It is clear that Dell Demps, the New Orleans Pelicans, and the small army of bloggers covering this team are focused on trading for an offensive minded center by the trade deadline. Recent trade rumors, reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein (arguably the most connected reporter inside the Pelicans front office), linked New Orleans to interest in Jahlil Okafor, Brook Lopez, and Greg Monroe. Our own Oleh Kosel made a case for trading for Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic Tuesday afternoon. All four players are noted scoring threats at center with a variety of weaknesses, largely on defense.
These weaknesses on defense are allayed by the expectation that this team, currently ranking in the top ten in defensive efficiency, can sustain a step back defensively and remain competitive. I wholeheartedly disagree with the premise that New Orleans will be able to sustain their relative competence on defense should they acquire any of the rumored (or desired) behemoths at center.
New Orleans has improved dramatically on defense this year. Last season they were 3.1 points per 100 possessions worse than league average according to Basketball Reference, this year they are 1.1 points per 100 possessions better. This is a product not only of the new personnel who arrived but, more importantly, of the implementation of a consistent defensive scheme.
Of the four worst two-man pairings on defense for Anthony Davis three feature current centers (Donatas Motiejunas, Alexis Ajinca, and Omer Asik) and the fourth is rookie Buddy Hield. Let’s set aside Buddy, he’s a rookie doing what typical rookies do to team defense. What’s happening when Davis has to play power forward? The entire defensive scheme must change. An amoeba that switches nearly every screen suddenly has a lumbering big man to protect. Screens must be fought over instead of easily switched. That creates cascading problems due to trying to play two different defenses depending on the personnel on the floor.
Switching is easy. It requires less communication and basketball IQ. These Pelicans have demonstrated competence (not always, but far more often than we’ve seen since 2011) in executing defensively when the rules to live by have not changed substantially from substitution to substitution or opponent to opponent. Adding in a big man, be he Brook Lopez or Jahlil Okafor, will throw a wrench into what Darren Erman has built on that end of the floor. It would require either a wholesale change to playing a more complex scheme all the time with two big men on the floor or, even more problematically, force the Pelicans into changing their defensive approach depending on who is on the court at the moment.
Limited basketball IQ is a continually lobbed complaint at this roster for at least the last five years. Certainly the team does not appear to be much more intelligent. Have you watched a play out of timeout or, better yet, a fast break recently? Exactly. If basketball IQ remains a persistent problem, Pelican fans should understand that overhauling the defensive scheme is going to have profoundly negative effects beyond the simple limitations of these trade targets.
Acquiring Brook Lopez or Jahlil Okafor is not just going to put a lesser defender on the floor for New Orleans; a tax the Pelicans are willing to pay for better offensive production. It is going to make every single defender worse by changing core defensive principles and requiring players to think more on that end of the court. It will dismantle the one bright spot this season has provided and require the defense to be built again from the ground up. The foundation of that new defensive scheme will be a poor defender ill-equipped to play in the modern NBA.
This is not just about the value of the trade or my lingering concerns on trading another first round pick. While these Pelicans lack an identity on offense, for once they might have found something worthwhile on defense. Trading for an offense-first center likely demolishes that accomplishment.