The Anatomy of a Champion


 by Jon Nichols

October 7, 2008

What does it take to win an NBA championship?  Every team is trying to do it (or at least that’s what we assume), but there are many different methods.  Some focus on offense and hope their defense plays tough enough to keep them in games (like Utah).  Others start by building a strong defense and grind every game out (like San Antonio).  Some teams go small (like Atlanta) while others go big (like Los Angeles this year).  Some play fast (like Golden State) while others play slow (like Detroit).  Some acquire veterans (like Boston) while others accumulate youth (like Portland).  You get the idea. 

But which is the best way?  Obviously any method that makes both your offense and defense as good as possible is the best method.  However, to see exactly how it’s done, I’m going to analyze the past ten champions (the post-Bulls era) based on the following factors: offensive/defensive balance, size, pace, style, and age. 

Offensive/defensive balance
The champions over the past ten years had an average offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) rank of 7.3 and a defensive rating rank of 4.8.  However, if you take out the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 21st defensively in the regular season but played at a much higher level in the postseason, the average defensive rank was 3.  Boston was far and away the best defense in the league last year.  The moral of the story is that you need to be great on both ends, but champions tend to be among the best in the league at defense.

I will provide this data with one disclaimer: it’s not perfect.  This data is based on the NBA survey data ( ), which has a couple of flaws.  One, it does not factor how many minutes each player gets.  A seven-footer who never sees any minutes will make a team seem bigger than it actually plays.  Additionally, the data is based on rosters at the beginning of the season. 

Over the past six years (that’s as far back as the survey goes), the champions have on average ranked 15th in the league in height.  Yes, exactly in the middle.  Boston ranked 19th last season.  Unless there are major problems with the data, being extremely big or small doesn’t seem to matter as long as you perform well on the court.

The champions have had an average pace factor (explanation here: rank of 17.7, slightly below average.  Again, this does not seem to make a huge difference.  Because a lot of these teams have been very good on defense, I assumed that these teams would generally play a slow, boring game of basketball.  But that is not the case.  For the record, Boston ranked 19th in the league in pace last season.

To determine this, I’m not going to look at “style” as most people would think of it.    Instead, I’m going to look at the “Four Factors” on both offense and defense.  The Four Factors idea was developed by Dean Oliver.  He determined that to be good on offense, teams needed to have a high effective FG%, a low amount of turnovers, a lot of offensive rebounds, and a lot of free throw attempts.  Holding the other team to the opposite of those is required for a good defense.  The table below has the average rank of the ten champions in each of the eight categories (four for offense and four defense):
















On offense, the most important thing appeared to be converting a high percentage of your shots.  Nothing else was especially important.  On defense, not allowing a high eFG% appears to be the secret to success.  Even the bad defensive team (the 00-01 Lakers) wasn’t terrible at this.  Getting a high percentage of the defensive rebounds was also somewhat important.  Surprisingly, creating a lot of turnovers did not seem to be a huge factor at all.  This may be because championship teams don’t gamble and play safer and more solid defense, which would explain the low eFG% allowed. 

I will use the NBA survey data again, and the same flaws still apply.  Also, the 2007-08 data prefers to use experience instead of age, but I’ll count that as the same. 

The champions over the past six years have had an average rank of 4.5 in terms of being the oldest team.  Boston was not especially old, ranking 11th in experience.  Based on these numbers, it appears that maybe all those traditional folks who love veterans are on to something. 

In conclusion, championship teams are strong on both offense and defense, with generally more of a focus on defense.  They are not especially big or small, and they don’t have to play at a certain speed.  Winning the field goal percentage battle is crucial for these teams.  Finally, they’re old (or to put it nicely, experienced). 

I must give a lot of credit to  Without its multitudes of numbers and great accessibility, this article would not have been possible.





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