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An early study of the Pelicans defense

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The Pelicans have yet to make good on their promised improvement on defense.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

After 20 days of NBA basketball, the New Orleans Pelicans are the worst defensive team in the league, allowing 109.9 points allowed per 100 possession. That's bad. Like legitimately bad. Consider that the worst defenses of the past two seasons clocked in a number close to that (the worst defenses in 2013-14 & 2014-15 clocked in at 109.1 & 109.6 points allowed per 100 possession).

Don't panic yet though. A lot of that is small sample size (9 games) and playing the only 60-win teams from last season (and 2nd and 6th best offenses in 2014-15) four times in the span of 9 games (not to mention the Dallas Mavericks twice and the Toronto Raptors). But there are real issues here, issues that need to be talked about -- injuries or no injuries -- and issues that will (I hope) be addressed by the team at some point in the coming months.

Simple doesn't mean effective

During media day, the Pelicans, as a team, made a whole fuss about making defense a priority this year. The coaching staff's strategy was to simplify the defensive scheme.

Today, we learned the details of the defensive simplification and it's a rather precipitous drop in the number of difference schemes. According to Eric Gordon, the Pelicans had roughly 15 defensive calls under Monty Williams. This season, the Pelicans will initially employ just 3 of them under Alvin Gentry.

Gordon went on to explain that last year's group "tried to take away too many things." Thus, the chances of a breakdown were significantly higher because the slightest hesitation on a responsibility resulted in a missed assignment, and hence, a normally wide-open look for opponents.

On the simplification, Gentry said the purpose of reducing the number of defensive calls is to take the thinking out of playing basketball. For instance, when the Pelicans encounter a pick and roll in the near future, they're going to play it one specific way.

And it was a sound strategy to start a season. The amount of preparation that goes into scouting the opposition during the NBA season is probably shorter, making the need to cover all your bases (as Monty may have tried to do) not all that necessary. Covering just the first two or three options of 10 or so actions may be good enough on most nights.

But simple doesn't always equal effective. In reality, it doesn't really matter WHAT you do. That's only a means to an end. What's more important is the how and the why. Why are the Pelicans doing X? How are they doing Y?

To answer that question we have to identify what New Orleans is doing differently.

The Reality of the Defense

The Pelicans are employing a much more conservative (and simpler) defensive scheme on ball screens and handoffs -- two of the most used actions in the modern NBA. When they had a multitude of traps (with full-team, cross-matching rotations), switches and what not under Monty Williams, they only have a few now. In fact, Darren Erman, according to Eric Gordon at least, has simplified it to at least 3 basic defensive sets.

On ball screens, they're asking the bigs to drop low/zone and on side ball screens (middle screen), they're icing it. That has been the preferred defensive tactic by NBA teams recently thanks in large part to the success of Thibodeau's Celtics (as lead defensive assistant coach) and Bulls (as head coach) and more recently, the Indiana Pacers pre small-ball.

The idea is simple -- zoning and/or icing on a ball screen discourages shots near the rim since the paint will be packed, allows help defenders to take a step closer to weakside shooters which leaves the ball handler with several bad options: a heavily contested shot in the paint, a kick out to the weakside to restart the offense or take a semi-contested, off-the-dribble long jumper, considered to be one of the worst shots in basketball. It overloads the strong side effectively, negating the entire premise of a ball screen which is to free two people (the ball handler and the roll guy) at once. Executed properly, the number of long 2s taken increase and the number of good shots at the rim or from deep should go down.

Opponent Shots Allowed %Att of 16+ ft 2PTA FG% 16+ ft 2PTA %Att of 0-3 ft 2PTA FG% 0-3 ft 2PTA %Att of 3PTA FG% of 3PTA DRTG
Indiana Pacers (2013-14) 21.3 (3rd) 40.3 (22nd) 25.7 (3rd) 55.8 (1st) 23.0 (3rd-T) 34.5 (3rd) 96.7 (1st)
Chicago Bulls (2013-14) 22.6 (1st) 36.6 (2nd) 27.1 (8th) 60.0 (5th) 23.0 (3rd-T) 35.1 (8th) 97.8 (2nd)
Chicago Bulls (2014-15) 20.8 (1st) 39.5 (11th) 28.1 (11th) 58.0 (1st) 22.6 (3rd) 33.5 (3rd) 101.5 (11th)

As you can see from above, the most famous teams that have employed the tactic of icing and/or zoning off on all their ball screens have done just that: Increased the number of long twos and decreased the shots near the paint and from three.

But if the scheme was that easy to master, everybody in the league would employ it. One of the most important parts of this type of defense is the "nail" and the "chuck" -- two things which the Pelicans haven't mastered (yet), although they are showing signs of understanding how important that part of the defense is over the last few games (probably after a lengthy film session or two).

Let's begin with this excellent excerpt from Doug Eberhardt - resident SBNation contributor and former NBA assistant coach - about the importance of the "nail" as a basketball parlance:

What is the "nail?" One of the key defensive spots on the floor, where teams can literally help stop middle penetration and figuratively shout out their defensive philosophy. The nail is located at the very middle of the free throw line: 15 feet from the middle of the basket, eight feet from the edge of each side of the NBA key.

Middle penetration -- and penetration, in general --  is one of the key things that Gentry and Co. decided to address during the off-season and which is why they also made switching a key part of their defensive scheme. The defender assigned to defend the nail, usually a wing defender, has to be active and smart. If he isn't, the following is what happens.

(It didn't help that Anthony Davis didn't zone up on Stephen Curry.)

Some of you might say the nail defender (in this case, Eric Gordon) was sticking close to his man because it's Klay Thompson . But there are ways for the Pelicans to defend the nail there and still challenge shooters. He could have stationed himself earlier to the nail, or he could have angled his body in such a way that he was defending both the nail and the pass to Klay. Or New Orleans could have had Gordon station himself early at the nail, have Dante Cunningham zone between Thompson and Barnes and just execute a cross switch/full rotation (Cunningham picks up on whoever Steph passes off to, if he does. Whether that's Barnes in the corner or Klay on the wing then have Gordon recover to the other shooter). This wasn't a one time thing mind you. It was one of the most glaring defensive breakdowns I saw in the Pelicans first 5 or so games.

Closely related to the nail defender is the idea of "chucking". This is more for top of the key screens (on or off) and on cuts. The Pelicans have been late in chucking or body tagging rim diving bigs or cutting guards, as Luke Babbitt did here.

Even Alonzo Gee, one of our better overall defenders, wasn't clear.

Eric Gordon did that as well herehere. Gee did it again here, and Babbitt also here.

And then there's just plain miscommunication like -- really bad miscommunication -- that i don't know what happened. Our guards getting hit by bigs? I can accept that. Guarding someone like Curry or Teague can be overwhelming that players might forget to listen to cues from teammates. But things like this?

Gordon was literally looking around trying to find where C.J. McCollum disappeared to. Need I remind you of that horrible Orlando sequence late in the 4th?

What's worse is when all 3 of those combine to make a horrible defensive sequence that results into easy scoring opportunities for our opponents.

Poor Luke Babbitt didn't know Chandler Parsons was already driving to the rim and that he had a non-existent help from the nail that allowed Parsons to literally step through the nail for an easy dunk. Toney Douglas was there (although it's understandable why he wasn't on the nail since he was coming off a switch), Anderson was there (inexcusable). It was as simple as impeding the nail attack. But for some reason, they decided to stick to their men like glue. New Orleans should prefer a 16 ft Zaza Pachulia jumper or an off-the-move 3-pt Raymond Felton shot than that easy dunk.

The Pelicans' defense under this new coaching staff seems more conservative which tells me their defensive style is to force misses instead of force turnovers (since we rarely trap anymore). Right now, New Orleans struggles with forcing misses because of those two things above (miscommunication and lack of nail defense and body tagging cutters and rim divers).

Injuries and the fact that our offense, despite generating better shots, isn't hitting (which means we've had to defend off a miss rather than off a make, which is empirically and theoretically harder) don't help. Teams, on average, yield an eFG of 50.3% coming off a defensive rebound and yield an eFG of only 46.4% coming off a field goal make or a free throw make (as per NBAWowy). The Pelicans allow an eFG of 52.1% coming off a field goal make or a free throw make. That's 3rd worst in the league so there's definitely room for improvement there (lots of it actually).

That's one part of the equation, half court defense. The other part, which is equally responsible for the bad defense, is transition defense. The Pels allow the 12th most fastbreak points to an opponent (14.1 fastbreak points). Worse than that, the Pelicans allow an eFG of 55.1% on attempts coming off a defensive rebound, that's the 3rd worst mark in the league. That also constitutes 29.1% of their opponent's shot attempts -- 5th most in the league.

Discussing that side of the floor is a lot more nuanced since it's dependent on the shots taken, the number of safety used and how they're used (do the Pelicans send 2 players back? 1? 1 in the half court and another completely on the other side). I think the easiest improvement the Pelicans can make on defense is to force misses off their makes because that generates a better continuity. The offense is typically good and once more open shot attempts start dropping, New Orleans will have a lot more half court defensive situations than transition ones.

This isn't to say it's the end of the world for the Pelicans defense. Only 9 games have transpired and a number of them included going up against the best offenses in the league. New Orleans is dealing with a lot of injuries to key systematically good defensive players (I'm talking about Asik, QPon and Cole). No, they're not great defenders in their own right but the system (and the players on the court with them) know their spots better, or at least look like it, when they're on the floor.

More than that, I think it's Davis' job to start being accountable for this, as the de facto leader of this team. Too many times he's been passive on the court. He wasn't defensively sound last year too (for the most part), however he more than made up for it through his athletic gifts and tenacity. Now, there are defensive possessions when he's just not even trying anymore (and he's complaining about every damn non-call he gets). AD has to get his head straight. Any system the coaching staff employs is moot if the Pelicans franchise player isn't playing like one. His offense is coming along nicely, but his defense still has a long way to go from truly being considered a 2-way player in this league.