abdul-Jabbar Lakers champions may be the strongest offense wins championships case – with three of the five championship teams ranking just slightly above average on defense but two of those three teams ranking among the top 10 offenses.

Overall Net Rating

Finally, lest anyone walk away with the wrong impression about these teams, let us look at the best, and worse, by net rating (by “net rating” we mean the differential between offensive and defensive ratings).

Note: In general, you can get a team’s net rating by subtracting the the net difference defensive rating against league average from the offensive rating. However, I did not strictly do that for my charts below. In order to get the offensive and defensive ratings vs league average, I looked up the league-average offensive rating for each season and then compared that year’s champion to the average. However, Basketball Reference also includes the net rating for every NBA team in every season we have sufficient statistics. In some cases, the Basketball Reference net rating is 0.1 better or worse than the rating you would get from just using my chart. What gives? The issue is likely based on the fact that I did my math using a single decimal point whereas Basketball Reference may round to get a slightly more accurate Net Rating. I decided to go with the more accurate Net Rating numbers from Basketball Reference and note cases wherein we had a 0.1 difference between that and just using my charts.

RankTeamNet Rtg
11995-96 Chicago Bulls+13.4
21996-97 Chicago Bulls+12.0
32023-24 Boston Celtics+11.6
32016-17 Golden State Warriors+11.6
52007-08 Boston Celtics+11.2
61991-92 Chicago Bulls+11.0
72014-15 Golden State Warriors+10.2
81990-91 Chicago Bulls+9.5
92006-07 San Antonio Spurs+9.3
101985-86 Boston Celtics+9.2

(The 2007-08 Celtics went from +11.3 to +11.2 and the 1990-91 Bulls from +9.4 to +9.5 using Basketball Reference’s Net Ratings instead of my charts. It did not ultimately change any spots in the top 10.)

The top 10 tilts toward the offense, not defense, wins championships theory – at least for the most dominant regular season teams to win a championship. Six of the top 10 had better relative offenses than defenses, with the 1985-86 Celtics being exactly even (+4.6 on both sides) and only the 2006-07 Spurs and 1999-00 Lakers being better on defense. One thing this very small sample may indicate is that in terms of being a historically dominant team – especially in the double-digit positive net rating tier – there is usually more room to far exceed the league average on offense than defense. Of course – to have these sorts of net ratings, a team has to be good on both sides of the ball.

The 1995-96 Bulls team stands apart from the rest in terms of net rating, and it is the only team in our sample to have led the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating in the same season. The 1990s Bulls dominate the ranking, two entries from their first and second runs of three consecutive championships in the top 10 (the 92-93 bulls and 97-98 Bulls were well off the pace at +7.8 and +7.9). The 2016-17 Warriors, which are often put in the best team of all time debate with the 95-96 Bulls, unsurprisingly come in tied for third in overall net rating (one point in favor of the Warriors is their 16-1 playoff record with a net rating of +13.5, which was a touch better than the 95-96 Bulls going 15-3 with a net rating of +12.1 in the postseason).

The Celtics did well to make the ranking three times with champions that had nothing in common with one another. The 2023-24 Celtics, which featured the best relative offensive ranking of the last 51 champions, and the 2007-08 Celtics, which featured the best relative defensive rating, both made the top five in overall net rating. The top-10 was rounded out by the best of the three Larry Bird-led champions, which could not have been much more balanced being 4.6 points per 100 possessions better than season average on both sides of the ball. The only non Bulls-Warriors-Celtics entrant is the 2006-07 Spurs, which due to the lack of drama in its championship run after a contentious second-round victory over a championship caliber Phoenix Suns team, may be the least memorable of the five Spurs championship teams. But net rating suggests that the 2006-07 Spurs have a case for being the best over some strong internal competition (the Spurs also take spots 12, 13, and 15).

Now for the weakest 20% of champions in terms of net rating.

RankTeamNet Rtg
511977-78 Washington Bullets+0.9
501975-76 Boston Celtics+2.2
491994-95 Houston Rockets+2.3
481978-79 Seattle SuperSonics+2.6
471974-75 Golden State Warriors+3.0
462022-23 Denver Nuggets+3.4
451973-74 Boston Celtics+3.5
442005-06 Miami Heat+4.2
431993-94 Houston Rockets+4.5
422010-11 Dallas Mavericks+4.6

(Note: The Bullets are 0.1 better and the Mavericks 0.1 worse than my list based on Basketball References Net Rating numbers.)

Half of the bottom 10 spots feature 1970s champions – which is not too surprising since the NBA went through a parity period before the Celtics and Lakers dominated the 1980s. The 1977-78 Bullets were the worst by a wide margin, but it is worth noting that the team they beat 4-3 in the Finals, the 1977-78 Sonics, would have also been the worst champion at a slightly better +1.5 net rating (the Sonics would win the rematch against the Bullets in the 1978-79 Finals). The only one of the 1970s champions that is missing is the 1976-77 Trail Blazers, which posted a solid-but-unspectacular +5.2 net rating, and are not present on any of our top- or bottom-10 lists.

I found the presence of both the 2005-06 Heat and 2010-11 Mavericks humorous. In 2006, the Heat, with a middling net rating of +4.2, upset the Mavericks (+6.2) in the NBA Finals. In 2011, the Mavericks with their +4.6 net rating pulled off a bigger upset against a Heat team that at +8.2 would not have been a better than average champion by this metric. It is worth noting however that the 2010-11 Mavericks were significantly better in the postseason than they were in the regular season (the 05-06 Heat rated as only slightly better).

Relative Pace of the NBA Champions

Readers may remember after all of these charts that I also studied the pace NBA champions have played at relative to the league average. Here, I found that 26 champions played at an above average pace and 25 champions played at a below average pace. Taken together, the average pace is 0.2 points (or 0.156 if we extent the decimal) slower than the league average. The median pace is 0.1 possessions slower than league average. I think we can safely conclude that there is no dramatic fast-paced or slow-paced bias among the NBA champions. I will note that the Pistons, Bulls, and Spurs played at a below-average pace for 13 of their 14 championships (the Bulls in all 6) which helped even things out after the early part of our chart favored relatively faster teams. Since we came this far, let us look at the fastest and slowest teams (relative to league average, not in a vacuum) in our survey.

First, the champions that played much faster than their peers.

RankTeamPace vs Avg
12014-15 Golden State Warriors+4.4
22016-17 Golden State Warriors+3.4
31974-75 Golden State Warriors+3.1
42020-21 Milwaukee Bucks+3.0
52008-09 Los Angeles Lakers+2.6
62017-18 Golden State Warriors+2.3
71981-82 Los Angeles Lakers+2.2
81976-77 Portland Trail Blazers+1.5
92001-02 Los Angeles Lakers+1.4
91977-78 Washington Bullets+1.4
91975-76 Boston Celtics+1.4

Three of the five Golden State Warriors championship teams swept the top three spots in the fast-pace ranking. I was heartened to see that in order to complete the sweep, the Stephen Curry-led Warriors teams needed help from the Rick Barry-led championship team from four decades earlier (the 1974-75 Warriors were the fastest champion in absolute terms – accounting for the overall higher pace of play in the 70s). The 2014-15 and 2016-17 Warriors are the only two teams among the 10 fastest to also be among the top 10 in net rating.

I noted earlier that the top six fastest seasons in our sample are 1973-74 through 1978-79. Despite the generally high pace of play, four of the six fastest teams relative to the league average are from those seasons. Perhaps playing fast was the correct approach given that those years also have the lowest offensive efficiency numbers in our sample.

I will note one minor surprise: I did not expect to see the 2008-09 Lakers on the list. I did not think of that team as playing especially fast – but the NBA’s overall pace was still relatively slow in 2008-09 – so I suppose it is all relative.

Now for the slowest champions relative to league average.

RankTeamPace vs Avg
511988-89 Detroit Pistons-5.1
501992-93 Chicago Bulls-4.3
491989-90 Detroit Pistons-3.9
472015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers-2.5
472007-08 Boston Celtics-2.5
461978-79 Seattle SuperSonics-2.4
432003-04 Detroit Pistons-2.2
431991-92 Chicago Bulls-2.2
431990-91 Chicago Bulls-2.2
422006-07 San Antonio Spurs-2.1

The Pistons are to the tortoise list what the Warriors were to the rabbit list. Noting that this list is relative to the league average, the 2003-04 Pistons are the slowest champion of the 51-year sample, having played 2.2 possessions slower than the league average in the second slowest season in our sample (1998-99 was the slowest season, followed by 2003-04). Having noted that most of the 70s champions played faster than the very high league average, the defense-first 78-79 Sonics bucked the trend, playing at what was then the slowest pace in the league. Finally, we see the first three Bulls championship teams on the list, but not the latter three. The second set of three also played slower than the league average, but the NBA as a whole slowed, so perhaps that affected their relative ranking. The 1990-91 and 91-92 Bulls are unique for being on the slow pace and best offense rankings. The 2007-08 Celtics, 03-04 Pistons, and 06-07 Spurs have the more typical combo of being on the slow pace and best defense lists.

Slow teams fare a bit better on our top 10 rating chart than fast teams: The 1990-91 and 91-92 Bulls, 2006-07 Spurs, and 2007-08 Celtics made both the best net rating and slowest pace charts.


Any conclusions we take from my survey must recognize its limitations.

First I only looked at teams that actually won the NBA championship instead of championship caliber teams (however one might define that). For example, two NBA Finals runner-ups, the 1996-97 Utah Jazz and the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, had net ratings that would have placed them among the ten best champions of the last 51 seasons. The 96-97 Jazz, which lost in six close games to the Bulls in the Finals, and an overall net rating of +9.7 and an offensive rating 5.9 points better than the league average, both of which would have been top-10 marks had they defeated the Bulls in the Finals. The 15-16 Warriors had an overall net rating of +10.7 and an offensive rating of 7.9 points better than the league average, both of which would have been top-10 and the latter mark would have been tied for the best offense relative to the league average with the 2023-24 Celtics.

I also only looked at how these teams performed in the regular season and did not consider postseason performance. While I think the regular season gives us plenty to go off of, there are some edge cases such as the 1994-95 Rockets, 2000-01 Lakers, and 2022-23 Nuggets where champions performed dramatically better in the playoffs. Conversely, some dominant regular season teams such as the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls, 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers, and 2007-08 Celtics significantly underperformed in the playoffs compared to the regular season.

Again noting that the regular season provides valuable data, especially when we are looking at 51 champions, our survey does not account for specific in-season circumstances. For example, the 1994-95 Rockets and 2003-04 Pistons were greatly buttressed by midseason trades, in the former case the acquisition of Clyde Drexler and inthe latter the addition of Rasheed Wallace. Some champions were hindered by in-season injuries: Shaquille O’Neal missed a combined 23 games in 2000-01 and 2001-02 (the Lakers were not very good when Mr. O’Neal was absent). Tim Duncan missed 18 games in the Spurs’ 2004-05 championship season. Finally, some teams were so good that they were often far ahead going into the fourth quarter and rested their starters. The 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers were one of only two teams to post a double digit net rating in the regular season (+10.0 in that case) and not make the NBA Finals (the other was the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs, which were bounced in the second round after posting an astronomical +11.3 net rating in the regular season). That Cavaliers team put so many games early that LeBron James, their then-24 year old star and the run-away MVP that season, played what was at the time a career low in minutes per game (37.7).

Finally, I only looked at three metrics – relative offensive rating, defensive rating, and pace. There are many other statistics that could be considered and that may yield interesting conclusions.

Having noted some caveats about my survey – I think my basic methodology has the benefit of making generally fair cross-era comparisons. There is a case to be made – as Nate Silver did about a new player-rating statistic called RAPTOR – that retroactively applying modern advanced statistics inspired by contemporary conditions to players from different eras does not necessary give a picture of how those players would have performed under modern conditions or how today’s players would have played under prior conditions. In the context of teams, I think this would be a strong argument against using offensive or defensive rating in a vacuum to compare teams across different eras. However, regardless of the era, rule changes, or different styles of play, NBA teams set out to score more than their opponents, and we can say as a general matter that a team’s scoring margin relates to how good it is. Thus, by comparing the offensive and defensive ratings of NBA champions first to their peers before other champions, we can better – albeit not perfectly – hedge against applying newfound metrics designed for the NBA of today to the players of yesterday. The point of this survey is not to determine who would with a mythical matchup between the 1995-96 Bulls and 2016-17 Warriors or the 2023-24 Celtics and their 2007-08 predecessors, it is simply to see how they compared in terms of offense, defense, and pace against their actual peers.

My main take-away from the survey is that, taking into account a big enough sample, NBA champions tend to be a bit more than three points better than the league average on both sides of the ball and tend to play at close to the average pace. However, because the ultimate goal of basketball is to outscore the opponent and, as a general matter, elite teams tend to outscore their opponents more decisively than good teams, there is more than one way to crack an egg. We have some extreme cases such as the 2003-04 Pistons and the first four of five Spurs champions that were far better on defense than offense and a few of the Johnson/Abdul-Jabbar Lakers teams that had elite offenses and slightly above-average defenses. Moreover, there are some odd cases such as several mediocre champions from the 1970s and 2020s and teams such as the 1994-95 Rockets and 2000-01 Lakers that dramatically raised their level in the postseason.

My survey was simple and someone with more time, interest, and resources could build off the ideas and make some more interesting discoveries (the concept can also be extended to other sports). For example, I did notice that there was a general – albeit not universal – preference for defense-first champions from 1998-99 through 2007-08, which featured some of the slowest seasons on record. Recent years, which have seen a faster pace than the 2000s and the most efficient offenses in NBA history, have more of a bias toward offense. One could explore these trends and even expand the survey to include more teams than just the ones that happened to win the NBA championship. After all, these rules are not absolute. All six Chicago Bulls championship teams from the 90s played slower than the league average – and the league was quite slow for the second set of three consecutive championships – but four of the six Bulls championship teams ranked among the 10 best offenses out of 51 champions.

Speaking of the Bulls, I suppose we have time for one last take-away: Those 1990s Bulls championship teams were not too shabby. While Michael Jordan’s case as the greatest player of the last 51 years (at least) appears to be sound, it took some great teams to post four of the net best championship ratings of the last 51 years over the span of just seven seasons.


If you see any error in my data, feel free to let me know. I caught one error I made with the 1993-94 Rockets while I was editing my draft, so I am sure they may be some others lurking.