Good defense is difficult to quantify. Television announcers routinely say that great offense beats good defense; a statement typically uttered after a star player has made a relatively improbable shot despite an excellent contest by the defender. However, that is almost always used to define the results of one play. Over the course of a game, a playoff series, or the entire season those contests by-in-large win out. Players shoot worse when they are contested, much worse, a drop of between 10% to 20% from shots deemed "open".
There is another way to dramatically decrease the effectiveness of the opponent, and that is to decrease the frequency of high quality shots the opponent is taking. The top three defenses (according to defensive efficiency) were Indiana, Chicago, and Golden State. And these three teams have a specific scheme against the pick and roll in common.
Frank Vogel’s defensive scheme on the pick and roll has been a major reason for the success on the defensive end of the court. Go over the screen, sag the big man and force a mid-range jumper.
The Bulls, when facing a high pick-and-roll, go into a powerful scripted routine:
• Their point guard, Kirk Hinrich or Nate Robinson, will jump in front of the pick and try to force the ball handler away from the screen and to the left side. I don’t have access to the fancy statistical databases that could verify this, but I’d bet heavy that Chicago is one of the two or three best teams at getting opposing point guards to go left. Hinrich might be a non-entity on offense and one of the most boring players in the league, but he is willing to engage in physical battles to get between a point guard and a pick. "He has always been very, very difficult to screen," says Gar Forman, the Bulls’ GM.
A bonus: By positioning himself between the opposing ball handler and screener at the start of a play, Hinrich stays in or near the passing lane between them as the play develops and each moves toward the rim. Chicago opponents have trouble hitting roll men near the basket because any such pass has to go through a thicket of arms; a startlingly high percentage of shots roll men actually attempt against the Bulls are long 2-point jumpers — the worst shot in the game.
• The big man guarding the screener (Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Boozer) will drop down around the left elbow, hoping to corral the ball handler there. The goal is to force the guard to pick up his dribble so that the big-man defender can return to the big man rolling to the rim.
• The three Chicago defenders guarding the shooters around the perimeter generally stay close to home rather than crashing hard into the paint.
Even with renowned defensive assistant Michael Malone now the Sacramento Kings’ head coach, Golden State has continued the pick-and-roll system it implemented last season. Generally, the player guarding the ball handler forces him inside the arc. The big sags below the screen, yielding a mid-range jumper but preventing a drive or roll to the paint.
"It doesn’t change from game to game," Curry said. "We understand what our identity is as a defensive team, and regardless of who we’re playing, we’re going to stick to the plan.
"There’s only so many options you have at how to guard a pick-and-roll. It’s just the teams that bring the effort every single night, bring the communication, they’re rewarded."
Golden State has certainly been rewarded.
The Warriors force opponents to take 48 percent of their shots inside the 3-point arc but outside the restricted area, a low-efficiency range for most teams. Only the Pacers and Spurs have induced more such shots.
Golden State also allows the second-smallest share of opponents’ shots as corner 3s (4.8 percent). Only the Trail Blazers (4.1) allow fewer of those high-percentage looks.
Treating this as if it is a coincidence would be foolhardy. Terminology changes from scheme to scheme (ICE, Blue, Drop) but the results remain the same. This is not to say that doggedly sticking to such a scheme will work in the playoffs (ask the Spurs last year against Golden State, or Portland this year against San Antonio). However, in the middle of February? A team needs to stick to something that works.
Unlike the dramatic increase in offensive efficiency I discussed last week, the defense was not so lucky. The defense improved from a defensive rating of 107.6 (good for 28th in the league) to 107.3 (26th). Not the kind of improvement the franchise was hoping for, especially after trading for the defensive-minded Jrue Holiday in the off season. Of course Holiday missed 48 games this season (the team put up a Defensive Rating of 106.4 while he was healthy, and 106.2 when he was on the court) but even that would move New Orleans up to just 24th in the league, passing Detroit and the Knicks. To begin, let's compare the Pelicans to the five best defenses in the league across the "Four Factors" defensively.
New Orleans struggles in nearly every facet. Opponents shoot too efficiently, get to the foul line too often, and collect too many offensive rebounds. The foul problem has been rehashed repeatedly. Preferred center Jason Smith (4.3 Fouls per 36 minutes) fouls a lot. Back up options Greg Stiemsma (6.0) and Alexis Ajinca (7.1) foul as if their lives depend on it. In addition, all three of these centers rebound defensively at average (Ajinca - 22.7%) to well below average (Smith - 18.5%, Stiemsma - 18.0%) rates as centers.
Roy Hibbert (4.0 - 15.0%) makes up for his lack of rebounding with league-leading rim protection to anchor the Pacer defense, while Paul George and Lance Stephenson pick up the rebounding slack. Joakim Noah (3.1 - 24.5%) and Andrew Bogut (4.3 - 29.7%) contribute more traditionally for centers on the defensive glass while also providing excellent rim protection.
Rim protection has been all the rage in the fifteen months. First, there was the Sloan Conference, extolling the virtues of Larry Sanders. Roy Hibbert started to make "verticality" a word in the playoffs, ultimately leading to a confrontation with LeBron James. Leading up to the end of this season the NBA decided to release a memo to officials clarifying what is and is not verticality. Lost in all this is the real purpose, deterrence.
Defending shots well at the rim is a good goal to shoot for, a better one would be to limit players from getting to the basket in the first place. Looking over the best defenses in the league, the common thread is not how well their opponents shoot at the basket, it is how often. And the frequency with which Pelican opponents got all the way to the restricted area is a cause for concern.
Below I have a table of the last three seasons for New Orleans along with the top five defenses (according to Defensive Rating) this past season. Each percentage is the frequency their opponent attempted the shot, while the number in parenthesis is the points per shot allowed.
|Team||Restricted Area||Paint||Mid Range||Above Break||Corner 3||Defensive Rating|
|NOLA 2013-14||35.12% (1.26)||13.62% (0.79)||23.70% (0.78)||19.88% (1.00)||7.69% (1.29)||107.3 (26th)|
|NOLA 2012-13||36.41% (1.22)||13.93% (0.77)||23.55% (0.83)||17.84% (1.07)||8.27% (1.27)||107.6 (28th)|
|NOLA 2011-12||33.34% (1.24)||13.22% (0.82)||27.65% (0.74)||18.10% (0.94)||7.70% (0.98)||102.3 (16th)|
|IND 2013-14||29.53% (1.06)||15.74% (0.76)||31.93% (0.78)||17.82% (1.02)||4.98% (1.14)||96.7 (1st)|
|CHI 2013-14||30.31% (1.14)||14.77% (0.76)||32.39% (0.76)||17.98% (1.04)||4.85% (1.14)||97.8 (2nd)|
|GSW 2013-14||28.45% (1.20)||18.53% (0.76)||29.27% (0.77)||18.68% (1.00)||5.07% (1.18)||99.9 (3rd)|
|SAS 2013-14||30.70% (1.17)||17.44% (0.79)||30.53% (0.79)||16.16% (1.05)||5.16% (1.13)||100.1 (4th)|
|OKC 2013-14||33.34% (1.13)||13.11% (0.75)||24.90% (0.77)||21.56% (1.07)||7.09% (1.12)||101.0 (5th)|
Yes, New Orleans allowing 1.26 points per shot in the restricted area needs to be improved upon. Notice, though, that Golden State allowed 1.20 points per shot. The difference is that Pelican opponents shot 35.12% of their shots in the restricted area, compared to just 28.45% for Warrior opponents. The same Golden State team which noted defensive stalwarts Stephen Curry and David Lee were 2nd and 3rd in minutes played this season. The difference between New Orleans and Golden State is less about their ability to defend a shot, and more the Warriors' superior ability to limit where those shots come from. Again, despite employing two well-known defensive minuses on the court much of the time.
Troublesome Data Points
Three specific areas jump out to me. First, and most obviously, is the protection of the restricted area. New Orleans was one of the worst teams at defending that portion of the court in the NBA. The low defensive rebounding rate, slow footed big men, long periods with Brian Roberts guarding the ball handler, and ineffective pick and roll scheme all played a part in allowing that to happen. Pointing to any one of those factors, while technically correct, remains inaccurate without telling the entire story.
Secondly, the extremely low number of mid range shots forced. This is still directly tied to all of the previously listed factors. Opponents have no need to settle for the mid range shot when a slow footed big man with an infatuation for committing shooting fouls awaits at the rim. Brian Roberts had an incredibly difficult time fighting through screens all season despite his best efforts. On the occasion that New Orleans would attempt to hedge hard an immediate 4-on-3 mismatch would be created. You can see that the Pelicans defended the mid range shot in line with the best defenses in the entire NBA, the problem was that opponent were not forced into taking them frequently enough.
Lastly, both the frequency and effectiveness of opponents taking corner three point shots is just horrendous. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Miami Heat allowed more made corner threes than the Pelicans. No team even approaches the 48.2% conversion rate New Orleans allowed from the right corner (Portland was second at 43.8%). Allowing 1.29 points from the corner is atrocious. Going back to last week, no team in the NBA shot that well on the season from the corner.
How to Improve
Initially the goal must be to keep ball handlers from getting into the teeth of the defense. Oklahoma City accomplishes this with raw athleticism and length everywhere. Miami does it by blitzing the pick and roll while maintaining freakishly sound rotations on the back end, a product of playing with a veteran-laden roster. Indiana, Chicago, and Golden State got the job done by sagging back their big man and encouraging ball handlers to shoot those late contested mid range jump shots.
New Orleans does not have to go to a Blue/Ice/Down heavy scheme to get better on defense. In fact with the current personnel and the lack of a big body to consistently defend the basket as Hibbert, Noah, Bogut, and even Duncan do attempting such a scheme could prove disastrous. Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Anthony Davis form a long and athletic assortment of potential plus defenders to build a more complex defense around, one similar to Monty's preferred system. Rohan described it for us three years ago quite well.
At its most simple form, Monty's defense could be characterized thusly- (1) lock Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, and Emeka Okafor man-to-man on the opposition's primary ball handler, primary perimeter scorer, and primary big (2) everybody be ready to rotate. Even without watching a single game or defensive sequence, this sounds like a radical idea. If defensive positions fall away (as "everybody rotate" implies they must), mismatches are inherently implied. Monty's defensive philosophy was to keep rotations so crisp and frequent that in the event of a mismatch, help could swing over before significant damage was done.
The defensive system really resembled an amoeba- constant flow, fully interchangeable parts. It's why we saw David West and Jason Smith often patrolling the top of the key or Willie Green or Quincy Pondexter under the hoop. The key was for these things to happen quickly, for those occasional mismatches to be only a quick slide over away from turning into a thunderous Emeka Okafor block. The Hornets probably played less than half of their total defensive possessions in this full amoeba style, but the concept of constant flow permeated even their stricter man-to-man possessions. Such a free flowing system requires that the anchor points- Paul, Ariza, and Okafor- be extremely strong, but Monty Williams was brilliant to design the system around them, covering for the individual defensive weaknesses of his other players.
This "amoeba" defense has demonstrated potential with a veteran squad capable of communicating and executing. Monty has been quote recently that his defense takes time for players to pick up. It stands to reason veterans would pick it up more quickly than the second youngest team in the NBA.
Regardless of method, keeping the ball out of the paint will have a domino effect. Drive and kick offense is not effective at creating corner threes (another point that should be emphasized for New Orleans this summer) if the drive is stymied and rotations are crisp or unnecessary. Further, another summer working with Tom Thibodeau may give Monty Williams more tools at his disposal to improve defensive execution (along with the coaching from both Williams and Thibodeau that Anthony Davis is sure to receive).
If this team is going to make the playoffs it needs to improve on defense. The offense should naturally improve with the return of Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday. On defense it will take all five players on the court, along with the coaches before and during the game, to get the job done.