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New Orleans Pelicans defense might be a mirage through the first eight games

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New Orleans put together 65 minutes of superb defense and it makes everything look better than it probably is so far.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the New Orleans Pelicans are fielding a good defense. At least, a superficial look at their current defensive rating (14th at the time of this writing) is leading most to believe. Certainly the Pelicans, after investing loads of money in free agency to fix the defense, have this to lean on.

Not so fast.

This rating is the product not of consistent excellence on defense, but rather five really good quarters over the first eight games of the season. Allow me to explain.

New Orleans has held just three teams under their season-long offensive rating this season. The Denver Nuggets on opening night, the San Antonio Spurs in a blowout loss (more on that momentarily), and a disaster of a basketball exhibition against the Memphis Grizzlies when both teams were on a back-to-back. Let’s focus on the Spurs game first.

New Orleans posted a 100.9 defensive rating overall against the San Antonio Spurs in a game they lost 98-79. Gregg Popovich, in complete control of the game, sat his stars during the fourth quarter with the game in hand; the Spurs entered the fourth up 83-60 and the Pelicans cut the lead to less than 20 temporarily just twice. During the fourth quarter the Spurs reserves posted an anemic 60.3 offensive rating. However, during the first three quarters the Spurs were far more robust on offense, with an impressive 114.9 offensive rating in those 36 minutes.

In the 12 minutes against the Spurs reserves and the 53 minutes of agony against the Memphis Grizzlies the Pelicans have a ridiculous 77.3 defensive rating. Yes, that would be a record. In the other 329 minutes this season the story is far different. 759 points allowed over 701 possessions according to NBA Stats. That’d be a 108.3 defensive rating; ranking in the bottom five of the NBA. New Orleans posted a 107.3 defensive rating last season for comparison sake.

It would be nice if the story ended there. We could chalk that up to two games against the Golden State Warriors and cling to hope. But, there is much more evidence to consider.

Geographic disadvantage

Just as Louisiana is slowly being eroded by the battering of the Gulf of Mexico the Pelicans defense is giving up defenses it cannot afford. At the end of last season I noted that New Orleans was able to vastly improve deterring opponents at the rim compared to previous editions. Deterrence (keeping opponents from taking shots in the restricted area) is even better than protection (limiting the effectiveness of such shots). Those gains have been lost.

Team Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
NOLA 2016-17 35.19% (1.22) 13.53% (0.65) 20.66% (0.80) 23.93% (1.09) 6.70% (1.02) 103.3 (14th)
NOLA 2015-16 31.70% (1.27) 13.47% (0.84) 25.33% (0.80) 23.23% (1.10) 6.27% (1.17) 107.3 (28th)
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)

That leaves much to be desired. Pelican opponents are taking fewer shots in the “dumb zone” (outside the restricted area but inside the 3-point arc) than in any of the last four seasons. New Orleans is failing to force low value shots. Good defenses, as I pointed out a year and a half ago, limit opponents to around 30-32% of their shots in the restricted area and force 26% or more in the mid range. That is not happening with this defense to a stunning degree, one that suggests their defensive rating around the league is indeed inflated.

Some of this is a product of the direction the NBA has progressed. However, of the five teams in the top five in defensive rating at this moment four of those teams (Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, and Detroit Pistons) are managing to keep opponent shots in the restricted area in the preferred range. Using Basketball Reference (far easier to rank teams by where they allow shots, but with slightly different numbers than those on NBA Stats) finds the Pelicans allowing the 7th highest proportion of shots within two feet and forcing long twos (16 feet to the 3-point line) at the 27th highest proportion.

That’s not the ticket to good defense.

None of this is to say the Pelicans are not better defensively than last season. But, pump the brakes on the idea they are good or even league average through roughly 10% of the season.