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New Orleans Pelicans making incremental progress on defense

Darren Erman has to be pleased with the Pelicans defense in the past two weeks.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans were a disaster on defense in the first couple weeks. Not only were they the worst defense in the league but opponents were still getting to the rim at will in addition to shooting a scorching hot percentage behind the arc. There isn't much going right on defense when opponents are scoring over 1.1 points per possession.

As I stated two weeks ago Darren Erman has fixed a poor defense before and helped turn the Boston Celtics into an excellent defense in the span of a couple weeks. The primary issue, one which has haunted New Orleans for three seasons, is the inability to protect the basket. Opponents were taking over 34% of their shots in the restricted area through six games; actually an improvement from the previous three seasons in the Crescent City where opponents got to the basket on over 35% of their attempts.

Good defensive teams keep that number under 33%. Ideally 30% is the goal as the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, and Washington Wizards did last season to place in the top five in defensive rating. As the season has progressed the Pelicans have improved dramatically in this area. Below are the cumulative shooting stats for the first four weeks of the season.

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
As of November 22nd 32.86% (1.18) 13.76% (0.87) 25.27% (0.76) 22.69% (1.32) 5.42% (0.88) 108.8 (29th)
As of November 15th 32.16% (1.27) 15.32% (0.90) 24.80% (0.78) 23.04% (1.26) 4.68% (0.60) 108.9 (30th)
As of November 8th 34.43% (1.27) 13.15% (0.91) 22.82% (0.80) 24.56% (1.32) 5.03% (0.81) 111.9 (30th)
As of November 1st 33.83% (1.24) 12.41% (0.73) 19.92% (0.94) 28.57% (1.46) 5.26% (0.21) 114.7 (29th)

Restricted area attempts are decreasing in both frequency and effectiveness. Narrowing it down to the last two weeks 31.6% of opponent shots have come in the restricted area and opponents are shooting just 55.6%, which places in the top ten defensively during that span. Not only are restricted area attempts steadily declining but three point attempts are also falling. Opponents are taking many more mid range attempts too. That's the tried and true recipe to good defense.

Unfortunately the Pelican opponents cannot miss from deep. In fact their opponents are shooting 39% on contested 3-pointers so far this year. League average is 29.3%. To make matters worse opponents are converting open attempts 41.2% of the time, where league average is just 35.6%. New Orleans is not allowing an obscene number of open threes either, ranking 11th in the frequency of open 3-pointers allowed.

It is clear both looking at the numbers and watching the games New Orleans is making strides on defense. Beyond the numbers rotations are far more crisp, such as this steal by Eric Gordon against Phoenix on Sunday. That kind of anticipation, by Gordon no less, has been completely absent in previous seasons.

There is still work to be done. The results behind the arc merit continued attention. For once, however, the Pelicans are actually defending the rim. After three seasons of layup lines for opponents it is a significant development.