Ranking every defense heading into 2023-24 season: Raptors, Lakers among biggest risers; Bucks, Grizzlies fall

I spent a lot of time during the offseason thinking about NBA defenses. I ranked the top 100 defenders in the league. Now, I’m going to take a shot at ranking how all 30 teams will finish this season on defense.

With offenses on the rise, it is exceedingly difficult to build a great NBA defense. All of the top four teams from last season had elite shot blockers, but there are many ways to build a top-10 defense. The Bulls got there with great point-of-attack defenders. The Thunder used one of the more innovative defensive schemes in the league. The Heat used a healthy dose of zone and had two elite players in Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. The list goes on and on. 

With all of the roster turnover in the league, coaches are going to have to figure out a new way to stop teams again. Here’s what the defensive picture of the league should look like. 

MORE: The Sporting News ranks the top 30 players in the NBA

Ranking every defense heading into 2023-24 NBA season

The top 10

Team Predicted rank Last season’s rank Change
Cavaliers 1 1
Celtics 2 2
Nets 3 16 +13
Lakers 4 12 +8
Raptors 5 11 +6
76ers 6 8 +2
Timberwolves 7 10 +3
Pelicans 8 6 -2
Thunder 9 13 +4
Bulls 10 5 -5

The Cavaliers were the best defense in the league last season behind their twin towers of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. They’re bringing back most of their roster, and Mobley will continue to get better with age. 

The Celtics have been dominant defensively for the past few seasons. Losing the heart and soul of their team in Marcus Smart will be tough, but Jrue Holiday is an upgrade on paper. And Kristaps Porzingis should fill Robert Williams III’s departure. 

The Nets are by far the biggest risers in the league. Ben Simmons looks returned to form, Nic Claxton could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and their midseason trade added a massive amount of wing defense in Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith. They have the highest representation on my top 100 defenders list, with seven players making the cut. 

The Lakers and Raptors are also seeing big jumps. While neither team defended at a top-10 level last season, they were Nos. 2 and 6 respectively after trade deadline moves that reshaped the way they play on that end of the floor. 

Rudy Gobert had a down year by his standards for the Timberwolves last season. Getting him more acclimated, along with a full year of Mike Conley Jr. in place of D’Angelo Russell, should help them rise a few spots. 

The Thunder have defended better than their talent for years behind Mark Daigneault. They’re adding Chet Holmgren to the mix, who looked awesome defensively in the preseason and Summer League. That gives them a defensive big that they have been missing. 

The Bulls and Pelicans both played over their heads last season and looked significantly worse in the preseason. The Pelicans in particular were the luckiest team in opponent 3-point shooting luck. They should both fall closer to the middle of the pack. 

The middle of the pack

Team Predicted rank Last season’s rank Change
Heat 11 9 -2
Suns 12 7 -5
Warriors 13 14 +1
Grizzlies 14 3 -11
Nuggets 15 15
Bucks 16 4 -12
Magic 17 18 +1
Knicks 18 19 +1
Hornets 19 20 +1
Clippers 20 17 -3

The big fallers in this group are the Grizzlies and Bucks, who were both top-five defenses last season. 

The Grizzlies’ roster has been decimated, losing Steven Adams and (potentially) Brandon Clarke for the year, along with Ja Morant for the first 25 games due to suspension. Adams is the glue guy for that defense. Without him, the rebounding flaws of Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. are going to come under huge scrutiny. 

The Bucks looked shaky defensively in the preseason. They don’t have the point-of-attack defenders to play their preferred drop scheme as effectively with Brook Lopez. The loss of Jevon Carter and Holiday is going to sting. 

The Suns should also get worse defensively. New addition Bradley Beal has been a big minus on that end of the floor for the past few years. Jusuf Nurkic is a good rim protector, but his lack of mobility is going to be tough to hide. 

Keep an eye on the young Magic and Hornets. They were the No. 7 and 8 defenses after the trade deadline. 

The bottom 10

Team Predicted rank Last season’s rank Change
Jazz 21 23 +2
Hawks 22 22
Rockets 23 29 +6
Spurs 24 30 +6
Pistons 25 27 +2
Pacers 26 26
Kings 27 24 -3
Mavericks 28 25 -3
Wizards 29 21 -8
Blazers 30 28 -2

The Rockets should see a decent uptick in their defense with the subtraction of Kevin Porter Jr. and veterans Dillon Brooks, Fred VanVleet, Jeff Green and Jock Landale joining the fray. Ime Udoka has a reputation as a defensive-minded coach. He will give them an edge. 

The Spurs should likewise see a jump based solely on the addition of Victor Wembanyama. He made crazy defensive plays throughout the preseason, and I have him as an immediate top-30 defender in the league. 

The Mavericks are going to struggle to guard. They lost their best perimeter defender in Finney-Smith and are pinning their hopes on two rookies in Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper for improvement. Newcomer Grant Williams should help, but the team only has a handful of above-average defenders on the roster and nobody who is elite. 

The Wizards are the big faller from last year. They lost their best rim protector in Porzingis. Daniel Gafford can block shots but is also undisciplined on that end of the floor. Jordan Poole is going to score a lot and give up a lot too. Bilal Coulibaly is a great defensive prospect. He won’t be enough to keep that group afloat. 

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