The most frustrating aspect of the New Orleans Pelicans season through the first 33 games has been the glaring absence of defensive resistance.
The San Antonio Spurs entered Saturday’s contest with a below average offense, sitting in the bottom third of the league (109.1 ORTG — 22nd), but they managed to consistently score efficiently in beating the Pelicans 117-114 without several key rotations pieces (Derrick White, Rudy Gay, Keldon Johnson).
While the defense mildly improved in the second half, holding San Antonio to 50 points, New Orleans’ offense sputtered at the most inconvenient time. Following a mid-range jumper by Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans trailed 103-100 with 6:13 to go in regulation. However, they proceeded to miss 11 of their final 14 field goals and nearly half of their free throw attempts (7-12).
Had the Pelicans cashed in a few more of their open looks and capitalized better from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, they might have escaped with a victory. But let’s be completely honest, that outcome would have only masked the real problem in New Orleans.
“Our defense was a little bit better down the stretch today, little bit better in the second half, but overall, our defense isn’t good enough to win for us,” Stan Van Gundy said in postgame. “So if we don’t shoot the ball well, we’re going to struggle.”
NBA teams cannot exclusively rely on an offense to win consistently in this league. Especially in the playoffs. Off-shooting nights are real. There will be times when the defense needs to give a team a chance to win. That doesn’t seem like a realistic scenario for the Pelicans.
Since January 8th, a 118-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, New Orleans has given up an average of 119 points per game. Only the Sacramento Kings have been slightly worse at a historic rate, allowing 120.9 points nightly to opponents.
Winning isn’t sustainable in that environment. Case in point, the Pelicans are scoring an average of 118.3 points per game (4th) over that span but have only a 10-15 record to show for their efforts.
A plan of simply asking the Pelicans to outscore opponents feels like fool’s gold. Lonzo Ball going 6 for 17 from the field or Josh Hart missing all eight of his field goal attempts shouldn’t automatically result in a loss. But that outcome feels inescapable with how poorly New Orleans is defending on a regular basis.
DeMar DeRozan is a fantastic scorer in this league, but he can’t single-handedly decimate the defense to a tune of 32 points and 10 assists. Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker cannot combine for 28 first half points on a 64.7 shooting percentage.
This scene has been a nightly occurrence for New Orleans fans, though. And we’re almost halfway through the season of seeing a shoddy defense fail the Pelicans time and again.
Hats off the Spurs. They built a wall and held Zion Williamson to 23 points on 8-15 shooting. While he was still dynamic at times (14 rebounds, five assists), his impact wasn’t as explosive as we’ve witnessed over the course of this month. He was consistently challenged with multiple defenders in his airspace.
San Antonio forced the rest of the Pelicans to beat them and they came up a bit short. However, is it really fair to expect Brandon Ingram (29 points), Lonzo Ball (16 points) and Eric Bledsoe (19 points) to have noticeably bigger nights? To have one of the league’s best offenses just pull another 10 points or so nightly out of a hat?
The defense of the New Orleans Pelicans has to get better. Until it does, the losing will continue.