Pelicans Offseason Preview: Improving Defense, Maintaining Offense

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

[Part 2 of Nico's offseason preview, delving into team defense in more detail. Check out Part 1 here and check back for Part 3 tomorrow. -R]

The end of yesterday's exercise was too reductionist and simplified the Pelicans' woes into percentages and numbers. It's harder -- much harder -- to talk about defensive strategy and ability both individually and holistically since defensive analytics aren't nearly as advanced as they are on offense. Defensive Rating isn't a good measure of defensive ability. Defensive RAPM can help but we still can't answer the ultimate question: "How?". On/off court numbers can help but obviously carry the the same problems as RAPM. In the end, we'll use all the available stats to help us along with what I (and you) saw through out the season. The goal is three-fold: to maintain (or marginally) improve offensive efficiency and improve defensive efficiency through "better shooting defense" and maintaining defensive rebounding.

Shooting Defense

Shooting defense comes down to two things: preventing "At the Rim" makes (layups, dunks and tip-ins) and preventing three point makes.

There are two ways to prevent makes - you either make your opponent miss more or make them take less. A team like Oklahoma City allows opponents to take more than the league average attempts, but they force opponents to miss more than the league average. A team like Brooklyn, on the other hand, allows fewer attempts at the three (almost 3% less than the league average) but opponents make more than the league average eFG% there. Of course, the best way is to prevent and force opponents to miss more than their fair share of attempts. That's a harder task to do so teams need to prioritize.

So now the choice remains -- which is more important, preventing makes at the rim or preventing makes from three? Well, the quick and dirty answer is saying "at the rim" shots. This is because allowing teams to take shots at the rim usually means the entire defense broke down and will usually result in a lot more havoc than an opponent taking threes. A player getting into the rim means so many more options are suddenly available; most important among them are drive-and-kicks and out-of-position defenders that will make them prone to fouls/fouling. Also, I believe shots at the rim are the most offensive rebounded shot in basketball followed closely by 3PT shots.

But when I used the correlation, it was actually 3PT eFG that had the highest correlation with eFG allowed (only in 2012/13). The difference isn't that huge so we'll still stick with common knowledge and put preventing "at the rim makes as #1 priority" and put preventing "3PT makes as #2 priority".

Secondly, which is better: forcing more misses or making them take less? Personally, I think its "making them take less" since misses and makes are derived from takes -- field goals made + field goals missed = field goals taken. A team forces the opponent to take less field goals and not only does it have to worry about fewer makes, it also have to worry about fewer misses to rebound.

Defensive Rebounding

What's the point of preventing a lot of makes (which means more misses) if you can't rebound said misses?

With that in mind, New Orleans needs to maintain its strong showing here for the season. The Hornets rank as the 8th best defensive rebounding team in the league, rebounding almost 74.4% of misses. The key to rebounding is not just to get good defensive rebounding players (although that helps as well) but also to get players that have a "positive influence" in a team's rebounding numbers. What do I mean?

It's not enough to look at just individual rebounding percentages. Robin Lopez, despite being an awful defensive rebounder, was actually a positive influence on the Hornets defensive rebounding. According toNBAWowy.com, when Robin Lopez was on the court, the Hornets had a DRB% of 75.7% (that would rank 1st in the league). Despite his horrible defensive rebounding rate, the Hornets were a better rebounding team with Lopez on the court, than off.

You may say "but he plays a lot of minutes with Aminu and Davis, our top two defensive rebounders". And this is true. In Lopez' 2136 minutes, he played 1464 of them with Aminu and 1044 of them with Davis. But even if we take those two out (again, using NBAWowy), Hornets still rebounded close to 75.4%.

We're not considering competition here but clearly, Lopez has some sort of effect on our defensive rebounding that goes beyond his individual defensive rebounding. This is something that people must consider when talking about the offseason.

Maintaining Offensive Efficiency

The last issue for the summer will be maintaining offensive efficiency. Offensive Efficiency is a bit easier to quantify, unlike defense. Here's a break down of the Hornets top 10 players in terms of Net Offensive Rating (something Rohan used before). We compare values to league average and see what a player's net effect was to the Hornets Offensive Efficiency.

Player % of Team Poss Individual ORTG Net ORTG Diff
Ryan Anderson 15.2% 114 1.25
Greivis Vasquez 15.6% 105 -0.12
Robin Lopez 10.8% 114 0.89
Anthony Davis 10.2% 113 0.73
Eric Gordon 9.4% 101 -0.45
Brian Roberts 7.2% 109 0.23
Al Farouq Aminu 7.6% 101 -0.37
Jason Smith 5.2% 107 0.06
Austin Rivers 6% 89 -1.01
Roger Mason 4.4% 109 0.14

A couple of notes from this table.

- Austin Rivers almost single-handedly undid all that Ryan Anderson did. In 20 fewer games. As much as we want to celebrate Austin's late season spurt (prior to injury), he still has a long ways to go.

- If Eric Gordon stays with the team and if he's healthy (two huge ifs), I expect him to improve the Pelicans' ORTG onhis own and subsequently help Anderson improve his efficiency (probably closer to 56~58% TS rather than his current TS of 54.8%) and help Davis maintain great efficiency with increased minutes and usage. All three of those will probably be enough to push the Hornets to the top 10 level. Remember, more minutes from an efficient Gordon means less minutes for Rivers/Vasquez and more minutes from an efficient Davis/Anderson means less minutes with Smith/Lopez.

- Lastly, I think it's pretty obvious that the Hornets/Pelicans lack holistic production from the perimeter. Eric Gordon will certainly help with this (approximating his 10/11 form would be a start). But in general, the Pelicans current roster of perimeter players have more negatives than positives.

- Vasquez is a great passer and defensive rebounder who struggles creating his shot on a consistent basis and usually prefers the flashy pass to the easy one. This leads to a lot of turnovers. He's also not a good defender (an understatement. He's a clear negative there).

- Aminu is a great rebounder who knows how to finish inside. He's usually a terror defensively especially on 1-on-1 cases and weakside help. Where he struggles is with his jump shot (which has grown horrible as he ages) and his team oriented defense (double teaming at the right time, rotating to the right player, funneling opponents to help, etc) along with his inability to dribble the ball.

- Rivers is just all sorts of horrible offensively, but he's shown a great feel for using a ball screen to his advantages. He's grown more accustomed to knowing where and when to pass off a ball screen and when to attack. His shoot/pass decision making was getting better as the season aged and his actual shooting got markedly better in the final week or two prior to his hand injury. His defense has also gone up by leaps and bounds (not saying a lot since he was horrible to start) plus he can't do anything with that left hand.

- Roger Mason is strictly a shooter than can execute a team defensive philosophy right but not well (due to physical and sometimes mental limitations and/or errors).

- Brian Roberts is somewhat similar to Mason, only equipped with an ability to do dribble drives and brings less to the table defensively.

- Xavier Henry is just... yeah. He's good at getting to the line and that's about it.

- The big man situation is a little easier to sort because all of them fall into an almost clear hierarchy that everybody sort of agrees on. Also, unlike our perimeter players, their positives usually outweigh their negatives.

Davis and Anderson -- top notch bigs that should be 1 and 2 in terms of minutes.

Lopez and Smith -- elite 3rd bigs that can sometimes substitute as a starter.

Amundson -- adequate fourth big

So with all of that in mind, here is the priority list for the Pelicans offseason:

1. Improving Shooting Defense

a. Get Better Perimeter Defenders

b. Get Smarter Defenders

c. Get Better Interior Defenders

2. Maintain/Marginally Improve our Defensive Rebounding Advantage

a. Get more Rebounding Impact Players (not necessarily good defensive rebounders)

b. Get better defensive rebounders while retaining some of our own (Aminu, in particular)

3. Maintain/Marginally Improve our Offensive Efficiency

a. Natural Improvement i.e. Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis and company not only becoming more efficient but also proper usage allocation

b. Get similarly offensively skilled guys

[Part 3, tomorrow, will detail roster specifics and who the Hornets should and shouldn't retain. -R]

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