They say defense wins championships, which is stupid because the 2014 Pacers were a great defensive team but couldn't score enough. Same for the 2015 Grizzlies. There has to be a balance between offense and defense in the NBA, but the old cliche does ring true in this regard: you have to start with defense.

When teams like the Warriors get going, it's most often because of a string of defensive stops. They switch you into insanity, force a contested shot or turnover, and get out in the open floor for spot-up threes and dunks. It's tough to play with that kind of pace and energy when you're inbounding the ball all the time. The best teams understand that it all starts with stops.

And yet, it's so hard to consistently be an elite defensive team year after year. Take a look at this chart showing the top five defenses in each of the past five years.

Ranking 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
No. 1 Bulls Pacers Pacers Warriors Spurs
No. 2 Celtics Grizzlies Bulls Bucks Hawks
No. 3 Sixers Spurs Warriors Spurs Pacers
No. 4 Heat Thunder Spurs Grizzlies Celtics
No. 5 Knicks Bulls Thunder Wizards Clippers

Notice how few occurrences there are of a team cracking the top five in consecutive seasons, with only the Spurs, Warriors, Bulls and Pacers having done so since 2011. The first reason for that is health, or lack thereof. Almost ever year a potentially elite defensive team, if not a few of them, lose a couple key players for key stretches and fall out of the the top tier. It'll happen again this year.

You also need continuity. It's no surprise, in fact, that those teams mentioned above were able to string together elite defensive seasons. The Spurs are always the Spurs. The system. The players. The coaches. They seemingly never change, hence the four consecutive top-five rankings. The Bulls, meanwhile, had Tom Thibodeau and a similarly consistent defensive roster led by 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. They fell off in '14-15, but basically, when Thibs left and Noah's health fell off, the Bulls' elite defense went with them.

The Pacers, who've been in the top five three of the past four years, had much the same under Frank Vogel, who left for Orlando this summer. The Warriors were able to maintain a top-five defense during the transition from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr, but the roster, particularly defensives anchors Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, remained intact.

So again, if you want to be a top defensive team, more times than not it starts with continuity.

Factoring that in, and assuming health -- a doomed assumption, admittedly -- here are, in my opinion, the 10 teams that will be in the running to be a top-five defense this year, starting with what I would call three locks, and finishing with seven bubble teams that I could make a case either for or against.


Golden State Warriors

I wold say this is a lock, for a couple reasons. One, the Warriors fell off last year after two consecutive seasons of defensive dominance. When Golden State won the title in 2015, its defense was a monster -- the first team in NBA history to lead the league in both pace and defense per 100 possessions. All those like-sized athletes switching virtually every screen, both on and off the ball, was just a nightmare to deal with.

They were still a good defensive team last year, great when they wanted to be, but they turned a little more into a team that simply tried to outscore you, falling to sixth in overall defense and 10th after the All-Star Break. At first glance, you might say this drop didn't matter much as the Warriors won a NBA record 73 games and led going into the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

This is true in some respects. It's also true that a lot of the statistical falloff can be attributed to their blowing so many teams out and hitting cruise control. Still, they weren't the suffocating monster they were the previous year, at least not consistently. They couldn't keep up with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in the Finals, and the Thunder were having their way with them in the conference finals until Klay Thompson saved the day with a second-half 3-point barrage in Game 6 that is still hard to believe happened.

That's how the Warriors did it last year. Even when they slipped defensively, they just made a bunch of ridiculous shots and canceled it all out. After the Finals disappointment,they are likely to listen to Steve Kerr and get back to defensive basics.

And they have the continuity to do it. As mentioned above, Green, Iguodala and Thompson are all back, as is Shaun Livingston. Sure, they lost Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, and with them the only real rim protection they had, but Zaza Pachulia can chip is as an adequate replacement and Kevin Durant, as he showed in the WCF against the Warriors, is a much better defender than he gets credit for. Durant can provide rim protection, switch on the perimeter, take assignments as tough as LeBron James, and is a top-level defender in his prime.

The stress of two consecutive Finals runs (which takes a lot out of team) and some of the moving parts notwithstanding, the Warriors will be an elite defense this season.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics' aggressive trapping defense took off last season. They finished fourth in defense, and their success was built on a defense-first model. Brad Stevens is one of the most respected coaches, and with the addition of Al Horford, they look like a legit threat to make a run at a top-five unit again.

Stevens has managed to help every player fill their defensive potential. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are both top-15 perimeter defenders, and even guys like Kelly Olynyk (?!) took strides toward being great defensively. The addition of Horford only makes them better.

What they lack in rim protection, they make up for in savvy, strength and precision with Horford and Amir Johnson/Olynyk. Their bench is deep and they've found ways to hide Isaiah Thomas' size weakness while also enabling him to create havoc on-ball. They have continuity, great scheme, and improved personnel. Beyond all this, they have Jae Crowder, who is tough as nails as a lock-down, multi-position stopper.

There still seem to be weaknesses on the surface, with Thomas undersized and Olynyk not the quickest of foot. Their approach of blitzing the offense and creating fast-break points which allows the defense to re-set will be challenged as more teams have film on them this year.

Horford was part of am Atlanta unit that really struggled on the glass and the Celtics figure to have the same problem. If they get hammered on the boards that could hurt their ability to run in transition, keeping the defense out of sync.

Utah Jazz

The Jazz have emerged as one of the league's best defenses over the past two years, but don't have the results to show it. The Jazz had the best rating in the league after the All-Star break in 2015, due largely to the departure of Enes Kanter. The Jazz were blitzed with a tough early schedule and then got knocked around with injuries last year, but after the All-Star break got they returned to their normal selves, finishing third in defense.

Something always seems to happen with this team. They suffer injuries, they have to divert resources to offense, they just can't ever seem to put it together. But this is the year. If it doesn't come together this year, it's not ever going to and you can expect big changes for the team, especially with upcoming free agencies for Hayward, Favors, and Hood.

But if -- and this might be a big if -- they stay healthy, this team is going to be a top-three defense by any evaluation. They have the league's best rim protector in Rudy Gobert, which opens everything up, and in addition to Quin Snyder's coaching, they don't have any weak defenders. Even youngsters like Dante Exum are quality on that end. From Gordon Hayward to Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood, every member of the team is good defensively, and they added veterans like Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw.

This is a make-or-break year for the Jazz. USATSI


San Antonio Spurs

A Case For ...

The Spurs, in my opinion, are on the bubble for being a top-five defense. Surprise! I'm here to doubt San Antonio and wind up looking stupid for the eighteenth year in a row. (Actually what happens is that every time I trust them, they have a down year. Then I overreact, and the cycle starts over.) The Spurs, as mentioned, are the only team to appear on that chart four times, all in a row, and yet here I am, saying they are on the bubble. Come at me. Let's get to this.

Yes, they have the most continuity of any team. They have Kawhi Leonard, the league's best defensive player, and that counts for a lot. They only employ smart, heady players and if you don't defend at a high level you won't stay in San Antonio long. (Shout out, Marco Belinelli.) They are the Spurs, and to doubt them is some level of madness.

A Case Against ...

Listen, Tim Duncan is gone, and while he was 40 years old and only played 25 minutes per game last year, consider this: With Duncan on the floor, the Spurs gave up 93.8 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the bench, that number jumped by nearly five points to 98.4. Even if you want to say that playing with Kawhi Leonard helped, you still have to recognize that Duncan helped him as evidenced by this data from NBA Wowy.

Yes, they added Pau Gasol, but Gasol was no great defensive player last year, either (the Bulls' defense (which dissolved over the course of the year) was only a point worse without the Spaniard). If you put Gasol and Tony Parker in a pick-and-roll defense, how are they going to stop you? Throw in the number of new additions to the system and how that takes a toll on the team (see 2012 when the Spurs weren't top five) and there's real reason to think the Spurs might slip.

And yet they're the Spurs. And they have Leonard. And I'm saying they'll likely be top five. They've earned that.

Atlanta Hawks

A solid unit year over year, but one that went through some big changes.

A Case For ...

They return a great scheme, coach, and a majority of the players from last year's top-notch unit. They added Dwight Howard, who if he returns to anything close to his best self is a monster defensively and will shore up their rebounding issues.

A Case Against ...

They lost two starters in Jeff Teague and Al Horford. Teague fell off a cliff defensively last year, but with his experience and athleticism remains a very good defender. Horford is excellent in every regard, and it's unclear if Howard, despite his physical presence, is an upgrade. If they get 2014 Dwight Howard, the Hawks will likely be top-five. If they get 2016 Dwight Howard, they could be 10th or worse. Kent Bazemore will have to take a step forward as Kyle Korver takes a step back with age, and Dennis Schroder has to make huge strides in awareness and not taking unnecessary gambles. His aggressiveness could give them headaches if he doesn't contain it.

Indiana Pacers

A good unit got big upgrades and a defensive-minded coach.

A Case For ...

Paul George is as good as it gets. New coach Nate McMillan has always put a premium on defense and should adopt slow-it-down strategies to control the game despite Larry Bird's desires for pace-and-space. Teague has the potential to snap back and be a top-10 defensive point guard, and Thaddeus Young's versatility will be a big boon in finding matchups to exploit. Myles Turner showed he's ready to be a difference maker on that end last year.

A Case Against ...

McMillan hasn't been a head coach in nearly a decade, and it's unclear if he's ready for how the league has changed to being a 3-point barrage. He's been on assistant staffs this whole time. If nothing else, there will likely be scheme shifts, and that creates confusion. They have new personnel at two starter spots, and the bench has some worrisome personnel. Monta Ellis is a real weak spot, especially in a shooter's league, and Turner is still only in his second season. This unit could thrive or really struggle to come together. There's a lot of change, and change usually means problems on the defensive end.

Memphis Grizzlies

A team that prides itself on defense is better personnel-wise this year, but how will they adapt?

A Case For ...

When healthy, that's what they do. They are still very much built on grit-and-grind. David Fizdale brings a defensive mindset from Miami. Marc Gasol is one of the best containment centers in the league, Tony Allen is a top-notch perimeter defender, and Mike Conley is maybe the best defensive point guard in the NBA. They take pride, above all else, in getting stops, and that mindset goes a long way.

A Case Against ...

Chandler Parsons has never been great on that end and he'll play often. They have a younger supporting cast and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are both a year older. With injury concerns to boot, plus no real knowledge of what Fizdale will try to run, there have to be concerns. This team got run off the floor last year by high-octane offenses like Golden State (including a 50-point loss) and Cleveland.

Charlotte Hornets

One of the more subtly great defensive teams returns most of their strengths.

A Case For ...

Steve Clifford has quietly built a solid unit year after year without a real rim protector, and they signed Roy Hibbert, who pretty much only protects the rim. Their starters return, and they get the phenomenal defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back from injury. Clifford's "no-help" wing scheme that also focuses on containing 3's while disrupting paint scoring with help is very tough to beat without elite wing talent.

A Case Against ...

There's more wing talent than ever in the league. Can Hibbert get back to where he was? Their bench is significantly worse, and surprisingly, they're going to miss Jeremy Lin of all people. The Hornets usually flutter around the top ten but don't ever crack the elite mark.

Miami Heat

Well, it's not like losing Dwyane Wade hurts their defense.

A Case For ...

They feature a fearsome rim protector in Hassan Whiteside and a smart stable of good players. Erik Spoelstra always puts together a good defensive team; it's what he starts with before everything else.

A Case Against ...

They lost Luol Deng, Whiteside can be a bit scatterbrained chasing blocks, Chris Bosh's status is up in the air, Goran Dragic isn't a great defender, Justise Winslow may not be ready, and their bench is a mishmash.

Toronto Raptors

The East's second-best team has a lot going for it.

A Case For ...

They were top-five before the All-Star break when they slid into the playoffs. They have a high degree of continuity. Norman Powell emerged as a real weapon on that end and they have quality depth. If any of the youngsters make strides, look out.

A Case Against ...

There will likely be some regression from last year's phenomenal season. Bismack Biyombo took his talents to Orlando. This team is a year removed from being terrible defensively, and it's hard to see them being better than last year.

Orlando Magic

An up-and-coming force?

A Case For ...

Frank Vogel is a defensive genius who could pull a chicken and a pile of scrap to a top-ten defensive rating. Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka are both great defenders, Elfrid Payton has great potential if he can get settled, and Aaron Gordon is a playmaker with his athleticism.

A Case Against ...

This is a lot of weirdly matched parts in a new scheme with a lot of youth. That's not a great recipe for success, and Ibaka's defensive slide over the past two years was so glaring that OKC felt they could trade him. Vogel's not that good, is he?