The last time we got together about the defense was just seven games into the season. At the time the outlook was bleak. Opponents were continuing to get to the foul line at astounding rates while New Orleans found themselves unable to corral defensive rebounds. These weaknesses, the hallmark of the disastrous 2013-14 season when Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma, and Alexis Ajinca ineffectively patrolled the paint, were supposed to be solved with the arrival of Omer Asik. Had the Pelicans made a grave mistake in trading for the Turkish Delight?
It turns out, not so much. While a revolving door at small forward, horrendous bench, and the absence of Jrue Holiday have had a predictably negative impact on the defense there are some glimmering signs of improvement. Not nearly of the sort hoped for when Asik arrived in New Orleans, but his impact has been felt in predictable ways defensively. Let's take a look.
In the days following the initial announcement of the Omer Asik trade I wrote the following.
The Pelicans could not defend the rim, they could not gather defensive rebounds, and they could not defend the corner three. All of these tied into a lack of talent at the center position. The players available fouled too often and rebounded too little. When they were in position to defend, they fouled. Far too often, they were not in position.
This season the Pelicans are forcing a lower effective field goal percentage. They are fouling much less often. Last year Pelicans opponents made a living at the foul line, where the Pelicans ranked dead last in the league. This season they rank 11th. Control of the defensive glass was not much better, ranking 21st. With Asik patrolling the paint they have improved to 12th. In the areas of greatest need Omer Asik has delivered. The remaining defenders are a work in progress.
|Restricted Area||Paint (Non-RA)||Mid Range||Above Break 3||Corner 3||Defensive Rating|
|NOLA 2014-15||37.62% (1.18)||13.91% (0.78)||24.69% (0.83)||18.52% (1.00)||5.28% (1.26)||105.8 (25th)|
|NOLA 2013-14||35.12% (1.26)||13.62% (0.79)||23.70% (0.78)||19.88% (1.00)||7.69% (1.29)||107.3 (26th)|
|NOLA 2012-13||36.41% (1.22)||13.93% (0.77)||23.55% (0.83)||17.84% (1.07)||8.27% (1.27)||107.6 (28th)|
|NOLA 2011-12||33.34% (1.24)||13.22% (0.82)||27.65% (0.74)||18.10% (0.94)||7.70% (0.98)||102.3 (16th)|
Percentages are frequency of attempts in an area out of all attempts. Numbers in parentheses are points per shot.
There are some positive trends here, but the number of shots allowed in the restricted area must be addressed. Pelican opponents attempt the most shots in the restricted area. While the Pelicans force them to shoot just 59%, 11th best in the league, the sheer volume of attempts is sinking New Orleans on the defensive end. This could be a choice.
While New Orleans defends the rim relatively well (despite failing to deter opponents) they have improved remarkably in other areas. The significant drop in corner threes allowed is the brightest data point. Pelican opponents attempt just 4.4 corner threes per game. Only the Chicago Bulls (3.7) and Washington Wizards (4.4) come close in such deterrence.
All told Pelican opponents are attempting 38.6% of their shots from the "Dumb Zone" this season. This is the first time opponents have attempted more shots than the Pelicans from this area since the beginning of the rebuild.
|Dumb Zone Difference|
|Twos - Defended (Less than 4 Feet)||51.7%||48.3%|
|Twos - Open (Greater than 4 Feet)||23.8%||52.3%|
|Threes - Defended (Less than 4 Feet)||4.8%||44.8%|
|Threes - Open (Greater than 4 Feet)||19.1%||54.3%|
|Twos - Defended (Less than 4 Feet)||48.6%||50.4%|
|Twos - Open (Greater than 4 Feet)||23.7%||51.8%|
|Threes - Defended (Less than 4 Feet)||5.5%||38.0%|
|Threes - Open (Greater than 4 Feet)||22.3%||57.3%|
Data from NBA Savant
No area shows greater promise than here. The Pelicans allowed 46% of shot attempts last season to come without a defender within four feet. That number has dropped to 42.9%. As I noted early in the season, the Indiana Pacers open shots on 43.3% of all attempts during their stifling 2013-14 campaign. Not only are the Pelicans challenging more shots, those challenges are more effective. This season Pelican opponents are posting a 48.0% eFG% when a defender is within four feet. Last year that number was 49.1%.
There is also quite a bit of luck involved in "good" defense. As Seth Partnow points out for Nylon Calculus, sometimes players just miss open shots.
I and others have talked about the amount of sheer chance involved in opponents making or missing jump shots. Looking just at what I’ve described as "wide open" threes3, there is wide spread between teams on the percentages shot by opponents. As of Tuesday, there was a gap of over 8 percentage points between Portland’s NBA best "defense" on these shots (34.2%) as compared with Miami’s league worst 42.5% allowed.
Assuredly Pelican opponents converting fewer "open" threes (and more open twos) this season compared to last is a matter of luck more than anything else. That luck, as New Orleans has demonstrated with crippling effects on offense, proves the old adage that the NBA is a "make or miss league." What Monty Williams and company should attempt to control is the frequency of open looks. In that area the Pelicans have shown clear progress.
After the All-Star Break ends things should be very interesting. The return of Jrue Holiday should hypothetically shorten the Pelican rotation to just eight players; Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter, Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, and Ryan Anderson. Just one of those players, Anderson, is a clear minus on defense. Beyond those eight the next two up appear to be Toney Douglas (relatively average defensively) and Alexis Ajinca (all the potential in the world to do well on defense if he could just stop fouling).
If this team can get a bit of injury luck the next 29 games should tell us all we need to know about Monty's future in New Orleans.