In the first edition of what I plan to be a weekly feature on team-level advanced stats in the Development League, one number which stood out was the remarkable defense played to date by the Maine Red Claws. Through the first two weeks of games, the Red Claws led the league in defensive efficiency with a 95.9 mark, a full 11 points per 100 possessions better than the league average team. Although we can expect bigger spreads in talent in a smaller, more volatile league like the D-League, that 11 point difference would be larger than any of the elite defensive teams the NBA has ever seen (at least since 1974 and the recording of turnovers began). Larger than the Ewing Knicks (8 points per 100 in '93 and '94) and the Twin Tower Spurs (8 points better in 1999) as well.
Obviously, it's only been 5 games and this is the D-League and not the Association, but to call the Red Claws anything other than "dominant" so far would be selling them short. After adding in their most recent game, a 119-111 victory over the Terrence Williams-led Springfield Armor, the Red Claws defensive rating fell even further to 94.4 points per 100 possessions.
Here's the odd thing about the Red Claws: they don't have a center on their roster. Jordan Eglseder and Magnum Rolle, the two guys on this team who can really clog the middle and block shots, have only combined to play 74 minutes for Maine due to injuries. Their active roster contains six guards and four forwards, none of whom are listed at taller than 6'9". The best defensive teams are usually tall and have a shot blocking presence (Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, etc.). Despite having nobody of this kind of caliber, even relative to D-League talent, teams just can't consistently score on the Red Claws.
Part of it is likely luck, as Maine's opponents have only shot 46% from the field and 30% from three, lowest and second lowest in the league respectively. It could be due to the Claws' opponents (they've played Springfield four times, although one of those included Terrence Williams). It could be due to bad bounces. Most likely, part of it is good field goal defense and part of it is from luck and scheduling, but as opponent field goal percentage climbs, the Claws' defensive rating will move towards the average.
That said, some individual Claws have posted some pretty impressive defensive numbers to date. Most notable is former Atlanta Hawk Mario West, who despite his "mere" 6'5" frame is averaging 1.25 blocks per game to go on top of 1.25 steals per game. Jamar Smith is adding 1.43 steals per game, and Tiny Gallon is blocking 1.14 shots and stealing the ball 0.43 times per game early on this year. The blocks are key in reducing opponent field goal percentage, and the steals key the second big reason why the Red Claws have looked elite on. defense: turnovers.
The Red Claws have forced turnovers on a whopping 22% of possessions. Playing good field goal defense reduces the chance that a shot falls, but forcing turnovers completely eliminates the possibility. As a unit, the Red Claws are averaging seven steals per game and have forced a total of 16 turnovers per game. Maine plays fast, but even incorporating pace, that still ranks third in the D-League.
Finally, the Claws just aren't fouling. Only Fort Wayne at 21.5 fouls per game has committed fewer personals than Maine, sitting at 23.6 per game. Maine also plays at one of the fastest paces in the D-League this year, at 100 per game, a combination which has led to the second lowest free throw rate in the league. This is especially impressive, as the Claws haven't had to resort to fouling down low despite a lack of size in the middle of the court.
Combine a team in the top three of field goal defense, producing turnovers, and keeping opponents away from the line, and you have a fantastic defensive team regardless of their size on the block. We'll see if they can keep this up as they face a more diverse array of performances, but at the same time, one can only imagine what they could do on the defensive end if and when a big man like Eglseder or Rolle returns to the lineup.