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By The Numbers: Can recent acquisitions elevate New Orleans Pelicans defense to elite?

Derrick Favors and three former Lakers figure to breathe new life into a defense that desperately needs it

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Lakers
Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram surround Serge Ibaka as they attempt to steal his favorite basketball during a November 4 contest in Los Angeles
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the help of FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO system, Part 1 of our By the Numbers series featured an exploration of the Wins Above Replacement totals accumulated by the current Pelicans roster last season, how those totals are likely to change in the coming season, and the five-year future dollar value of each player on the roster. This piece, Part 2, focuses on the defensive evaluations of CARMELO and what they have to say about New Orleans’ finest basketballers.

“I think we can be one of the best defensive teams in the league.”

This sentiment has been shared by many Pelicans faithful over the past few weeks (this one included), but the quote itself was spoken into existence by someone with far more skin in the game. Lonzo Ball, mere moments after noting his preference to let his game do the talking, went out on a limb to make that declaration during the team’s introductory press conference for he, his former Lakers teammates and Derrick Favors.

They may not realize it in the moment, but when athletes say these sorts of things, they provide fans with an indelible resource that they can always cite when making their points, because if we’ve learned anything about sports debates, it’s that no one forgets to cite their sources. Ball’s perception of the roster is far from hyperbolic, especially when compared to some notable examples from years past, but that does not make it any less exciting to hear.

Of course, this boast is not rooted just in an abundance of self-confidence. Ball has demonstrated noteworthy abilities on that end, but he figures to be part of a starting lineup that will also feature two-time-running All-Defensive Team selection Jrue Holiday, the oft-underappreciated Derrick Favors, and a perhaps unprecedentedly versatile Zion Williamson. Factor in the reported negotiations to bring aboard heralded defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, and the conversation heats up that much more. If your instinct upon reading that is that Ball may be underselling this group’s potential, you won’t hear any objections from me.

The relationship between said instincts and advanced statistics is often framed as an adversarial one, but it is in fact much closer to the opposite. An observation made during a game or a season can be measured against corresponding data in an attempt to support or discount a claim, just as a discovery made while perusing percentages can be borne out on the court. Sure, algorithms aren’t always perfect, but neither are the instincts of even the most prodigious basketball minds. They share a common design flaw: they are the work of human beings, imperfect by design. The rest of this piece will rely almost entirely on the data end of the spectrum not because it is an inherently superior way to analyze basketball, but because it is merely another way to do so. With that said, let’s talk about DRAYMOND.

DRAYMOND is a new defensive rating system from the basketball minds at FiveThirtyEight, named after Draymond Green, who the system holds in very high regard. The backroynm stands for Defensive Rating Accounting for Yielding Minimal Openness by Nearest Defender, which is cool and all, but not really necessary to remember. All that matters is that the system evaluates how effective a player is at contesting shots.

The frequency that a player is the nearest defender of opposing shot attempts and the success rate of said shots are pulled from the NBA’s stash of shot tracking data and plugged into a formula (which you can read about in more explicit detail here) that then determines how many points per 100 possessions player’s shooting defense adds or subtracts to their team. Negative numbers signal below average value and positive numbers above average value, leaving zero as exactly average. Green’s +3.16 DRAYMOND rating since 2013-14 (the first season the tracking data was available) is, naturally, the best among qualifying players (those with least 10,000 possessions played). In a vacuum, this means that a team that would have scored 100 points per 100 possessions without Green defending against them would score just 96.84 with him doing so.

Just five current Pelicans debuted before or during the 2013-14 season, and Darius Miller’s multiple years overseas prevented him from qualifying. Brandon Ingram, however, has played enough since debuting in 2016 to make the cut. With that said, here is how these Pelicans old timers fared in those six-year rankings among the 306 player pool:

DRAYMOND Ratings/Rankings Since 2013-14

Player Possessions DRAYMOND Ranking
Player Possessions DRAYMOND Ranking
Derrick Favors 24324 1.86 12
Jrue Holiday 25597 0.80 61
JJ Redick 29725 0.10 130
Brandon Ingram 12815 -0.07 173
E'Twaun Moore 19870 -0.48 228
Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

Favors is just five slots below former Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (+2.06, ranked seventh), and comfortably ahead of Holiday, who lands at 61. Redick and Ingram are very close to average, but E’Twaun Moore is way down in the bottom quartile (one that is bookended by Rajon Rondo’s league-worst -1.55).

Analyzing multiple years of such data could yield many well-informed conclusions about the productivity of a player’s career, but for the purposes of projecting the coming season, priority should be given to more recent performances. Here is another table, this one containing every Pelicans player with at least one NBA minute to date (apologies to Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Nicolo Melli) and their DRAYMOND ratings from 2017-18 (excluding Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson, who had not yet debuted) and 2018-19:

DRAYMOND Ratings for 2018 and 2019 Seasons

Player 2017-18 DRAYMOND 2018-19 DRAYMOND
Player 2017-18 DRAYMOND 2018-19 DRAYMOND
Derrick Favors 1.68 3.74
Josh Hart 0.95 1.72
Jahlil Okafor 0.21 1.52
Brandon Ingram 0.28 1.15
Lonzo Ball 1.39 1.00
Darius Miller 0.20 0.70
Jrue Holiday 1.59 0.24
Kenrich Williams N/A 0.09
JJ Redick -0.57 -0.44
E'Twaun Moore -0.85 -1.44
Frank Jackson N/A -2.10
Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

As someone who enjoys nothing more than unearthing numbers that make Holiday look good, I was both disappointed and surprised that his 2018-19 rating was as low (+0.24) as it was. Whether he will ever be able to bounce back to the +1.59 mark from the season prior or the +2.42 one from 2016-17 will be worth monitoring. As long as he stays above zero for the next few years, though, the rest of his game should accomplish enough to keep him among the most valuable Pelicans.

Favors bested the rest of the roster and the league with a DRAYMOND rating of +3.74 last season, or at least all of those in the Association who played at least 2,000 possessions between the regular season and playoffs. Rudy Gobert, who ranks six spots lower (+2.82), has garnered plenty of well-deserved praise for his all-around defensive acumen in recent years, but the Utah Jazz would have been hard-pressed to wield the second-best defensive rating in the league last season without another big man capable of limiting the load of the Stifle Tower.

When Gobert played without Favors, the team’s defensive rating was 103.6, which would have been tops in the league. In the opposite scenario, with Favors in without Gobert, their rating actually improved to 102.1, which would obviously have also been a league-best. As the Pelicans’ presumptive starting center, Favors will finally get a chance to anchor a defense full-time, and if these numbers are any indication he will be more than capable of bearing that burden.

The trio of Frank Jackson, Moore and Redick, a group that is easily among this season’s top contenders for the annual “Wait, It’s An Eight-Point Game at the Start of the Fourth Quarter and Alvin Gentry Has THIS Group On the Floor?” Award, unsurprisingly round out the bottom three. Williams was a hair above average with his rating, joining Holiday, Miller, Ball and Ingram in positive territory. Josh Hart, second on the list, wasted no time establishing himself as a capable wing defender in his first two seasons, and his apparent knack for contesting shots backs up this blooming reputation.

Jahlil Okafor’s shortcomings in the lateral speed department have earned him his own reputation, one that skews towards offense, but FiveThirtyEight waves that assessment aside. With the aid of a DRAYMOND rating (+1.52) good enough for third-best on the team (and 37th in the league), his overall Defensive Plus-Minus was an acceptable +0.9 points per 100 possessions, 2.9 points better than his offensive mark of -2.0. His shot contesting prowess is aided in this regard by strong rebound (15.4 percent of available boards) and block rates (3.5 percent of opponent shots taken).

For those of you who may have been thinking that there is much more to defense than contesting shots, including those Okafor excels at, you, my friends, are correct! DRAYMOND is merely a single aspect of the CARMELO system’s defensive projections, working with BPM (Box Plus-Minus), which focuses on block, steal and rebound rates, and RPM (Real Plus-Minus) (net point differential) to churn out a single figure in the form of DPM (Defensive Plus-Minus). These three metrics have joined forces for the first time this offseason, and what better way to celebrate than to see how they project these Pelicans to fare when their opponents have the ball? Behold table number three, which contains the Defensive Plus-Minus projections for the coming season as well as each eligible player’s values from the 2018-19 campaign:

Defensive Plus-Minus Totals and Projections

Player 2018-19 DPM 2019-20 DPM Projection
Player 2018-19 DPM 2019-20 DPM Projection
Derrick Favors 5.60 3.30
Lonzo Ball 1.50 1.60
Jaxson Hayes N/A 1.20
Jrue Holiday 1.10 1.10
Josh Hart 2.10 0.70
Jahlil Okafor 0.90 0.70
Zion Williamson N/A 0.40
Kenrich Williams 0.30 0.20
Brandon Ingram 0.00 -0.20
Nickeil Alexander-Walker N/A -0.70
Darius Miller -0.20 -0.80
JJ Redick -0.20 -2.00
E'Twaun Moore -2.60 -2.10
Frank Jackson -3.30 -2.90
Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

Favors finishes off his table trifecta with the best projection for next season by far. His +5.6 from last season was so good that even if it does fall 2.3 points, he will still be incredibly valuable to the team. Holiday is the only player whose projection matches his previous output, which makes sense considering what seemed to be an uncharacteristically poor season by DRAYMOND standards. If his steal and block rates can continue to sit at around 2.1 percent and 1.8 percent respectively, a slight bounce back elsewhere could close the expected gap between he and Favors.

Hayes making a top-three appearance is a bit surprising given his rookie status and his teammates’ pedigree, but not when considering his skill set. Explosive athleticism aided his averaging of 3.4 blocks per 36 minutes and helped him rank in the 90th percentile for post defense despite lacking a bit in the strength department for his position. This production earned him Big 12 All-Defensive Team honors and rave reviews from some draft aficionados, like Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman. Rookies are expected to and often do struggle on defense early in their careers, but Hayes’ tools have him in a position to buck that trend, even if he does play only a handful of minutes per game.

Williamson, Williams and Ingram hover right around average, which is generally fine, but a little less so for Ingram, who has three years of NBA experience already compared to the prior pair’s one. His decent DRAYMOND rating (1.15) was counterbalanced by poor production in the box score stats. A career-low steal rate (0.7 percent) and a total rebound percentage of 7.8 percent were both quite bad for a 6’9” forward, and improvements will have to be made in both respects if he ever hopes to be a true plus defender.

The DRAYMOND table was unfortunately predictive of who the bottom three of this one would be, as neither Redick, Moore nor Jackson have or are expected to gain defensive strengths that offset their shot contesting weaknesses. Hart is projected to regress a tad, but like Favors, that lower total would still describe an above-average defender.

Last but certainly not least is the Balliday backcourt, which sees both members above a +1.0 points per 100 possessions, with Ball sporting the high-water mark of +1.6. It is exciting that the baseline projections for this duo are already this high (a combined +2.7), as even the slightest surpassing of expectations will yield an elite season. Their level or lack of success will set the bar for how high or low this team will go.

Ball believes that this could be one of the best defensive teams in the league, and FiveThirtyEight seems to agree. Whether it is by DRAYMOND, CARMELO or DPM, this Pelicans roster appears to have a balance of established production and tangible potential that bodes well for the year to come. Their total expected DPM, which estimates the minutes that will be given to each player, pegs this group for the seventh-best mark in the league (+2.4). If they can match or surpass that, they may find themselves back in the postseason a lot sooner than expected.

I will be happy to answer any questions about the data in the comments below. Stay tuned to The Bird Writes for the third and final part of the By The Numbers series, which will focus on FiveThirtyEight’s projection of how the coming season will play out for the Pelicans and the rest of the league.