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Pelicans defense is improving as they keep opponents away from the rim

Who knew defending the basket leads to quality defense?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Erman got the nickname "Baby Thibodeau" from Rajon Rondo while working as an assistant with the Boston Celtics. Rondo, who played under both Tom Thibodeau and Erman from 2007 to 2010, would be uniquely qualified to offer such an assessment. Erman lives and breathes defense, even if he lacks the gorgeous baritone of Thibodeau shouting "ICE ICE ICE" from the sideline.

Erman was hired by the New Orleans Pelicans to be the defensive coordinator under head coach Alvin Gentry. During media days Pelican players raved about his simplified scheme with just three calls. Omer Asik thought a top ten defense was in reach. Anthony Davis went even higher, considering top five attainable. Instead this defense has been abysmal, ranking in the very bottom of the league for much of the season overall.

Progress is difficult to perceive looking at season-long statistics precisely because this defense was so bad for so long. Instead let's chop the 33 games played into three even 11 game chunks. As you will see, there is real progress being made.

Shot geography shows improvement

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
Thru November 17th 32.98% (1.26) 14.04% (0.91) 24.57% (0.78) 23.83% (1.29) 4.57% (0.70) 110.1 (30th)
Nov 18th thru Dec 11th 32.45% (1.18) 14.27% (0.80) 26.11% (0.72) 20.61% (1.20) 6.55% (1.21) 107.7 (29th)
Dec 12th thru Jan 5th 30.78% (1.18) 12.96% (0.67) 25.59% (0.82) 23.97% (0.97) 6.70% (1.65) 103.9 (16th)

The shift away from the immediate basket area jumps off the page. Not just in the restricted area, but the remainder of the paint as well. Focus should be kept on the restricted area most keenly. These are where the very best shots in the league happen and typically result from defensive failures. Offensive rebounds, blown assignments in the pick-and-roll, backdoor cuts, and turnovers turn into shots at the basket.

Better defenders mean a better defense

No Pelican puts greater downward pressure on attempts at the rim than point guard Jrue Holiday. When Holiday is on the floor just 26.5% of opponent shots come in the restricted area, when he sits on the bench it balloons to 35.8%. As Holiday's minutes restriction has been slowly increased, combined with playing in back-to-backs, his presence has had a measurable impact.

Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3
Jrue Holiday On 26.5% 14.4% 28.9% 24.0% 6.2%
Omer Asik On 29.3% 13.1% 30.1% 21.5% 6.0%
Anthony Davis On 30.7% 13.6% 26.7% 23.2% 5.9%
Eric Gordon On 32.3% 13.7% 26.1% 22.3% 5.6%
Ryan Anderson On 33.7% 13.9% 23.9% 22.6% 5.9%

The other positive Pelican defender is Omer Asik. As I have noted before he keeps the ball out of the restricted area. Just 29.3% of opponent attempts come in the restricted area when Asik patrols the paint, that number grows to 33.1% when he sits. Ryan Anderson, who oftentimes replaces Asik in substitutions, has nearly the opposite effect; 33.7% on the floor and 29.5% off.

As the Pelicans best defenders have played more minutes and their lesser defending counterparts have played less New Orleans has improved on defense. More Holiday and Asik means Pelican opponents get all the way to the rim less. Shots at the rim are the most valuable ones on the floor.


Blammo! Defense.

Thank you for missing with a hand in your face

Another area of increased effectiveness defensively is 3-point attempts above the break, which has improved dramatically. This is not the result of the Pelicans allowing fewer open 3-point attempts or opponents missing more open threes.

Thru November 17th Nov 18th thru Dec 11th Dec 12th thru Jan 5th
% of Threes Open 83.20% 80.62% 83.22%
Open 3PT% 39.90% 40.38% 39.50%
Contested 3PT% 36.59% 38.00% 25.00%

There is a slight decrease in how many 3-point attempts are open in the middle of the season thus far, but not significantly. Likewise there is some change in how well opponents shoot open looks, and Pelican opponents have one of the best marks in the league on open 3-pointers. That is not an area New Orleans has much control over.

Where they should focus their energy is limiting the frequency opponents get open 3-point shots. The Pelicans rank 13th in that metric, a solid performance. New Orleans ranked 4th last season on allowing open 3-pointers (as a percentage of all shots taken) but their inability to protect the rim dampens any thought of that being an accomplishment.

No, the biggest area of "progress" on the arc is that opponents aren't knocking down contested shots at uncontested rates. In the first 22 games Pelican opponents shot 37.4% (34-91) on contested 3-point attempts; a defender is within four feet on such attempts according to SportVU data.  League average on contested 3-pointers is 29.5%. In the last 11 games opponents have shot 25% (12-48), a mark on par with some of the best defenses in the league this season.

Are Pelican challenges better now? Has Darren Erman unlocked some wizardry on closing out properly? 48 shots isn't enough to tell anything. That, just like open threes, could have a ton of luck involved.

Four Factors

Where opponents shoot from and how well those shots are turning into points is the only real area defensively the Pelicans have made significant changes. How often they foul opponents, force turnovers, or allow offensive rebounds has been largely unchanged from the beginning of the season.

Team Opp eFG% Opp FTA Rate Opp TO Rate Opp OREB%
Thru November 17th 53.6% (30th) 0.256 (8th) 13.8 (24th) 22.9% (12th)
Nov 18th thru Dec 11th 50.5% (19th) 0.310 (24th) 12.3 (30th) 22.2% (7th)
Dec 12th thru Jan 5th 50.0% (13th) 0.265 (15th) 13.6 (21st) 22.5% (8th)

There's some wobble there, as the Pelicans fouled more and forced fewer turnovers in the middle third of the season, but beyond that things are roughly unchanged. New Orleans has been great at controlling the defensive glass and limiting second chance point opportunities. The big area of progress, effective field goal percentage, is thanks to keeping opponents farther from the basket and fewer contested threes finding the bottom of the net.

Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik are playing more minutes lately. Holiday's minutes restriction is lifted but he will continue to come off the bench for an undetermined period of time. Asik is finally playing well enough to stay on the court. If both players continue to increase their workload it is reasonable to expect the Pelicans to field a league average or better defense in the second half of the season.

Maybe Darren Erman isn't so bad after all.