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Shooting for Success: Pelicans defense does not improve enough to save Monty Williams

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Despite adding a defensive specialist in Omer Asik the Pelicans did not improve a lot on defense. That lack of progress ultimately cost Monty Williams his job.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2013-14 season the Pelicans defense was abysmal. They ranked 26th in defensive rating and got worse as the season wore on. Injuries played a part in that, but the personnel and scheme were also to blame. New Orleans attempted to hedge hard against the pick and roll leading to disastrous results. When they weren't making layups Pelican opponents were at the foul line, New Orleans ranked dead last in free throw attempt rate allowed. Even if they did force a miss the Pelicans rebounded defensively at a poor rate, 21st in the league according to Basketball Reference.

Reviewing the Pelican defense last season I hoped that Monty Williams would pick up a thing or two from Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. At the time New Orleans lacked a wide body center to move toward the conservative schemes popularized by Thibodeau and mimicked by the Indiana Pacers. However, a summer with Thibodeau for Williams and Anthony Davis during the FIBA World Cup could have the desired effect on defensive improvement.

Regardless of method, keeping the ball out of the paint will have a domino effect. Drive and kick offense is not effective at creating corner threes (another point that should be emphasized for New Orleans this summer) if the drive is stymied and rotations are crisp or unnecessary. Further, another summer working with Tom Thibodeau may give Monty Williams more tools at his disposal to improve defensive execution (along with the coaching from both Williams and Thibodeau that Anthony Davis is sure to receive)

This year the Pelicans did a 180 in many respects. They did away with the aggressive pick and roll scheme and turned into one of the most conservative defenses according to Vantage Sports. Much of that can be attributed to the arrival of Omer Asik from the Houston Rockets. Asik thrives dropping back and presenting difficult choices for ball handlers through superb footwork and positioning.

Hedge Rate

I hoped Asik could solve the puzzle for the Pelicans. Force inefficient shots, don't foul everything that moves, and secure defensive rebounds to end possessions. Let's take a look at the Pelicans progress.

Four Factors Snapshot

There is a lot of good information here on where the Pelicans have taken a step forward on defense. Their shot defense improved, they stopped fouling so much, and they collected more defensive rebounds. One area they dropped back was forcing turnovers, not at all surprising with the decision to become less aggressive.

Four Factors eFG% FTAr TOV% DReb%
NOLA 2014-15 49.6% 0.257 13.0% 75.1%
NOLA 2013-14 51.5% 0.331 15.1% 73.8%
NOLA 2012-13 52.0% 0.274 14.6% 74.4%
NOLA 2011-12 48.5% 0.287 15.2% 73.1%

Opponents Find Cheap Beach Front Property in New Orleans

Defending the rim is an inexact science. In 2013-14 the Pelicans led the NBA in blocked shots but were horrible at keeping opponents out of the paint. That trend continued this season. New Orleans was first in blocks per game, and last in the NBA in deterring opponents from attempting shots in the restricted area.

There were, however, a number of areas where the Pelicans improved. They were the best team in the league at dissuading opponents from corner 3-point attempts. Opponents also shot more often from the "dumb zone", that inefficient area between the restricted area and the 3-point line. Only the Houston Rockets were more effective defending the 3-point line.

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
NOLA 2014-15 36.71% (1.20) 15.38% (0.79) 24.50% (0.79) 18.31% (0.96) 5.10% (1.18) 104.7 (22nd)
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)
GSW 2014-15 30.39% (1.17) 17.54% (0.72) 27.48% (0.76) 19.39% (0.99) 5.20% (1.15) 98.2 (1st)
MIL 2014-15 35.28% (1.15) 11.69% (0.72) 23.64% (0.77) 19.70% (1.00) 9.69% (1.11) 99.3 (2nd)
SAS 2014-15 33.24% (1.16) 16.17% (0.76) 28.19% (0.77) 16.44% (1.05) 5.96% (1.19) 99.6 (3rd)
MEM 2014-15 30.06% (1.21) 15.41% (0.75) 26.46% (0.79) 20.63% (1.02) 7.44% (1.18) 99.9 (4th)
WSH 2014-15 29.23% (1.17) 15.20% (0.77) 28.12% (0.77) 21.59% (1.04) 5.85% (1.10) 100.0 (5th)

Comparing the Pelicans to the best defenses in the league points out the biggest issue; rim deterrence. Beyond the Milwaukee Bucks (an outlier of length and youth) a specific formula rears its head in successful defense; 33% or less attempts occurring in the restricted area and 26% or more attempts coming from mid range. Diving deeper into the shot selection when specific Pelicans, especially big men, were on the floor demonstrates who creates such conditions of engagement.

Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
Ajinca On 37.9% (1.12) 16.2% (0.82) 23.0% (0.80) 18.3% (0.88) 4.6% (1.27) 104.0
Davis On 36.9% (1.21) 15.5% (0.72) 24.9% (0.77) 17.8% (1.00) 4.9% (1.10) 103.3
Anderson On 39.6% (1.21) 13.7% (0.73) 22.7% (0.85) 18.7% (0.95) 5.3% (1.31) 108.7
Asik On 33.5% (1.20) 15.9% (0.80) 27.3% (0.82) 17.8% (1.01) 5.5% (1.17) 103.3
Asik Off 39.9% (1.19) 14.9% (0.78) 21.6% (0.77) 18.8% (0.92) 4.7% (1.20) 106.2

Jimmy Smith of the Times-Picayune has suggested that Alexis Ajinca could defend the rim as well as Omer Asik.

Overall this season, the Pelicans' center play merits a C-minus, and that's made better simply because Alexis Ajinca proved he can be every bit as solid as a starter as Asik was.

Ajinca has far more offensive ability than Asik, ran the floor much better defensively, and defended the rim at a more efficient pace than Asik, if you consider blocked shots part of rim protection.

Asik blocked 54 shots this season in 1,982 minutes on the floor while Ajinca swatted away 51 in 957 minutes.

Using Smith's own logic the Pelicans, leading the league in blocked shots for two consecutive seasons, are one of the league's best at defending the rim. No one would actually make that assertion.

Deterrence is the greater issue at hand, one explained at great length by Austin Clemens last year for Nylon Calculus. It is easy to look at where opponent shoot when Asik is on the court (43.2% of shots from the dumb zone, 33.5% at the rim) and off (36.5% from the dumb zone, 39.9% at the rim) to demonstrate his effect. No other Pelican big man comes close to forcing opponents into less efficient choices, not even Anthony Davis.

Oh boy Ryan Anderson, that's not a good look at all.

Pelicans Defend More Shots

We can dive even further into the Pelican shot defense. Thanks to SportVU and NBA Savant not only can we tell where opponents shot, but where the closest defender was in relation to the shooter.

2013-14 %FGA eFG%
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% 54.3%
2014-15 %FGA eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 52.4% 48.4%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 23.8% 52.1%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 4.6% 42.4%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 19.0% 52.0%

This is the area of greatest success for New Orleans. A defender was nearby much more often compared to the previous season. The defense of the three point line was particularly good. Look at how they compare to the best defense in the league.

2014-15 - Golden State %FGA eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 51.1% 45.0%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 24.2% 47.7%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 5.5% 45.2%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 19.3% 52.0%

Still there remains significant room for improvement. Opponents shot much better against the Pelicans than the Warriors when defended inside the arc. There are two big reasons for this; the Warriors allowed fewer shots in the restricted area and more from mid range. It dovetails back into the issue of choosing the geography of each possession. Even defended shots in the restricted area are converted at a league average rate of 56.2%. The league shoots just 41.8% on open mid range shots.

The avenue for growth is clear. Whoever the new coach is must find a way to leverage the talents of Anthony Davis to keep opponents away from the rim. That coach, along side GM Dell Demps, must come to a decision on how to build this roster with their preferred method in mind. New Orleans does not have a ton of flexibility but the decision on Omer Asik's future looms as large as his seven foot frame. Asik is the only credible, and functional, rim deterrent on the roster. Replacing his influence on the Pelicans defense, if that course is chosen, will define this franchise next season.