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Does defense win NBA Championships?

So you're thinking about a future wager on the NBA Championship and you're not sure who to take? We can help you with some proven statistics that accurately predict who this year's Champion may be, and rule out the most obvious media darling pretender.

The backbone of this research is centered around efficiency ratings/rankings compiled through the regular season. The average overall efficiency rating this season in the NBA was 1.087 points scored/allowed per possession or 108.7 per 100 possessions. The Houston Rockets were the most efficient offense in the NBA at 114.7 points per 100 possessions (1.147PPP) while the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics held the best defensive efficiency rating in the league of 103.9 or 1.039PPP. If past history tells us anything, these numbers can be extremely useful in predicting the NBA Champion.

This trend started in 2008-09 when the Finals featured the LA Lakers with head coach Phil Jackson and HOF'er Kobe Bryant, facing the Orlando Magic and a young Dwight Howard. The Lakers won that Finals series in dominating fashion 4 games to 1. The Lakers finished the regular season ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency ratings (OEFF) and 6th in defensive efficiency (DEFF). Orlando had efficiency numbers that ranked them 12th in OEFF and 1st in DEFF. This was the beginning of the "efficiency" Champions.

Below are the Finals Champions and their overall efficiency rankings for the past nine Championships.


2008-09 LA Lakers (OEFF = 3rd, DEFF = 6th)
2009-10 LA Lakers (OEFF = 11th, DEFF = 4th)
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks (OEFF = 8th, DEFF = 7th)
2011-12 Miami Heat (OEFF = 8th, DEFF = 4th)
2012-13 Miami Heat (OEFF = 1st, DEFF = 9th)
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs (OEFF = 7th, DEFF = 3rd)
2014-15 Golden State Warriors (OEFF = 2nd, DEFF = 1st)
2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers (OEFF = 3rd, DEFF = 10th)
2016-17 Golden State Warriors (OEFF = 1st, DEFF = 2nd)

You can see for yourself the only team that has won a Championship in the last nine years that had an OEFF or DEFF NOT in the top 10 for that season was the 2009-10 Lakers (11th in offensive efficiency).

Every team that has won a Championship in the past nine Finals has had a Defensive Efficiency ranking in the top 10 at the end of the regular season. So using this model (top 11 OEFF and top 10 in DEFF) to predict this year’s Champion we can eliminate everyone but the following teams: Houston, Toronto and Oklahoma City.

On the outside looking in is Golden State, Indiana and Philadelphia. The Warriors (3rd OEFF) saw a late season dip in their defensive efficiency (11th) which doesn't qualify them based on the above criteria.

Indiana was 10th in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency.

Philadelphia is 12th in OEFF, 4th in DEFF.

Two of the big names missing from this list are the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics offense has not been good this season and that's a direct result of the Kyrie Irving injury, but their defense is still outstanding ranking 1st (tied Utah) in the NBA. The Cavs have a top 5 offensive efficiency ratings BUT are second to last in the entire league in DEFF, only the Suns are worse!

2017-18 Regular Season Efficiency Rankings for the Math Model "Contenders"
Houston Rockets: OEFF 1st, DEFF 6th
Toronto Raptors: OEFF 2nd, DEFF 5th
Oklahoma City Thunder: OEFF 7th, DEFF 9th

Who NOT to bet!

Cleveland Cavaliers

The one 'big' contender that is missing from the above list is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have the 5th most efficient offense in the NBA (OEFF) but rank a horrendous 29th in DEFF. To put that in perspective the Cavs are barely ahead of the Phoenix Suns defensively and the Suns could get the first pick in the draft! For those of you that are thinking the Cavaliers are going to 'flip a switch' and turn their defense on you better think again. It certainly didn't work that way last year after ranking 21st in DEFF during the regular season and 9th (out of 16 teams) in the postseason.

After the big in-season trades the Cavs defense has improved slightly, but not enough to make a difference in the Finals. An alarming trend we've seen is that everywhere LeBron goes, those teams become worse defensively. The year of "I'm taking my talents to South Beach", the Heat had the 5th best defensive efficiency rating before LeBron formed the 'Big 3'. When he left Miami they had dipped to 11th in overall defensive efficiency ratings.

When Cleveland won their Championship in 2015-16 they had the 10th best DEFF rating, allowing just 1.052 points per possession. Last season the Cavs slipped to 21st in DEFF and this season they are a dreadful 29th allowing 1.129 points per possession. LBJ has been quick to call out his teammates for their lack of defense but maybe he should look in the mirror as he hasn't made 1st team All-Defense for four straight seasons.

What's most alarming about Cleveland is their overall numbers against good teams. The Cavs have the worst defensive efficiency numbers of all current playoff teams against other playoff teams, and are just 20-21 SU this season against current post-season teams. Of their 20 overall wins, 15 have come against the weaker East and those wins came by an average of just .8PPG. When it came to playing a playoff team from the West, the Cavs were just 5-11 SU this season with a negative point differential of -7.8PPG. Not to mention, they have a very tough first round match up with the Indiana Pacers who beat Cleveland 3 of four times this season.

But, we won't write the Cavs off entirely because they are in the East and have an offense capable of out-scoring just about anyone. They certainly own Toronto, who is the favorite to come out of the East, but poor offensive schemes in the postseason has derailed the Raptors the past few seasons. Boston without Kyrie Irving isn't a serious threat anymore even though they have the best coach in the NBA on the sidelines.

Cleveland may come out of the East but they aren't beating either Houston, Oklahoma City or Golden State from the West.

Our Money is on...

The eventual Champion comes from the West and will be Houston Rockets (+$160). We can't back a Golden State team that has dropped off dramatically in defense late in the season and much like Cleveland, we don't see them just 'flipping the switch' in the playoffs. Even if Steph Curry comes back in the second round we still don't see them beating a Rockets team that has done it all season long. The Rockets were 32-10 SU against all the other playoff teams this season and won those games by +7.1PPG. At home this season the Rockets were 16-4 SU against all other playoff teams and those 16 wins came by an average of 13PPG. Now with Chris Paul in the lineup the Rockets have another scoring option if James Harden has an off night. When everyone is talking about Houston's offense though, it's their improvement of defense that has gotten them this far. Houston went from 18th in defensive efficiency rankings a year ago, to 6th this season.

If you are looking for a better return on your investment, the Thunder at +$4000 are an intriguing long-shot proposition. Statistically, the Thunder qualify in our math model efficiency rankings theory as they rank in the top 10 in both OEFF and DEFF. They have the most dynamic player in the NBA on their roster in Russell Westbrook who averaged a triple-double for the second straight season. Oklahoma City has their own 'Big 3' with Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, veteran leadership, size, toughness and rebounding. OKC was 22-20 SU against playoff teams this season with a positive scoring margin of +2.4PPG. The Achilles heel of the Thunder though is depth and in the West that's not a great recipe for success, especially in long series.

Overall this shapes up to be one of the best NBA playoffs in a long time and we can't wait! Best of luck with all your wagers.

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