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In Defense of Anderson-Davis Lineups

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Lowe has a great article on Grantland spelling out the high-wire act that Monty Williams will have to perform in molding the disparate pieces Dell Demps has assembled this off-season into a cohesive bunch. One reservation I have about the piece, though, is a notion that I have seen repeated throughout the basketball blogosphere - that lineups with both Davis and Anderson will be huge defensive liabilities.

It's a significant issue, since many assume that the closing lineup the Pelicans will deploy will be Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis, the team's five best players. If this lineup were to be a defensive catastrophe, any of the mouth-watering offensive possibilities that the lineup presents would be worthless.

The notion that Davis-Anderson lineups are defensively challenged is certainly a reasonable conclusion. Davis, as Lowe rightly notes, hasn't developed the strength to handle centers, and he has yet to master the nuances of playing defense at the NBA level. Anderson, meanwhile, isn't noted as anything more than a mediocre defender. Moreover, Hornets lineups that featured both Anderson and Davis on the floor ceded a cringe-inducing 1.208 points per possession over 690 minutes, almost 15 points per 100 possessions worse than league average.

However, when you dig deeper into last season's lineups, the data starts to tell a different story. Take, for instance, three different permutations of lineups that featured Vasquez at PG, Gordon at SG, and Aminu at SF. Lineups with those players at the 1, 2, and 3 positions accounted for 21% of the team's minutes last year, and were certainly Monty's preferred starters. The three permutations based on this backcourt involve combinations of Anderson, Davis, and Lopez, the Hornets bigs with the most minutes last season. (Note: all the lineup data for this post comes from

Lineups with Vasquez-Gordon-Aminu

Big Man Combination Minutes Defensive Possessions Points Allowed per Possession
Anderson-Davis 105 205 1.063
Anderson-Lopez 133 246 1.118
Davis-Lopez 505 953 1.077

Just over 15% of the minutes that Anderson and Davis played on the floor together were with Vasquez, Gordon, and Aminu, and in those minutes, the Hornets were just a shade worse than league average and far better than the Hornets' season average of 1.101 points per possession. Let's try the same exercise with Rivers at shooting guard, the second most common lineup featuring Anderson and Davis:

Lineups with Vasquez-Rivers-Aminu

Big Man Combination Minutes Defensive Possessions Points Allowed per Possession
Anderson-Davis 43 77 1.052
Anderson-Lopez 144 255 1.118
Davis-Lopez 128 223 1.099

Once again, the Anderson-Davis lineup is better than the Anderson-Lopez and Davis-Lopez lineups. In this case, the Anderson-Davis lineup performs even better than league average, albeit in a smaller sample size. This begs the question: if Davis and Anderson were so good together in these two instances, what lineups made their pairing so atrocious on average?

One of the big culprits was lineups in which Vasquez was pushed to an off-guard position. In lineups that featured Brian Roberts along with Vasquez, Davis, and Anderson, the Hornets ceded an eye-popping 1.328 points per possession over 161 possessions and 92 minutes. The most common final players in these uniformly awful lineups were Austin Rivers, Eric Gordon, and Darius Miller - each lineup can immediately be pegged as having gaping holes in the perimeter defense.

Another possible factor is the presence of Al-Farouq Aminu, the Hornets' go-to wing defender last year. With Aminu on the floor along with Anderson and Davis, the Hornets only ceded 1.114 points per possession, roughly in-line with the Hornets' season average. Moreover, as we saw earlier, combinations of either Gordon or Rivers with Vasquez at the point yielded league-average results. With Aminu on the bench, however, opponents scored 1.26 points per possession.

With this information, the questions about the defensive capability of the Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis lineup pivot towards Holiday and Evans and away from Davis and Anderson. It's unclear whether Evans will be able to use his limited stature (but enormous wingspan) to effectively corral opposing small forwards. And it's equally debatable whether he can even be bothered to make an effort on the defensive side of the court.

Given that Evans will likely be a worse defender that Aminu at the small forward position, replacing Vasquez with Holiday offers some hope for the Pelicans. Due to his inability to cover the quick and shifty breed of point guard in today's NBA, Vasquez is a decidedly poor defender. If Holiday's improvement over Vasquez can come close to equaling Evans's drop-off from Aminu, the Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis lineup could be expected to post a close to league-average defense.