New Orleans struggled at the center position last season. This directly led to a poor showing defensively, where the Pelicans finished 26th in the league with a 107.3 Defensive Rating. Jason Smith (27 starts at center), Greg Stiemsma (20 starts at center) and company struggled defending the basket, fouled too often, and were unable to corral defensive rebounds. Omer Asik looked at individually should help improve in all of these areas.
The great writers over at Nylon Calculus have been putting out fantastic content on defending the basket. Austin Clemens in particular looked at the impact Tyson Chandler could have for Dallas this season. Tyson Chandler's presence on the court forces teams to take more mid range shots and fewer shots at the basket or behind the three point line. This is the hallmark of good defense in the modern NBA. Recently Nylon Calculus wrote that Shot Selection Matters on offense. It also does on defense.
Pelicans Fail to Force Bad Shots
New Orleans, as discussed in May, struggled not only in the basic four factors of defense (shot defense, rebounding, fouling, forcing turnovers) but also failed to force opponents into lower value shots. Pelican opponents shot too often at the basket and in the short corner, and did so far too well to field an effective defense. Let's review the shots New Orleans has forced opponents into first.
|Restricted Area||Paint||Mid Range||Above Break||Corner 3|
|NOLA 2013-14||35.12% (1.26)||13.62% (0.79)||23.70% (0.78)||19.88% (1.00)||7.69% (1.29)|
|NOLA 2012-13||36.41% (1.22)||13.93% (0.77)||23.55% (0.83)||17.84% (1.07)||8.27% (1.27)|
As discussed in the previously linked article, that just is not ideal defense. Most troubling is the frequency with which opponents get all the way to the basket. Combine opponents getting to the rim at will with a front line which craves to foul and it is a recipe for disaster.
An excellent defense forces opponents to shoot about 47% or more of their shots from the "dumb zone" between the restricted area and the three point line. The top four defenses last year in defensive efficiency last season were between 47.16% (Chicago) and 47.97% (San Antonio). The Pelicans force opponents into these low value shots just 37% of the time. 10% more of opponent field goal attempts come from high value locations against the Pelicans; leading directly to the increase of seven or more points allowed per one hundred possessions.
The difference between a top five defense and a bottom five defense.
Asik and Destroy Dribble Drivers
I wanted an enormous sample size for Omer Asik over the past two seasons to compare his effect on the court to what the Pelicans have trotted out at center. In order to accomplish this I went through every single shot the Rockets faced on the NBA Stats tool over the last two seasons (including the playoffs).
His first year Asik was the starter and replaced largely by Greg Smith; a young but roughly replacement level player. This season Asik came off the bench to spell Dwight Howard, 2nd Team All-NBA Center this season and three time Defensive Player of the Year. Despite that when Asik was on the court opponents attempted fewer shots at the basket (27.7% when on the court vs. 32.7% off) and converted more often (57.3% on the court, 62.1% off) during the 2013-2014 Regular Season.
Below is the total of all shots when Asik has been on the court (6827 total shots) and off the court (8382 shots) over the past two seasons plus playoffs.
|Restricted Area||Paint||Mid Range||Above Break||Corner 3|
|Asik - ON||28.31% (1.21)||15.75% (0.74)||30.16% (0.80)||18.46% (1.05)||7.32% (1.21)|
|Asik - OFF||32.12% (1.26)||15.40% (0.75)||26.08% (0.76)||19.73% (1.06)||6.67% (1.14)|
That is a dramatic effect. When Asik patrols the paint opponents end up taking 45.91% of their shots in the "dumb zone". That number decreases to 41.48% when he sits, despite oftentimes being replaced by Dwight Howard. This increase in high quality shots takes place largely at the basket.
Four Factor Effect
Pelican centers over the last two years have had little positive effect defensively. The "best" center of the bunch was Robin Lopez, who had improved the team in nearly every facet when he was on the court compared to on the bench.
|Lopez - On||51.8%||0.237||14.0%||75.7%||106.6|
|Lopez - Off||52.2%||0.320||15.2%||72.8%||108.8|
None of that says Robin Lopez is a good defensive center. It does, however, say that he is a better defensive center than the players who replaced him when he went to the bench. One note about turnover percentage before we move on. Forcing turnovers does not contribute significantly to being an excellent defensive team. Chicago finished 15th, Golden State finished 16th, Indiana finished 22nd, and San Antonio finished 23rd in forced turnover percentage. Those were the top four teams in Defensive Efficiency.
The Pelicans centers this year struggled mightily.
|Stiemsma - Off||51.5%||0.329||14.9%||74.2%||107.5|
|Smith - On||53.3%||0.263||15.2%||74.3%||107.8|
|Smith - Off||51.0%||0.350||15.1%||73.7%||107.2|
|Ajinca - On||50.8%||0.353||13.8%||75.6%||108.1|
|Ajinca - Off||51.6%||0.332||15.1%||72.7%||108.2|
Ajinca's stats off the court look even worse because his numbers begin after he was signed, most of which came after the injuries began. Stiemsma has the greatest positive contribution, but this looks only at defense. His negative impact on offense far outweighs anything positive shown here. The Pelicans posted a 107.3 Offensive Rating when Stiemsma was chained to the bench, it plummeted to 97.0 when he was on the court.
Let's take a quick look at the overall numbers for the Pelicans defensively last year.
Thus far I have compared Omer Asik's total impact over two seasons to what the Pelicans have done. Now let's narrow that focus to Asik's contributions in 2012-2013 to the Pelicans in 2013-2014. This pinpoints Asik's off court time to periods he was replaced by replacement level players; similar to the ones he is replacing in New Orleans.
|Asik - On||49.3%||0.216||14.6%||76.3%||101.2|
|Asik - Off||51.8%||0.327||15.0%||73.5%||108.1|
The similarities between Houston when Asik was off the court and New Orleans last year are striking. Houston struggled defending shots, fouled at an obscene rate, and could not collect defensive rebounds. That 108.1 defensive rating is elevated considerably thanks to the Rockets giving up 127.0 points per 100 possessions when Asik went to the bench against Oklahoma City in the playoffs.
Examining the Pelicans and the Rockets without Asik side-by-side really illustrates the similarities.
|Pelicans Total (2013-14)||51.5%||0.331||15.1%||73.8%||107.3|
|Asik - Off (2012-13)||51.8%||0.327||15.0%||73.5%||108.1|
Omer Asik has a significant challenge ahead of him; not one too dissimilar from the one he faced night in and out as the starting center for the Houston Rockets. If anything the numbers say the Rockets without Asik (in 2012-13) were a worse defense than the one he is stepping into in the Crescent City. That is before considering any internal improvement from Anthony Davis or the addition of a healthy Jrue Holiday. It also does not include any improvement gained by increased familiarity with Monty's defensive system.
Success is hardly guaranteed. Injuries, scheme, and the opponent's ability to adjust will all be factors. Does Monty Williams double down on his hard trapping scheme with two mobile big men available? Or does he continue to defend more conservatively, as he has slowly adapted toward as the season progressed?
These are all questions that will be answered throughout the season. Questions concerning the impact Asik can (and should) have are not as ambiguous. Omer Asik has made an equally horrendous defense, if not more so, league average with his presence.
His areas of greatest impact are exactly the ones in need of attention in New Orleans. As off-season acquisitions go fans cannot expect more than that.