The Boston Celtics had just lost their fifth consecutive game and their record stood at a lowly 4-11. They had the 27th ranked defense in the NBA, allowing a ghastly 107.5 points per 100 possessions. Opponents were shooting 39.5% behind the arc, the worst mark in the entire league. Darren Erman was the "defensive coordinator" for that squad, taking over for the recently departed Ron Adams. At that moment the Golden State Warriors, under the guidance of Adams, had the best defense in the league. The date was December 2nd and a trip to the lottery, not an eventual playoff berth, appeared on the horizon.
Luckily things got turned around in a hurry. In the next 67 games the Celtics ranked 10th in defensive rating, finishing 12th on the season. Attempts at the rim decreased, 3-pointers stopped falling at record rates, and Boston went 36-31. The defense led the way as the offense (20th in the league) was hardly a juggernaut.
It is much earlier but Erman looks at a similar problem. The New Orleans Pelicans are 0-6 and the defense is atrocious. Opponents are scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions and shooting 46.4% behind the arc. Some of that is bound for regression; there are only so many more games against Stephen Curry and Kyle Korver. Those games currently compose 50% of the data. The other issue, which has been a sore spot in New Orleans for the past couple seasons, is the inability to defend the rim.
Stats don't paint a pretty picture
Thankfully, we have evidence that Erman's tactics are indeed successful. Let's take a look at Boston through those first 15 games and compare to what the Pelicans have done so far.
|Team||Restricted Area||Paint||Mid Range||Above Break||Corner 3||Defensive Rating|
|BOS 2014-15||34.14% (1.23)||17.69% (0.88)||23.23% (0.75)||18.78% (1.17)||6.16% (1.33)||107.5 (27th)|
|NOLA 2015-16||34.43% (1.27)||13.15% (0.91)||22.82% (0.80)||24.56% (1.32)||5.03% (0.81)||111.9 (30th)|
From NBA Stats. Percentages are how often opponents shoot from each range. Within parenthesis lies the points per shot.
There is certainly some cause for concern at the amount of 3-point attempts allowed, but that can be explained in part by the opposition. Of the six games New Orleans has played five are against teams ranking well above league average in 3-point attempts. Golden State (3rd), Portland (4th), Dallas (10th), and Atlanta (11th) are all more than willing to launch behind the arc. If Pelican opponents are still taking 30% of their shots from deep after 20 games I will be the first to sound the alarm but I suspect those numbers will decline to a degree naturally as the opponents change.
In the paint the story is very similar for both Boston last year and New Orleans this year. Neither does a very good job defending the rim or keeping opponents from getting all the way to the basket. The Celtics improved as the season went along and the acquisition of defensive specialist Jae Crowder is certainly a part of the reason.
Dell Demps need not swing any trade to add a great defender. As we have seen Omer Asik also provides a significant boost to interior defense while forcing a much greater number of mid-range attempts.
A firm date on the Turkish big man's return to action remains outstanding, the hallmark of the (unnecessary) secrecy on Airline Drive the past few seasons. However, even in his absence New Orleans is actually allowing fewer attempts at the rim (34.43%) than they did last year for the entire season (39.9%, which is absolutely abysmal) when Asik was on the bench. For every big man on the roster fewer attempts are coming at the basket than they did last season, without the help of the anchor to hold everything down.
The Pelicans are down two and a half of their best defensive players due to injury. Beyond Asik this team is missing the contributions of Quincy Pondexter (another solid communicator as we heard when he was mic'd up) and the other half of Jrue Holiday.
For all the highlights Anthony Davis is capable of putting on tape he also fails to rotate at an infuriating rate. Davis is an amazing player and will be an all-time great at his current trajectory. As a defender, especially on the back line, he leaves a lot to be desired in terms of basic execution. Despite those misgivings he's still one of the best defensive players on this roster. The expectations that Davis would be a defensive player of the year candidate appear misplaced.
Schedule doesn't let up
Improvements are likely but the schedule won't be doing the Pelicans any favors in November. There are no schedule wins on the horizon as long as the injured list looks like a starting roster for an Eastern Conference contender. A team starting Ish Smith is going to be limited. Add in Toney Douglas as his back-up and expectations for victory seem foolish.
Still, with 76 games to go the team hasn't been mathematically eliminated yet. As of Monday morning they sit 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. They were 3.5 games out with 11 remaining last season. Maybe we can stow the pitchforks longer than a week.