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Pelicans defense takes a step forward by protecting the rim

Who knew defending the basket would lead to results?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference eight games can make. Just two weeks ago I cautioned everyone on the New Orleans Pelicans defensive revival. Why? They were allowing shots in valuable areas, especially in the restricted area, at a high rate. Of eight opponents five were able to exceed their season-long offensive rating. The San Antonio Spurs would have been the sixth if they didn’t shut it down in the fourth quarter of a blowout.

Two weeks is a long time. Jrue Holiday has played the last four games (all Pelican victories) and his presence defensively is obvious. Just last night he often drew a match-up with Andrew Wiggins. Related, Wiggins had one of the worst outings in his NBA career. The Pelicans are posting a 92.4 defensive rating when Holiday is on the court. That’s exceptional.

Holiday’s presence, improved communication on ball screens (apparent throughout much of the current four game winning streak), and Terrence Jones playing out of his mind have contributed greatly to a much improved defense. Coordination along the perimeter is plugging leaks before opponents can take advantage, and the result is fewer points in the paint. Offensively New Orleans is also helping their cause, as they are turning the ball over less and allowing nearly one basket less off their own turnovers per game.

A decrease in 1.9 points off turnovers or 2.7 points in the paint (these things are quite possibly directly related) doesn’t seem like much at first glance. Yet, those incremental improvements are paying off. After two rather disastrous performances to begin this eight game stretch the Pelicans have held six consecutive opponents under their offensive rating on the season. That includes three teams (Portland, Charlotte, and Minnesota) who rank in the top half of the league. Thumbs way up!

Defend this House

Nowhere are these changes more obvious than comparing the location of opponent shots from the first eight games to the last eight games.

NOLA 2016-17 Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
First 8 Games 35.19% (1.22) 13.53% (0.65) 20.66% (0.80) 23.93% (1.09) 6.70% (1.02) 103.3 (14th)
Last 8 Games 31.44% (1.15) 15.10% (0.73) 20.64% (0.72) 26.04% (1.05) 6.79% (1.10) 101.1 (9th)
Total 33.29% (1.19) 14.33% (0.70) 20.65% (0.76) 25.00% (1.07) 6.74% (1.06) 102.1 (7th)

It would be nice if the Pelicans were not allowing so many above break 3-point attempts, but the other areas are relatively solid. The significant decline in attempts allowed in the restricted area is the most promising sign, along with limiting the success of those attempts.

It is interesting to note that while the Pelicans are contesting more shots (69.8 vs. 67.0) per game they are collecting fewer deflections (15.5 vs. 18.3) in the last eight games compared to the first eight games. Recovered loose balls are also down. New Orleans is forcing fewer turnovers (12.9 vs. 15.1) in these last eight games. Is it possible that by dialing down the aggressiveness along the perimeter the Pelicans have found a method to fix their leaky perimeter defense?

Defense of the basket itself has also improved. Omer Asik’s numbers are practically unchanged throughout the season and he’s allowing an absolutely stingy 40.4% conversion rate at the basket. That’s third best in the entire league among big men defending at least five shots per game. What has changed is Anthony Davis, who is allowing an impressive 40.5% rate in the last eight games after a less than stellar 52.7% in the first eight.

Can the Pelicans sustain this success defensively? They will be tested after the Thanksgiving holiday. Their next four games feature three teams (Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Lakers) who currently rank in the top ten in offensive rating. Stand tall against that gauntlet and New Orleans might continue to rank in the top ten in defensive rating at the quarter pole.

The last time New Orleans ranked in the top ten in defense at the end of the season? 2011.