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Shooting for Success: Pelican Offense Warming Up at the All-Star Break

After a long, cold start to the season the Pelicans finally found the pilot light as the calender flipped to 2015.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It has been nearly a month, and 17 long games since we last revisited the shot selection of our New Orleans Pelicans. The team went 9-8 over that stretch, an impressive feat considering starting point guard Jrue Holiday missed sixteen and a half of of those games, Anthony Davis missed an additional six and a half, and Ryan Anderson missed three.

The  Pelicans were two games out of the playoffs on the morning of January 12th when that published. They currently sit a game and a half out of the playoff race. Despite those absences the Pelicans have largely held the fort on offense. Over those seventeen games New Orleans has posted the 10th best offensive efficiency according to NBA Stats. A slight (but predictable) dip from 7th in the previous 36 games where Anthony Davis missed just one game and Jrue Holiday played every night.

Let's review where the Pelicans are shooting from on the season and then relative "openness" of those attempts.

Shot Selection - Location

As usual, all of this data comes from the NBA Stats website. As with most "advanced" stats, this is basic arithmetic. The number of shots taken from a given area divided by the total shots taken is used to create the frequency found as a percentage in each box. The second number is the field goal percentage from an area multiplied by the number of points that shot is worth.

The total number of field goals attempted thus far is 4,448.

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Offensive Rating
NOLA 2014-15 42.33% (1.12) 12.63% (0.78) 23.45% (0.80) 17.18% (1.05) 5.26% (1.15) 105.6 (9th)
NOLA 2013-14 37.88% (1.14) 15.91% (0.76) 26.93% (0.82) 14.36% (1.13) 4.62% (1.14) 104.7 (13th)
NOLA 2012-13 34.50% (1.15) 16.97% (0.77) 26.16% (0.79) 18.09% (1.09) 4.03% (1.15) 102.7 (16th)
NOLA 2011-12 31.61% (1.17) 18.09% (0.83) 35.08% (0.80) 10.95% (0.97) 4.20% (1.11) 98.3 (26th)

There is some change from January. The team as a whole is shooting less effectively within the restricted area and doing so even more often. The switch from Jrue Holiday at the controls to Tyreke Evans can account for increase in layup attempts while the absence of Anthony Davis figures strongly into why the team is shooting with decreased efficiency.

The increase in attempts at the rim has come as the Pelicans continue to reduce the number of shots taken in the dumb zone. It shouldn't take an degree in mathematics to conclude that layups, even when converted at a 55.8% clip, are more valuable than shots between the restricted area and 3-point line; where New Orleans shoots just 40.1%.

All of this contributes to a slow but steady improvement in the offense while the team eliminates less efficient choices. The year over year improvement in offensive rating is one metric. The "Anti-Morey" or "Dumb" zone shot selection is another.

Pelicans Applying Analytics

This is not to say that players are doing calculations in their head about what kind of shots they should and should not take during the course of the game. Watch just one desperate "dagger" attempt by Tyreke Evans and such notions seem foolish. Instead it is to say that the team, from roster construction to offensive design, attempts to leverage the skill sets of their players into highly specialized roles.

Team "Dumb Zone" Frequency
NOLA 2014-15 36.08%
NOLA 2013-14 42.84%
NOLA 2012-13 43.13%
NOLA 2011-12 53.17%

This is still a far cry from what Daryl Morey is accomplishing in Houston. Just 25.74% of Rocket shots come between in the restricted area and the three point line. There is one big reason (with just one eye brow) to explain why the Pelicans continue to go to the well in the mid range. Of the 1,043 mid range attempts by New Orleans Anthony Davis alone accounts for 332. As it has become abundantly clear in his absence, the space created by just the threat of an AD pick-and-pop is integral to the form and function of this offense.

More Open Threes Please

No area have I been more pleased in the process than how the Pelicans have routinely created open three point attempts.

2014-15 %FGA eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 8.83% 37.12%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 17.34% 40.49%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 2.67% 37.50%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 20.24% 55.18%
2013-14 %FGA eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 10.72% 39.28%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 26.55% 41.41%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 3.06% 46.60%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 16.21% 57.78%

That New Orleans is attempting the most threes in the past four years should come as no surprise. Ryan Anderson has been available, Eric Gordon has been bombing away since his return from injury, Luke Babbitt is a relatively willing shooter, and Quincy Pondexter has opened up things on the wing significantly in his short time here.

The big picture, creating more open three point attempts, is critical. While the Pelican offense is relatively stagnant it creates open shots at the third highest rate in the entire NBA.

This is also not a matter of teams allowing "bad" three point shooters to get looks. The top five players in open three point attempts are Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, and Luke Babbitt. Only one of those players, Evans, is a below average three point shooter for his career. (While we're here, pour one out for Jimmer Fredette, shooting just 21.88% on open threes).

Finishing Strong

Monty Williams is hopeful that Jrue Holiday can return after the All-Star Break. After struggling in the first two months Ryan Anderson shot 39.5% behind the arc in January including an absolutely ridiculous 48.9% in the Smoothie King Center. Eric Gordon is knocking down 49.5% of his three point attempts since returning from a torn labrum. After shooting an awful 23.3% from three in Memphis Quincy Pondexter is slowly regaining his form hitting 34.8% in a New Orleans Pelicans uniform. Those four players could form a significant threat beyond the arc in the next 29 games.

Even Tyreke Evans is shooting 33.9% from three since the calender flipped to 2015. All told the Pelicans are hitting 38.5% of their three point attempts in 2015, good for 4th best in the entire NBA. As I wrote on January 12th, the cold snap was bound to break eventually. New Orleans has delivered in the big picture sense, while one off cold shooting nights have sunk them on occasion.

If a shorter (and more competent) rotation can solidify the Pelicans, as Oleh noted, could be in good shape for a significant run. Injuries, as they have in each of the past two seasons, could derail all of those plans. Hopefully New Orleans can enjoy 29 relatively healthy games to get a solid grasp of both the roster Dell Demps has built and Monty's ability to manage it.