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Shooting for Success: Pelicans defense must improve to get back to the playoffs

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Darren Erman finds himself in familiar territory after his first year on the job

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans were supposed to continue to improve defensively. Zach Lowe predicted the arrival of Darren Erman would move this team up at least 10 spots in defensive rating. New Orleans finished last season with the 22nd ranked defense in the league. 12th? That would have been an impressive feat.

Injuries obviously bear some blame on the lack of progress. Quincy Pondexter, the best two-way wing under contract, did not log a single minute. Anthony Davis missed 21 games, Jrue Holiday missed 17, and Omer Asik missed 14 while looking injured for much of the month of November.

Obviously missing the best defenders for a significant stretch had a substantial negative effect on the defense. From December to March this team actually ranked 17th in defensive rating and went an almost respectable 19-22. On either side of that? 4-15 and 30th in November and 7-15 and 28th to finish the season. Still, measuring the entire season there were some signs of progress in long neglected areas. Most importantly, thanks in part to the schemes of Erman, there was a measure of rim deterrence in the Crescent City.

Claiming the right real estate

TEAM RESTRICTED AREA PAINT MID RANGE ABOVE BREAK CORNER 3 DEFENSIVE RATING
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)

Good and bad here. Rim protection (limiting the frequency of conversion) at the basket continues to suffer. However, the drop in attempts in the restricted area should not be dismissed. Erman has a long history of running superb defenses but his first year in New Orleans as de facto defensive coordinator was a rough one. Not dissimilar from his first season with the Golden State Warriors. In fact, there's a lot of similarities between the 2011-12 Warriors and 2015-16 Pelicans defensively.  Here's a look at shot geography as Erman has progressed throughout his career.

TEAM RESTRICTED AREA PAINT MID RANGE ABOVE BREAK CORNER 3 DRtg
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)
BOS 2014-15 31.75% (1.23) 16.44% (0.84) 25.97% (0.77) 18.83% (0.98) 7.01% (1.10) 102.1 (14th)
GSW 2013-14 28.45% (1.20) 18.53% (0.76) 29.27% (0.77) 18.68% (1.00) 5.07% (1.18) 99.9 (3rd)
GSW 2012-13 27.94% (1.23) 16.86% (0.79) 28.08% (0.76) 20.62% (1.02) 6.51% (1.14) 102.6 (13th)
GSW 2011-12 32.43% (1.20) 17.65% (0.78) 26.61% (0.79) 17.81% (1.10) 5.51% (1.16) 106.0 (27th)

Some of the dramatic uptick in above the break threes is a problem of changing offensive philosophies. Teams are beginning to take a lot more threes so this is not a purely apples-to-apples comparison. The NBA is in a different place in 2016 (28.5% of shots attempted are 3-pointers) than it was in 2012 (22.6%). If New Orleans can make a similar jump the Warriors did in year two under Erman there's some hope the defense might finally reach respectability.

Signing a decent two-way wing this summer and Quincy Pondexter returning healthy will help a great deal as well.

Diving even deeper

Thanks to a cool little tool called the Defensive Hub on NBA Stats we can dive deeper into the Pelicans defense over the last three years. Among the more useful tools is the ability to sort these statistics per 100 possessions rather than just per game. This little change is incredibly valuable to compare the Pelicans performance to the rest of the league and themselves over the years while accounting for a tremendous increase in pace under Alvin Gentry this year.

TEAM DRtg DREB% 2nd Chance PTS Fast Break PTS PITP C&S 3's
NOLA 2015-16 107.3 (28th) 78.8% (4th) 11.4 (3rd) 11.8 (7th) 43.4 (16th) 18.2 (19th)
NOLA 2014-15 104.7 (22nd) 75.1% (13th) 13.7 (15th) 14.5 (22nd) 49.3 (30th) 14.8 (5th)
NOLA 2013-14 107.3 (26th) 73.8% (21st) 13.6 (16th) 14.2 (21st) 46.0 (25th) 17.8 (25th)

Why did the Pelicans allow fewer attempts at the rim? Some of the answer lies here where the Pelicans limited second chance points and fast break points at far higher rates than previous seasons. Points in the paint allowed took a significant dip as well, although to a lesser extent. Half court defense, an area that New Orleans truly struggled in, is still a work in progress.

Vantage Sports wrote in February that the Pelicans led the league in their proprietary Keep-in-Front metric. The numbers from Vantage Sports show a number of similarities in approach between the Pelicans and the Boston Celtics. This, of course, should not come as a surprise since Erman ran the defense in Boston last season. The much vaunted simplification of defense appears by some measures to produced the desire effects, if the whole remains lacking.

Action plan

Three point defense is a process of prevention. The Pelicans have swung wildly in this regard; two seasons ago they were one of the best at preventing threes at the expense of protecting the rim. This year, much the opposite occurred and threes rained down as New Orleans collapsed to keep opponents out of the paint. Ideally this team will begin to excel in both areas simultaneously. The return of Quincy Pondexter and (hopefully) 70+ games from Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis should do wonders. A second season under Erman's watchful eye is also expected to help if his previous experience in Golden State is any indication.

Beyond adding a quality wing the biggest area for improvement is communication. Anthony Davis needs to seize control on the defensive end. Talking on defense is huge. Don't take my word for it, listen to Jared Dudley.

Davis is a largely silent defender and still too passive rotating over. Is that a matter of effort (I doubt it) or anticipation? I think it might be a third option, a lack of trust. It takes trust among the players on the court to leave their man to stop the ball, that their teammates will also rotate. Is part of AD's hesitation a lack of trust? If he's going to lead this franchise as a big man the primary thing he needs to provide, before anything on offense, is to quarterback the defense.

Davis being a guard has always been considered a good thing. Defensively, however, it isn't. He hasn't been required to talk through screen coverages and rotations. As a rookie he played a lot beside Robin Lopez. The last two seasons with Omer Asik (one of the best communicators on the floor) and Ryan Anderson (not so much).

As fans we discuss leadership largely on offense or in the locker room. Is Davis clutch? Is he willing to take the big shot? Will he be the first in the gym and the last to leave setting an example? Leadership is oftentimes actions encouraging others to follow or taking the reigns. On defense, as a big man, Davis needs to talk and grow comfortable as the primary voice on the court.

Free agency and lottery luck might help fix the defense. Anthony Davis can do far more by learning to lead on defense. Not with his actions. With his voice.