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The Hoop Doctors

Are the Lakers a Better Defensive Team than the Celtics?

January 12, 2011 – R.S. De France

While I’ve always been one to stick up for and defend Kobe Bryant, he’s way off base saying the Lakers are better than the Celtics at defense.

Bryant’s comments on defense start in around 3 minutes and 50 seconds in, so towards the end of this clip.  Bryant’s post-game comments 1/2/11:

I’ve always defended Bryant, first as a Lakers’ player.  His character I sometimes questioned over the years, like many of you.  At the end of the day, I think he’s a good man—just misunderstood.  And the whole Denver fiasco—unfortunately, basketball players and professional athletes are frequently involved in such scandals.  Ben Roethlisberger and Alvin Robertson to name a few. In Bryant’s case, I supported him over the years because I wanted him to reach his potential—to be Jordanesque.  Although no one will probably ever equal Michael Jordan in the post-Jordan era, Bryant has come the closest.

To the issue at hand, in this recent post-game interview, Bryant very confidently said that his Lakers is a better defensive team than the Celtics.

Historically, the Celtics is known for defense, starting with another one of the best players ever to play the game Bill Russell—the man with 11 rings (as a player).  Yet, the exact amount of blocks and steals accumulated by the 1957-1969 Boston Celtics is unknown because the NBA did not start recording blocks and steals until the 1973-1974 season.

Bill Russell’s amazing defense:

After those great Celtics, there were many more excellent Celtics’ defenders:


  • Only players ranked in top 100 in NBA history
  • D.R.=all-time Defensive Rating

The Boston Celtics

1973-1976 (2 titles)

Dave Cowens 5th D.R.
Jo Jo White 63rd D.R.
John Havlicek 25th D.R.

1980-1986 (3 titles)

Larry Bird 28th in steals 24th in SPG, 1.73 84th D.R.
Dennis Johnson 36th in steals 49th in SPG, 1.34
Bill Walton 75th in blocks 17th in BPG, 2.21 8th D.R.
Robert Parish 67th steals 9th blocks 49th in BPG, 1.47 99th


Kevin McHale 23rd in blocks 29th in BPG, 1.74

2007-present (1 title)

Kevin Garnett 26th in steals 19th blocks 47th SPG, 1.36 37th BPG, 1.57 34th D.R.
Ray Allen 63rd steals
Paul Pierce 46th steals 37th SPG, 1.5

When you compare the Lakers and Celtics even further, it is a little shocking that each franchise has only had 1 winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award (DPY).  The Lakers’ Michael Cooper won the DPY in 1987, and Garnett won the DPY in 2008.

The Celtics really come out on top when you compare all-time defensive ratings.  In franchise history, the Lakers have had 0 players in the top 30 Defensive Ratings, while the Celtics, on the other hand, have had 4, including Paul Silas (13th).

The Lakers have always been about high-octane offense from Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain to Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Showtime.

The Los Angeles Lakers

1971-1972 (1 title)

  • No 1971-1972 Lakers’ appear because steals and blocks were not yet recorded, but a team doesn’t win 33 straight games without playing great defense.
  • 1971-’72 Lakers:

1979-1988 (5 titles)

Ervin “Magic” Johnson 15th in steals 15th in SPG, 1.90 88th D.R.
Bob McAdoo 54th in blocks 48th in BPG, 1.49 41st D.R.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar T-80th in steals 3rd in blocks 7th in BPG, 2.57 35th D.R.
Byron Scott 66th in steals
Norm Nixon 75th in steals
Mychal Thompson 70th in blocks 69th in BPG, 1.15

2000-present (5 titles)

Kobe Bryant 24th in steals 36th in SPG, 1.51
Shaquille O’Neal 7th in blocks 16th in BPG 78th D.R.
Pau Gasol 50th in blocks 30th in BPG, 1.73
Derek Fisher 77th in steals
Robert Horry 74th in blocks 82nd in steals 75th in BPG, 0.94 75th D.R.
Ron Artest 42nd in steals 13th in SPG, 1.96

Lakers’ defense in the 2010 Finals game 6:

While the Shaq-Kobe Lakers were a decent defensive team, mainly due to Shaquille O’Neal, they were primarily an offensive juggernaut.  Even the current Kobe-Gasol Lakers are one of the best offensive teams in the league.  These Lakers are not a terrible defensive team, but that is not their calling card, no matter what they try to tell themselves.

When Bryant says the Lakers are better than the Celtics at defense, which Lakers team is he talking about?  We know Bryant is a basketball historian, so he knows that the Celtics are historically a more dominant defensive team than the Lakers.

If he’s talking about his current Lakers’ squad, there is still almost no evidence to support Bryant’s claim about defense.

The 2010-2011 Celtics

1st in opponents’ points per game (91.84)
1st in opponents’ assists per game (18.78)
5th in steals per game differential (+1.24)
5th in forcing turnovers (15.84)
6th in opponents’ field goal % (43.9%)
7th in steals per game (8.16)
8th in blocks per game differential (+0.32)
15th in rebound differential (+0.35)
23rd in blocks per game (4.35)

The 2010-2011 Lakers

4th in rebounds differential (+3.53)
4th in opponents’ field goal % (43.6%)
9th in steals per game (7.74)
10th in BPG differential (+0.21)
11th in opponents’ ppg (96.92)
12th in blocks per game (5.11)
14th in SPG differential (+0.08)
20th in forcing turnovers (14.0)—behind the Detroit Pistons & Indiana Pacers
24th in opponents’ assists (22.24)

What further separates the Lakers and Celtics is how they deal with winning games that they are not able to dominate, defensively.  While the Los Angeles Lakers are 19-2 when they score 100 points or more (90.5%), they are only 8-5 (61.5%) when they give up 100 points or more.

Boston, on the other hand, figures out a way to win in either situation.  When scoring 100+, they are 16-1 (94.1%); when they give up 100+, they are 9-2 (81.8%).

Boston Celtics’ defense in the 2008 Finals:

This week the Lakers happen to be better than the Celtics at opponents’ field goal percentage, but the Celtics have been better in that category for most of the season.  Last week, for example, the Lakers were 6th and the Celtics were 3rd.  So, that statistics seems a bit fluid right now. Given almost every defensive statistic available, BPG is the only defensive area where the Lakers are consistently better than the Celtics.  Otherwise, the Celtics are the more dominant defensive team—not the Lakers.

In the interview, Kobe talked about his Lakers learning the importance of defense from their heart-breaking loss to the Boston Celtics in 6 games of the 2008 NBA Finals.  I’ll give him that.  I have bought into that, and this Lakers’ team has shown that they are one of the best defensive teams in the league this season, just not as good—let alone better—than the Boston Celtics.

I think what these Lakers learned most from the 2008 Finals was the importance of having home court advantage throughout the playoffs, something they oddly seem to have little interest in this season.

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