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Pelicans improved on defense more than initially reported

We have the numbers that prove it.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made about the Pelicans defensive ranking this season. The focus is on the big picture number, that the Pelicans finished 22nd in defensive efficiency. This is used as a bludgeon to convince everyone that trading for Omer Asik was a failure and that Monty Williams is not improving as a head coach. Just one number, accounting for the whole season, somehow tells the story of the New Orleans Pelicans not getting any better.

It would be great to think that, if it were the entire story.

Diving deeper into the season, dividing into thirds or even simply in half, results in a much different analysis. One of growth and improvement as various players and coaches became accustomed to each other. The biggest of which was Omer Asik's increased impact as the season wore on. It was exactly what Monty Williams was referring to in his exit interview when he said the following.

"He was one of the guys that helped us get stops," Williams said. "He was really good at guarding and blocking shots and it makes our defense that much better. Early on, it didn't look like it and I'll be the first to admit that. But it takes time to figure out schemes. The other thing is that we had the toughest schedule in the league up until January I think and I think we were in the top five."

"But Omer certainly added great value to our team, not just as a defender but his IQ as he got more comfortable with me, we began to talk more I think that's when you started seeing our defense get a lot better. So he's highly valued by this organization and that he's an asset to this city."

So let's take a look at the team's performance by dividing the season up into halves and thirds. Significant enough sample sizes (25 or more games) where real development should be demonstrated through the season.

Below .500 to a 50 Win Pace

The midway point for the Pelicans was January 20th. It was also, undoubtedly, the lowest point of the season. Returning from a disastrous five game East Coast road trip that saw losses to the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and New York Knicks. The cherry on that horrendous sundae was the recurrence of Jrue Holiday's right leg injury, this time as a stress reaction. At that point the Pels had yet to win more than two games in a row.

The second half, despite injuries, was much better. 25-16 including a dramatic win in game 82 to clinch a berth in the post season. The offense was more or less the same; it was on defense where significant gains were found.

Win % Rank ORtg Rank DRtg Rank Net Rating Rank
First Half 0.488 16th 105.5 9th 106.2 25th -0.6 15th
Second Half 0.610 9th 105.3 9th 103.3 18th +2.1 12th

Shaving off 2.9 points per 100 possessions is significant. The biggest reason for such a dramatic improvement was Omer Asik. In the first half of the season the Pelicans had a 105.5 DRtg with Asik on the court. In the second half that number plunged to 101.2, best among rotation players in the second half of the year. Asik's On/Off split went from -5.8 to +4.5. Only Anthony Davis (+12.0, which is ridiculous) posted a better On/Off split in the second half of the season. The next best Pelican was Tyreke Evans at +3.7. Meanwhile fan favorite Alexis Ajinca posted a disappointing -2.3 in the second half.

On Off Net
Anthony Davis 7.2 -4.8 +12.0
Omer Asik 4.2 -0.3 +4.5
Tyreke Evans 3.3 -0.4 +3.7
Alexis Ajinca 0.5 2.8 -2.3

Christmas and the All-Star Break

Another way to divide the season would be in thirds using the two biggest non-playoff dates on the calender; Christmas Day and the All-Star Break. While failing to divide the Pelican season perfectly into thirds it is pretty close with groups of 28, 25, and 29 games.

Games Win % Rank ORtg Rank DRtg Rank Net Rating Rank
Through Christmas Day 28 0.500 14th 106.7 8th 107.4 26th -1.0 16th
December 26th - ASB 25 0.520 17th 104.5 10th 103.9 19th +0.6 17th
Post All-Star Break 29 0.621 8th 105.2 8th 102.8 18th +2.4 11th

Again the improvement here is in large part to defense, and can be tied directly to Omer Asik's presence on the court. No other player drove the defensive rating down more than Asik; his personal rating of 100.9 far outpaced even Anthony Davis at 102.6.

Omer Asik On Court ORtg DRtg Net On/Off
Through Christmas Day 102.2 107.2 -7.6
December 26th - ASB 103.8 102.0 +2.5
Post All-Star Break 105.0 100.9 +3.4

Continuity Has Value

I had serious questions before the season began if the Pelicans knew each other well enough to be successful. An injury to Eric Gordon combined with that lack of familiarity and one of the most difficult schedules in the league set the Pelicans out at a slow and frustrating pace. It took time for the team to learn to play with one another, especially integrating such a unique player as Asik.

None of this is to say Asik is without flaws. He has several and those flaws are magnified by the way they present themselves; a lack of explosiveness at the rim and less than stellar hands provide all the ammunition the anti-Asik crowd requires. Joel Meyers and David Wesley frequently would mention the Pelicans needed to know their personnel when attempting to thread passes to the Turkish Delight. Eric Gordon developed a connection with Asik and the big man's personal offensive efficiency increased from 109 before the All-Star Break to 114 after.

However, it is folly to ignore his increasingly positive impact on the franchise as the season went along. No (non-Anthony Davis division) player had a greater positive impact in the final 41 games than Omer Asik. That 0.610 winning percentage extrapolates out to 50 wins for an entire season. All that despite Anthony Davis missing 10 games and Jrue Holiday missing 38. Toss in the two best players on the roster, a dash of injury luck, and the Pelicans could sniff 52 or more wins. Reaching towards home court in the first round.

The next time you hear the Pelicans did not improve on defense, remember that the numbers disagree. New Orleans might have started awful, but once they got their feet under them they did alright.