If you follow the narrative that defense wins championships, you can find repudiation — but then validation — in the story of the Golden State Warriors.
With their barrage of three-pointers and generally fun, free-flowing offense, the Warriors emerged to win the NBA title in 2014-15. They ranked No. 2 in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in both the regular season and playoffs that season, and they did it in a manner that seemed to turn the notion of "you can't win that way in the playoffs" on its head.
It was more of the same in 2015-16, when Golden State won 73 regular-season games and only the greatness of LeBron James and an improbable 3-1 finals comeback cut the Warriors short. Last year they won their second title with the best regular-season offense and second-best playoff offense.
This year, Houston took its three-point shooting to a new extreme — attempting more threes than twos during the regular season. The Rockets shot their way to 65 wins and the No. 1 seed in the West. They finished just 0.1 points behind Golden State in offensive efficiency, with the teams finishing 1-2 in that race in the regular season. And now these offensive juggernauts will meet in the conference finals starting Monday, with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals as the overwhelming favorite to win this year's title.
Offense wins championships. Except …
Here's the dirty secret: Both teams also play exceptional defense. They were both in the top 10 in defensive rating during the regular season (Houston was No. 6, Golden State was No. 9), and they rank 1-2 in defensive rating in the playoffs. That's nothing new for the Warriors. In the years they won NBA titles, they ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in playoff defense and regular-season defense, respectively. Houston's offense was already great (No. 2) last year. It was the jump made by the defense (from No. 18 to No. 6) in the regular season that accounted for its rise in the West.
This is, of course, what every team should aspire to be. But sometimes teams settle, fall short or become trapped in their own established identities.
The Timberwolves' path to improvement from 31 wins (two years ago) to 47 wins this past season to the next eight-to-10-game jump that would make them true contenders is simple: Find a defense (No. 22 in rating last year) to match the offense (No. 4 in rating last year). If players look at Houston and Golden State and think they can just win with offense … they need to think again.
The same lesson applies to the Vikings. The greatest potential impediment for the Vikings heading into the offseason was head coach Mike Zimmer's overwhelming belief in his defense — and that it might preclude Minnesota from truly investing in a difference-making quarterback.
Those fears were assuaged when Minnesota signed Kirk Cousins, giving the offense the best chance to repeat what it did last season when the Vikings went 13-3: be not just good enough to score 20 points but be good enough to win games when the defense isn't dominant.
Being able to win in multiple ways wins championships.
Golden State has proved that already, and either the Warriors or Rockets will likely prove that again this year. We'll see if the Timberwolves and Vikings can eventually follow their lead.