The New Orleans Pelicans said farewell to two players on July 2nd; Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Gordon was the last remaining piece of the Chris Paul trade, Anderson the first significant signing after the Pelicans drafted Anthony Davis. Both players became known for three things while they played in the Crescent City. Gordon and Anderson were injured a lot. Gordon played in just 56% (221/394) of Pelicans games in five seasons. Anderson logged minutes 70% (230/328) of the time over the course of four seasons. They were knockdown shooters, which is exactly what the Houston Rockets want to add around James Harden. And, Gordon and Anderson were patently atrocious defenders.
Awful defense is the hallmark of the Anthony Davis era. In four seasons New Orleans has finished 28th (107.6 DRtg), 26th (107.3), 22nd (104.7), and 28th (107.3) on the defensive end. Only the Los Angeles Lakers have been worse. That's extraordinarily bad. Two seasons ago under Monty Williams the Pelicans were the worst in the league at protecting the paint. Last season they improved significantly around the rim but conceded an avalanche of 3-pointers.
Trading out offense for defense
In free agency Dell Demps made a point on July 1st to rectify the defense. Solomon Hill (4/$48 million) and E'Twaun Moore (4/$34 million) are not sexy targets. They post anemic offense numbers. largely the product of taking very few shots. Both are expected to do more in New Orleans than they have previously on the offensive side. It is quite possible their efficiency will suffer. Targeting Hill and Moore has almost nothing to do with offense.
Solomon Hill is a good defender. Good enough to draw the assignment against Kevin Durant or LeBron James from head coach Frank Vogel. Beyond individual on-ball defense he provides the much needed basketball IQ on the weakside that has sorely lacked for years with this franchise.
His minutes played is the only thing that really has changed. There hasn’t been a marquee 20-point performance or a 5-assist night to talk about. Because this is Solomon Hill, and he doesn’t do those things. He is just a high-level on-ball defender who understands spacing, timing, and movement well while always competing hard and rarely making the type of positional and "I didn’t know the scheme" mistakes that drive coaches like Frank Vogel crazy and young players like Glenn Robinson, III and Myles Turner and Joe Young make all the time.
Not flashy. Flash is not the thing that was missing on this roster. Scoring points wasn't the problem for a team ranked 16th (103.1) in offensive rating. Defense, communication, and intelligence was lacking. Effort came and went with the tide or the phases of the moon.
Dig into E'Twaun Moore and many of the same qualities are present. Blogabull went so far as to call Moore "Tony Allen with a jump shot" in January. High praise indeed. Intelligence, effort, and versatility again come up repeatedly reading analysis by Bulls writers. Like Solomon Hill, E'Twaun Moore regularly drew the toughest matchup available on the floor.
Defensively, Moore has arguably been the second best defender behind Butler. And when Butler is off the floor, Moore has earned the right to guard the opposing team's best perimeter defender. At 6'4, Moore has a stout stature that allows him to hold his own in isolation situations either out on the perimeter or in the post, as we've touched on previously. For a team's that's struggled immensely on this end of the floor, Moore's IQ has shown. Knowing where to be in rotations, reading the passing lanes or just flat out communicating with teammates, Moore has prospered as an individual and team defender.
If you asked what the Pelicans should look to attain this summer, these qualities would be at the top of the list. Not shooting or shot creation. Not rebounding. Defensive versatility, basketball intelligence, and high motor players were what this roster lacked around Anthony Davis. The exact qualities both Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore are praised for by their own writers during the season.
Hill is capable of defending either forward position and switching onto guards as needed. Moore, despite his height, can guard 1-3 thanks in part to his massive 6'9" wingspan. Toss those two into the mix with Jrue Holiday, Quincy Pondexter, and Dante Cunningham and New Orleans should regularly feature a wing rotation of solid, competent defenders with the ability to switch everything.
None of this is to say signing Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore are brilliant signings. Hill still has to shoot well enough to stay on the floor while Moore must learn a whole new system to function as an occasional lead guard. But, it is obvious through their reputations that Dell Demps has identified what is wrong with this team and taken relatively (according to the free agent market) prudent steps in correcting those deficiencies.
Let's hope Dell guessed right. If he just nailed two diamonds in the rough things may be looking up for this franchise in the near future.