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Taking stock of the Pelicans defense at the midway point

It's not all bad. No, seriously. Why are you running away?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans defense was a laughingstock for six weeks of the NBA season. Their defensive rating through the first 21 games was horrendous; no other team came close to their 108.8 mark. Opponents were shooting over 39% behind the 3-point line and it was a regular occurrence for opposing guards to pour in points behind the arc. Stephen Curry (53) and C.J. McCollum (37) both lit up the Pelican perimeter defense in the first week; an ominous sign of what was to come.

A funny thing happened in December. Jrue Holiday was freed to play more minutes and Omer Asik started to look a little healthier. Asik had played just 20% of the available minutes and Holiday just 35% over the first 21 games. Those percentages jumped up to 37% for Asik and 54% for Holiday. Lo and behold, the Pelicans defense has improved significantly in the last 20 games. They might even be average!

Taking away the paint

If you've read these before you know I put a lot of weight on where teams shoot from, even more so than if they are making the shots. Last season the Pelicans made a concerted effort to try to take away the 3-point shot and by that simple metric were largely successful. Pelican opponents shot 33.5% behind the arc (2nd best mark in the NBA) and attempted just 23.6% of their shots there; good for fourth best league wide. Of course, there might have been a reason teams were attempting so few behind the arc.

No one in the league allowed more attempts in the restricted area and the inability to defend the rim made it incredibly difficult to field even a competent defense last season. Opponents were attacking the basket with reckless abandon for three straight seasons under Monty Williams and the lack of improvement surely assisted in his ouster last May.

It took some time for Darren Erman's defensive tenets to take hold, but New Orleans is beginning to roll up the red carpet defense. In the last 20 games, the Pelicans have allowed a similar shot selection to what the Memphis Grizzlies allowed last season. That's an amazing accomplishment considering where this defense started and the number of minus defenders in the rotation.

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
First 21 Games 33.50% (1.22) 14.12% (0.85) 24.86% (0.74) 21.98% (1.24) 5.54% (0.99) 108.8 (30th)
Last 20 Games 30.26% (1.22) 12.94% (0.83) 26.00% (0.81) 24.03% (0.96) 6.77% (1.35) 103.8 (14th)
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)

Obviously there is still work to be done. 3-point attempts are still too high and far too many are open. After shooting over 39% behind the arc in the first 21 games, Pelican opponents have shot 34.5% in the last 20 games. This is despite the Pelicans allowing a greater frequency of open 3-point attempts in the second half of the season thus far.

Better to be lucky than good

3-point defense is best executed by deterrence. Shots not taken are not exactly measurable, but we can measure where teams actually take shots and if those shots are very open. New Orleans has "improved" on defense despite contesting fewer shots. That's where luck comes in.

2015-16 (Until December 7th) %FGA eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 48.4% 49.2%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 23.4% 49.6%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 5.2% 55.6%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 22.4% 59.8%
2015-16 (Since December 8th) %FGA eFG%
Twos - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 44.9% 48.5%
Twos - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 24.1% 52.0%
Threes - Defended (Less than 4 feet) 5.2% 36.2%
Threes - Open (Greater than 4 feet) 25.8% 55.0%

While the Pelicans are contesting fewer shots, those contests are far more effective. No area jumps out more than contested threes; opponents were shooting above league average on contested threes in the first 21 games of the season. The bulk of their improvement behind the arc is simply luck that we can try to say means they are contesting more effectively. Instead most statistical analysis (like the previously linked piece from Nylon Calculus) says that it is nearly completely a matter of luck.

The area the Pelicans can improve is contesting more frequently or running opponents off the 3-point line more often. Instead they have done the exact opposite: allowing more open shots both inside and outside the arc. Still, the defense has "improved" in the last 20 games according to defensive rating.

Much to do

Are the Pelicans better on defense? It depends on what set of information you fix your eyes upon. They are keeping opponents out of the paint, which is a welcome change from the layup lines opponents were running at will in the past three seasons. Unfortunately for New Orleans, the apparent cost of finally rolling up the red carpet is allowing open 3-point shots at unsustainable rates.

So far the Pelicans have been lucky those shots are not finding the bottom of the net. When playing teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves poorly defending the arc is not hazardous. Should New Orleans find their way into the playoffs again this season, that kind of lackadaisical effort on the 3-point line is a death sentence.

There might be a defensive foundation to build on inside for once in the Crescent City. It's hard to see how the defense improves on the perimeter without some personnel changes.