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Winning Moves, Part V: Establishing an Identity on Defense

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Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Before the start of the regular season (well minus one game), five specific areas will be discussed in depth that I believe will be key in getting the Pelicans to the postseason. They will be as follows:

  1. Greater Ball Movement
  2. Utilizing More Catch and Shoot Situations
  3. Increasing Front Court Touches for Anthony Davis
  4. Correctly Maximizing Rotations
  5. Establishing an Identity on Defense

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Over the last several seasons, the Pelicans' defense as a whole, has been abysmal.

Defensive RTG Opp. eFG% Opp. TOV Ratio DRB% Opp. FT Rate
2012-13 Pelicans 107.6 (28th) 52.0% (28th) 14.6 (25th) 74.4 (8th) .274 (16th)
2013-14 Pelicans 107.3 (26th) 51.5% (24th) 15.1 (17th) 73.8% (21st) .331 (30th)

In 2012-13, personal fouls were not that problematic, but the slower foot speed and hands of a starting lineup, that included Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez, failed to generate turnovers. Conversely last season, the Pelicans did a better job with the TOV%, yet the combination of gambling a little more without adequate paint protection from their centers put the opponents on the line at a ridiculous rate. Together, both groups did a lousy job at preventing the opposition from converting field goal attempts at a good rate.

Obviously, both rosters failed to execute the complexities of Monty Williams defensive play-calling. The Pelicans were unable to take anything away from any part of the opposition's floor. If this season's defense hopes to improve, that needs to change.

Asik and Destroy

Thanks to the wonderful efforts of Austin Clemens, we can show the defensive impact of our center production in 2013-14 in very illustrative pictures. Notice both the efficiencies on the opponents' attempts and their frequencies all over the floor.

As we can observe, all 4 players who manned the center position in 2013-14 had a lot of red and orange colors around the rim. As I've probably said now for the fifth time in this series of articles, that's not good. Nobody was worse than Stiemsma -- just look at the size of that reddish-orange square at the rim!

Also a quick caveat: don't be fooled by the amount of blue that is found on the charts of Ajinca and Stiemsma. Clemens' charts do not include plays that ended in fouls. Considering their Per 36 personal foul rates of 7.1 and 6.0 respectively, those charts theoretically should reflect plenty more bad defense.

Now let's have a look at how the Pelicans' new man in the middle, Omer Asik, fared in Houston.

Hey, that's a lot of blue all around the rim, more than we're accustomed to seeing. We will all most assuredly take as much "player's presence decreases probability that shot is good" stuff as possible.

Nearly as important, notice how many more shots opponents attempted from midrange against Asik than our quartet from last season.

Enacting a Plan

Last season, the Pelicans allowed opponents to shoot 53.4% at the rim, 20th worst in the association. When combined with the fact the team allowed the opposition the 12th most field goal attempts at the rim, we had the start of a bad recipe. But it didn't stop there. The Pellies had the worst free throw rate in the game and the 23rd worst three point rate. Simply put, our team defense was akin to the most vile of concoctions, one that no palate should be asked to endure for 82 games.

The vogue name of the game defensively is to a) protect the rim b) run teams off the three point line, and if you can get to a c) force teams to live in the midrange area. With the acquisition of Omer Asik, step A is within our grasp. Can we move onto step B?

Since Monty Williams became the head coach in New Orleans, below are the opponent three point rates in each of his four seasons.

Opp. 3-point Rate Defensive Rating Opp. FG% within 5 feet Opp. attempts within 5 feet
2010-11 24.5% (26th) 102.5 (10th) 61.5% (23rd) 24.6 (2nd)
2011-12 25.9% (29th) 102.3 (16th) 60.3% (24th) 28.3 (14th)
2012-13 26.2% (24th) 107.6 (28th) 59.1% (16th) 30.7 (25th)
2013-14 27.8% (23rd) 107.3 (26th) 61.3% (25th) 30.3 (20th)

Despite fluctuations in overall rated defense, and attempts and FG% within five feet, the opponent's three point rate has consistently remained high. During Monty's tenure, can you remember all the instances where the entire defense would collapse into the middle in an all-out-effort to stop penetration and hence a close-in shot? But to our dismay, the opponent would kick the ball out to a wide open three point shot and drain it? That was Monty prioritizing only the protection of the rim.

That needs to change.

(As an aside, notice that while the rate has gone up each year, the rank has largely gone down. This has been the effect of teams adding value to the three point shot. Cough, New Orleans!)

Theoretically, if you've got excellent paint protectors, the players guarding those on the wings should be able to stay closer to their men, and hence, dissuade at least easy attempts from that area of the floor. This should hold even more true when you've got three quick players as the Pelicans do in Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans.

Concluding Thoughts

At the time I decided upon the five topics for the Winning Moves series, I expected this Part V to have the smallest chance of succeeding  -- Monty Williams has exclusively sought to defend the paint. If necessary, we've witnessed all five players collapse to prevent penetration and easy close-in scores.

Nevertheless, this preseason we witnessed the development of an interesting trend. The Pelicans suddenly seemed to care about the three point line, both in shooting from it and defending it. In the seven preseason games, the Pelicans gave up an opponent 3PA rate of 22.0% and a 3PA field goal percentage of 28.1%. The attempts rate would have ranked second in the league last year, and obviously, the field goal percentage first.

(For comparison's sake, the Pelicans gave up a 26.8% three point rate and a 38.1 3FG% in the previous preseason.)

It's not the worst thing in the world to merely be good in one aspect on defense, especially if it's paint protection. After all, the 2013-14 Charlotte Hornets had a good deal of success by allowing the fifth lowest FG% inside of 5 feet while sitting below average in opponent three point rate and three point field goal percentage.

However, the top 4 defenses last year had both a top 10 opponent FG% within 5 feet and a top 10 opponent three point rate. The Bulls, Pacers, Spurs and Warriors were simultaneously excellent in both objectives -- paint protection and limiting three point attempts.

In the first game of the regular season, the Pelicans allowed the Magic to take only 13.1% from three point land. Will it continue? If it can, the Pelicans' defensive ceiling will be much higher and they could conceivably challenge for a ranking inside the top 10.

Hey, you mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.