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Anthony Davis doesn’t need to be perfect, the New Orleans Pelicans defense just can’t suck

Also factoring greatly in the Pels’ four-game losing streak: a mean schedule and some lucky opponent shooting.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few days, we’ve been bombarded with more clickbait titles (the idea that DeMarcus Cousins could rejoin the Pelicans down the road and Anthony Davis needs to play perfect basketball to give New Orleans a chance to win — hello unnecessary trade rumors again!) than articles containing actual substance. Let’s change that and list a few reasons for the team’s sudden about face turn in the standings.

First, let’s begin with the obvious: no Anthony Davis in three of the past four contests and a hobbled version against the Warriors. Having your star available and at 100% is ideal, but this isn’t an issue that only plagues New Orleans in the Western Conference. When James Harden, Russell Westbrook or Donovan Mitchell have missed a game so far this season, their respected playoff-contending teams are a combined 1-6.

Also important to this discussion: realize Davis isn’t just some star — he was a finalist for both the MVP and DPOY awards last season. To expect a team to not suffer a dramatic drop-off when a guy of this caliber sits is beyond ludicrous. Have a look at the differences in the numbers when he’s on the floor versus off.

Imagine that. Davis has a noticeably positive effect in all the four factors of basketball success made famous by Dean Oliver. The Pelicans are more efficient shooting the basketball, grab more offensive rebounds, get to the free throw line with greater frequency, and commit fewer turnovers.

Not only does the team’s offense take a step back, look at how much the Pelicans defense deteriorates in the absence of Davis.

With AD in the lineup, opponents have registered a 52.1 eFG%. Without him, that effective field goal percentage balloons to 58.4%. That’s the difference between something you would expect from an average defense versus my eyes, oh, MY EYES!

The failure of a good defensive effort in 199 minutes without Davis is the next biggest point to belabor, specifically what we’ve witnessed during this past week. Over the last four games, the Pelicans have posted a 119.4 Defensive Rating, opponents are scoring 127.8 points per game and New Orleans has sent Utah, Denver, Golden State and Portland to the line an average of 30.3 times a game. These figures all rank dead last and there’s more under the hood than just no AD.

For starters, the Pelicans have done a crappy job of limiting the opposition wide open looks. Have a look at the difference between the first four games and since.

Wide Open Frequency Wide Open Opponent eFG% Wide Open Three-point Frequency Wide Open Opponent 3PT%
Pelicans first four games 19.5% (6th) 53.5% eFG% (8th) 16.5% (9th) 36.7% (10th)
Pelicans last four games 29.7% (29th) 64.6 eFG% (24th) 23.9% (29th) 44.6% 3PT% (24th)

In the first four games of the year, the Pelicans did a great job of limiting wide open looks but when they did give up those shots, they were fortunate opponents missed more than you would expect. Conversely, over these last four games, the Pelicans have given up the most wide open looks outside of the Milwaukee Bucks and they’ve been kind of unlucky at how well opponents have converted their opportunities. (FYI, Milwaukee has been crazy fortunate that opponents have not punished them!)

After Jusuf Nurkic corrals the loose ball, Nikola Mirotic finds himself in no man’s land and it sets off a chain reaction. Al-Farouq Aminu would have been wide open in front of the rim if not for Tim Frazier’s rotation, but in preventing the easy two, the Pelicans wind up giving too much airspace for Damian Lillard, who makes New Orleans pay for their mistake with three points.

And this is emblematic of the problem: Reserve players have suddenly been thrust into action and/or others on the roster have more responsibilities with Davis, Elfrid Payton and Darius Miller on the shelf. Defensive rotations are not nearly as crisp, players are often out of position, etc. In other words, the defense has been all too often lost and the opposition has taken full advantage by knocking down their open looks at a great clip.

In addition to all of the wide open looks, the Pelicans have sent opponents to the free throw line with greater frequency, going from an average of 23.0 attempts a game in the four consecutive wins to 30.3 FTA during the four-game losing streak — but this shouldn’t be a surprise. Jahlil Okafor, Julius Randle and Cheick Diallo have struggled to defend the paint without fouling, combining for an average of 16.1 personal fouls per 36 minutes. Anthony Davis averages 3.1 personal fouls per 36 minutes.

Another area of concern has been the increase in the number of easy points given up including fastbreak points, points off turnovers and second chance points.

Opponent Points off Turnovers Opponent 2nd chance points Opponent Fastbreak Points
Pelicans first four games 12.0 (2nd) 8.5 (1st) 15.5 (19th)
Pelicans last four games 20.0 (22nd) 13.5 (20th) 18.3 (27th)

Getting Davis back — and to a lesser extent, Elfrid Payton — will pay immediate dividends for the defense, but here’s the last point that needs to be made in discussing the four straight losses: they’ve all come against the top teams in the West and most of them on the road. Difficulty of schedule is a big factor in deciding outcomes and when you suddenly add a bunch of fresh faces who are not used to playing with the usual regular rotation, it’s a recipe for disaster. Sorry guys but learning on the fly doesn’t work so well in practice.

The New Orleans Pelicans looked amazing in their four consecutive wins to the start the season, but the good times have ground to a halt. Please understand that a combination of factors are responsible for this, yet the team should soon right itself with the return of a few key players and enjoying a friendlier schedule. However, here’s the bigger hope to file away: the team might now be better off for going through this negative stretch because seldom used contributors were thrown off the deep end. Alvin Gentry needed to find a nine-man rotation sooner rather than later and this past week may have expedited that process.