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Shooting for Success: Pelicans Improving on Defense?

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New Orleans needed to find a way to defend the paint, stop fouling, and collect rebounds. The results are mixed.

You didn't think this would be easy, did you Kobe?
You didn't think this would be easy, did you Kobe?
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back! Last week I took a look at the Pelicans ability to create open shots and improving their shot selection. This week we turn our attention to the defense with three more games (San Antonio, Cleveland, and the Lakers) of data pumped into the machine. The sample is still small; all standard caveats remain in effect.

Warnings properly posted - Let's dive in!

Four Factors - Eww

Four Factors eFG% FTAr TOV% DReb%
NOLA 2014-15 48.7% 0.315 13.7% 73.4%
NOLA 2013-14 51.5% 0.331 15.1% 73.8%
NOLA 2012-13 52.0% 0.274 14.6% 74.4%
NOLA 2011-12 48.5% 0.287 15.2% 73.1%

Some of this can be explained by the opponents. Cleveland and the Lakers went to the foul line a lot. The Orlando game was pretty ugly all around. Memphis is big and attacks the glass.

Those numbers still are not pretty. New Orleans is fouling opponents too often and still failing to secure defensive rebounds at an acceptable rate. What's going wrong? Omer Asik is propping up the entire defense on his broad shoulders. When Omer is patrolling the paint the Pelicans free throw attempt rate allowed (FTAr) dips to 0.266 and their defensive rebounding rate soars to 78.5%. When he sits opponents FTAr ratchets up to an absurd 0.383 and the Pelicans gather in just 66.1% of defensive rebound opportunities.

Anthony Davis has similar but less marked effects on the team defensively. The few moments when both are on the floor have been abject disasters. Taking a look at the On/Off Numbers for each player demonstrates the deficiencies quite clearly. Alexis Ajinca's time on the court could not be going more poorly on the defensive end right now. His improbable 13.3 personal fouls per 36 minutes is a testament to the pace he is on so far.

Shots Allowed - Slightly Better

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
NOLA 2014-15 38.81% (1.18) 13.81% (0.48) 23.77% (0.91) 17.48% (1.02) 6.12% (0.94) 106.6 (15th)
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)

Percentages are frequency of attempts in an area out of all attempts. Numbers in parentheses are points per shot.

Allowing opponents to shoot so often in the restricted area is not ideal and a big reason why opponents are getting to the foul line so prolifically. However, there are a couple positive data points. Opponents are finishing at the basket less efficiently; much of this thanks to Omer Asik holding opponents to 39.7% on the nine shots per game he is defending.

Pelican opponents are also shooting far fewer threes than they did last season. Appropriately weighing opponents comes into play with that particular stat. Orlando, Memphis, and Charlotte lacked shooters while the Lakers have a coach who believes his team should aim to shoot 15 or fewer threes a game. Of course in Dallas, Cleveland, and San Antonio the Pelicans may have faced three of the best offenses in the league; two of which were on the road.

Shot Defended - That's More Like It!

NOLA 2014-15 %FG eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 Feet) 54.2% 46.6%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 Feet) 21.9% 53.6%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 Feet) 6.0% 39.7%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 Feet) 17.9% 52.3%
NOLA 2013-14 %FG eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 Feet) 48.6% 50.4%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 Feet) 23.7% 51.8%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 Feet) 5.5% 38.0%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 Feet) 22.3% 57.3%

This is the area where improvement is most clearly shown. Last year 46% of opponent shots were launched without a New Orleans Pelican defender within four feet to challenge or alter the shot. This season that number is down to 39.8%. (The Indiana Pacers allowed 43.3% of shots to be open last season for a point of reference.) New Orleans opponents failing to get open shots as frequently as last season has directly decreased the eFG% allowed - the source of much of the Pelican defensive progress.

The other part of the equation is the quality of the defensive challenges. Last season when the Pelicans were defending (within four feet) opponents still managed to post a 49.1% effective field goal rate. This season that number is down to 45.9%. Which Pelicans are most to thank for the improved defense? The results will surprise you.

Shots Defended - Grouped by Defender

Shot Defended

Blocking shots and defending the rim are not necessarily linked (1-to-1) skills. The Pelicans, for instance, could not defend the rim last year despite leading the entire league in blocked shots. Anthony Davis, absurd stat line and leading the NBA in blocked shots, still allows opponents to shoot 52.9% at the rim. Also, according to the data from NBA Stats Anthony Davis blocked nine shots where he was not the closest defender. Give and take.

Of particular interest to me is how often players are defending shots; not just how well. Considering the volume of shots at the rim and big men taking up residence closest to the basket Asik, Davis, and Anderson will be at the top of this list.

FG-Defended MIN Per 36 MIN
Omer Asik 65 199 11.8
Ryan Anderson 43 184 8.4
Anthony Davis 60 261 8.3
Tyreke Evans 45 246 6.6
Jrue Holiday 42 242 6.2
Austin Rivers 22 145 5.5
Eric Gordon 27 236 4.1

Each big man's role on the court does much to explain their order. Asik is always the center when on the floor; defending the opposition's most likely candidate to stay near the rim. Anderson is a power forward on offense but defends centers when paired with Anthony Davis. Davis has logged very few minutes where he matched up against opposing centers.

Taking these two sets of data in concert (along with the guarded/open data previously) it becomes apparent the tremendous value Omer Asik provides on the court. Despite defending 11.8 shots Asik is committing just 2.6 fouls per 36 minutes. According to Seth Partnow's data at Nylon Calculus Asik is one of the most valuable rim protectors in the league so far. A look at the four factors and defensive rating for Asik on and off the floor spells out his contributions in the starkest terms.

eFG% FTAr TOV% DREB% DRtg
Omer Asik - On Court (199 MIN) 48.5% 0.266 14.5 78.5% 101.1
Omer Asik - Off Court (136 MIN) 49.0% 0.383 12.7 66.1% 110.5

Outlook

The Pelicans so far this season have shown signs of life defensively followed by disconcerting stretches (especially those with both Asik and Davis sitting) of poor execution. Asik has delivered on the promise of defending the rim without fouling while gobbling up rebounds. The hope that his presence would deter teams from penetrating the Pelican defense remains unfulfilled.

Can the Pelicans tighten the screws? It remains to be seen. The ability to challenge shots is there. Schematically forcing opponents into less efficient choices, particularly around the rim, lags behind. Are the Pelicans doing a better job running opponents off the three point line? Or are the diminished attempts due to sample size and opponents?

These questions will be answered in due course. For the moment note the areas that are improving and keep an eye out for Monty Williams and company to find a way to keep the opposition out of the paint.

Stats from NBA Stats, NBA Savant, and Nylon Calculus