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Defense The Key To Success (Or at Least Half the Key)

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Last season, the Pelicans scored 102.7 points per 100 possessions, the 16th best rate in the league. While not exactly impressive, the then-Hornets maintained a respectable offense despite inconsistent health and experience as a unit. Also dragging on this offensive rating is the likely tanking that occurred towards the end of the season, as the Pelicans pursued more enticing incentives. In the final month of the year, the Pelicans finished only 1-7 in the final month, scoring only 99.0 points per 100 possessions, .01 more than the fourth worst offensive team, Orlando, scored during the season. In fact, with Eric Gordon, the team’s primary perimeter threat (when healthy, of course), the Pelicans scored 105.5 points per 100 possessions, slightly below the league’s eight best Lakers.

The Pelicans project to have an even more efficient offense next season. The addition of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans add an effective creator and scorer. Evans finished with an individual offensive rating of 110 at a 22.3 percent usage last season, while Greivis Vasquez recorded a 105 on 23 percent usage. Though Jrue Holiday was aggregately inefficient last season, prior to a dramatic late season drop he was performing at a level warranting his all-star appearance. With the likely developments of Anthony Davis, an increased role for Ryan Anderson, and a healthier Eric Gordon, the Pelicans may breach, or at least approach, the top ten in offensive efficiency.

Of course, it remains to be seen how all the pieces fit together. Grantland’s Brett Koremenos posted an interesting article suggesting that the Pelicans roster would fit well in the drive and kick style offense George Karl used with Denver. Though I personally expect a more pick and roll oriented attack, the point remains that New Orleans has a variety of talented offensive players capable of creating on the ball while complementing each others attacks.

However, the offense should not be the Pelicans primary concern. Last season, the Pelicans allowed 107.6 points per 100 possessions, 3rd worst in the NBA. No playoff team last season had a defense worse than 19th, while other than the Hawks and Bucks, the playoff teams below 12th in defensive rating countered their poor defense with a top-10 offense.

Though their off-season additions are likely known for their offensive exploits, neither a surprise nor indictment as nearly every player is commonly recognized for his offensive feats, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans both have the potential to significantly improve the Pelicans’ defense.

Though Anthony Davis was not dominate his rookie year, the majority of the Pelicans defensive problems were created by the apparently intolerable perimeter defense. Greivis Vasquez is far too slow to compensate for his consistently poor positioning, often forcing Davis or another big to overcompensate to contain his man on screens, if of course Vasquez had not already given his man a lane to the paint.

Defensive flaws permeated the entirety of the Pelicans guard rotation, leaving Al-Farouq Aminu as the sole positive perimeter defensive contributor.

Holiday can be an impactful perimeter defender, pressuring opposing guards preventing offenses from easily entering their sets. Tyreke Evans, criticized as a defender earlier in his career, has improved his conceptual awareness since being moved off-ball by Sacramento.

The Pelicans ability to become an above average to good defense largely hinges on the development of Anthony Davis. Davis though good, was is not the elite defender he will likely become. Given his physical talents, this end result seems inevitable. However, the pace of Davis’ progression will strongly influence the franchise’s immediate future.

To achieve any semblance of success next season, the Pelicans will have to dramatically improve on last year’s defense. This, of course, seems likely, but an improvement from terrible to mediocre may not be sufficient. The degree of improvement, dictated by factors ranging from coaching to player development to health, will foster or destroy any hope at a run for the playoffs.