The Pelicans moved to 5-3, and although they added some lopsided data after their 139-91 destruction of the Timberwolves, the Pels have the 3rd best offense in the league. The question I want to answer is can the Pelicans success translate to the other end of the floor?
Coming into the season, I was curious to see how good the Pelicans would be defensively after adding our new anchor in Omer Asik. Only 8 games in, the Pelicans sit 13th in defensive rating, but there is hope they can improve and become a top defensive team.
So let’s take a look at the pieces needed to build a top defensive team. After looking at the top defenses from last year and asking others on what they believe is needed, I have decided to compile a relevant small check list of key ingredients:
Great Rim Protection
I’ll take two please...oh wait we already do. The Pelicans have two GREAT rim protectors in Omer Asik and Anthony Davis. Davis’ shot blocking presence makes opponent re-consider their shot selection when he’s on the court; Davis currently leads the league in blocks with 4.1 a game.
Meanwhile, Asik is number one in opponents FG% at the rim (out of top 10 defenders with most FGA at rim per game) with 41.4%.
Elite Wing Defender
As a yes or no question, I'd have to lean towards no to an elite wing defender. Now whilst the Pelicans don’t have a Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard to guard an opponent's best perimeter player, they do have Jrue Holiday.
When asked to name the best on-ball defender in the NBA, none other than Andre Iguodala didn’t hesitate with an answer.
"Jrue Holiday," Iguodala said of his former Sixers teammate last month.
Holiday’s quickness, size and savvy make him especially tough against the point guards and other perimeter players around the league, according to Iguodala.
But what makes this high praise isn’t just because it came from Iguodala, a player many in the league acknowledge as the best perimeter defender in the NBA, but also because the moniker "best defender" is really something that comes through word of mouth.
There is no real statistic that can properly quantify who plays defense best. Sure, there are stats like blocks and there are advanced metrics that show how a player performs over 100 possessions, but what about the guy who plays defense so well that his man never gets the ball? Or what about the player who is so good at playing defense that the opposition hits him with a barrage of picks and contact to keep him off the ball?
Despite the fact that Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon have shown to be average to good on-the-ball defenders, they’re both still awful off-the-ball. Enter Holiday, who can mitigate these shortcomings due to his height, quickness, and strength.
Another method of alleviating a lack of an elite wing defender could be to make greater use of Davis. This would obviously be situational, but if Tyreke is having problems, why not? Say when facing Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or maybe Rudy Gay? We’ve seen the three big line-up (Ryno, AD, Asik) and usually the Pelicans have rotated into a 2-3 zone in such instances. Personally I’d like to see Monty expand on it. Remember when Melo thought he could take AD one on one?
Defensive Schemes to Fit Personnel
Last season, I would have written a few paragraphs hating on Monty’s defensive schemes, but right now, I don’t really have a major complaint. Something that ALL five top defensive teams did last year was ICE the Pick and Roll. This is where the screener defender sits back and the guard goes over the screen to make it difficult for the ball handler to attack the rim or try a possible 3 point attempt. The shot it does give up is an inefficient long mid-range shot, which could still conceivably be contested with a long player like Davis.
This was something I was pleading for from Monty coming into the year and he has delivered. The Pelicans are currently still adjusting to this and you can tell by the focus of the players on new help scheme that comes with it. In the long run, this should also improve the Pelicans team defense instead of isolating a current threat a la a pick and roll.
With two great rim protectors in Anthony Davis and Omer Asik, it’s obvious the paint should be on lock down. The Pelicans have made it tougher to take the highest percentage shot in the league (at the rim) in theory. As David mentioned the other day, it has yet to work ideally in practice.
Eventually, the ‘Block Brothers’ (yes I love that name) will further limit attempts and %'s in the paint, but it is heartening the Pelicans are giving up less three point shots this season. They currently are sixth in opponent three point rate and more importantly, sit eighth in opponent three point field goal percentage.
Once everything clicks, the Pelicans will have taken away the most effective shot and the most efficient shot! What will that leave? All the more inefficient shots in between, and hopefully, the vast majority will consist of long mid-range shots.
So…How are they going to become a top defensive team again?
First, I believe the tools exist to become a top defensive team. Second, the scheme has improved.
But why are we still an average defense?
A small sample size of 8 games against some really good offenses -- Cavaliers, Mavericks, Spurs. In addition, the Pelicans just gave up 90+ points in their previous two games versus the Lakers and Timberwolves, Both of which should not have cracked 90, but since they were blow outs, the young Pelicans allowed complacency to sink in. This was something Anthony Davis was furious with after the Lakers game. That's a great sign and it was evident in the Pelicans play at the start of the Wolves game.
To conclude, I feel the Pelicans have the potential to become a top 8 defensive unit if they remain healthy and natural progression continues to occur. With their personnel and a new blueprint in hand, they'll come to learn to play more effectively as a unit in time and be better apt to handle mental hurdles such as complacency.