With the second half of the schedule kicking off Thursday, the New Orleans Pelicans sit a dismal 11th in the Western Conference standings and the sweeping proportion of blame falls on the team’s porous defense — it’s on a historically bad pace.
Outside of the Kings this season (119.1) and the 2018-19 Cavaliers (116.8), the Pelicans defensive rating (116.3) is on track to go down as the third-worst mark in NBA history. Opponents have lit up New Orleans from beyond the arc as well as scored with great efficiency near the rim. It’s an untenable combination for a team wishing to keep playing past the regular season.
Despite his best efforts, head coach Stan Van Gundy has yet to find consistent and reliable options on the defensive side of the ball, and unfortunately, it feels there’s not much hope for a major turnaround with the existing roster and time constraints.
The Pelicans need to spend hours and hours in the lab, but that’s not in the cards. Thanks to a condensed 2021-22 regular season schedule, practices have been a rarity and that’ll remain the status quo.
Without necessary minutes for players to hone fundamentals and for the Pelicans to improve upon schematic execution outside of actual games, the situation seems hopeless, but there may be a bandaid solution. Upgrading the defense overnight might be as simple as removing a player from the main rotation — and I’m willing to wager that fans probably need just one guess to name the weakest link.
There hasn’t been a bigger disappointment than Eric Bledsoe. Many assumed the 10-year veteran would adequately fill the large hole at shooting guard, replacing about 80-85% of the production lost in Jrue Holiday’s departure. That hasn’t remotely been the case.
While he was with the Pelicans last season, Holiday posted the fourth highest Real Plus-Minus (+3.11) among shooting guards in ESPN’s database. This season, Bledsoe rates 89th out of 119 players at the same position with a -1.71 RPM.
While Bledsoe is enjoying a near career year from three-point range, the rest of his contributions paint a stark contrast. Per 100 possessions, he’s on pace for the lowest rebound, assist, steal and block numbers of his career. He’s not getting to the rim nor the free throw line at usual rates. For instance, only 17.6 percent of Bledsoe’s shots have come from 0-3 feet in New Orleans. Over 30% of his field goal attempts came from that area in all his previous stops on the Bucks, Suns and Clippers. But most important to this article, those vaunted abilities on the other end of the floor that culminated in All-Defensive Team selections the last two years have apparently evaporated. A -2.43 DRPM — which ranks 116 out of 119 shooting guards — is quite telling.
Remember when Van Gundy said, “I don’t know how many of our guys have a defensive mentality,” following a loss to the Pistons in Detroit? It was hard to make a positive case for Bledsoe back then and that remains true today.
According to the Advanced On/Off splits on NBA stats, the Pelicans give up 118.7 points per 100 possessions with Bledsoe on the floor. That’s the worst mark on the team. When he sits, that figure drops to 110.2 points given up per 100 possessions. A 110.2 defensive rating overall would currently slot New Orleans 11th in defensive efficiency.
While the Pelicans are similarly better defensively when either Brandon Ingram or Zion Williamson sit, it’s interesting to note the two cornerstones have not always held the team back when examining lineup data on Cleaning the Glass. Manageable rotations exist. In lineups featuring Ingram and Williamson on the floor together but with Bledsoe on the bench, New Orleans ranks in the 95th percentile offensively (121.0 ORTG) and in the 80th percentile defensively (109.0 DRTG).
That’s really good and worth striving for more examples.
The subpar defense of Ingram and Zion appear to be circumventable through 5-man combinations that include Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and/or Nicolo Melli. That isn’t the case when scouring CTG’s data with Bledsoe sharing the court with either or both of the team’s stars.
It’s often said that defense is 90% heart. There are numerous instances of video footage not capturing any lies.
In a 123-101 victory over the Suns on Feb. 3, Bledsoe lost sight of Chris Paul in the first quarter, standing in the paint without purpose and then giving woeful effort in trying to corral the savvy point guard following a kick-out pass.
In a 130-101 win over the Rockets on Feb. 9, Bledsoe couldn’t be bothered with keeping his body in front of P.J. Tucker, eventually leading to two Houston offensive rebounds and a layup by Eric Gordon.
In a 123-112 loss to the Pistons on Feb. 14, Bledsoe kicked off the first defensive possession of the second half by giving Delon Wright an uncontested look with just a few seconds left on Detroit’s shot clock.
And who can forget this play from the same game in which Bledsoe was beat on a simple backdoor cut without a care in the world?
Watch Steven Adams. pic.twitter.com/obOv07cM2V— Christian Clark (@cclark3000) February 15, 2021
The Pelicans starting shooting guard hasn’t been bad on all possessions. He’s come up with key defensive stops, like the game-saving block on DeMar DeRozan in the first week of the season, or had timely charges in various contests. He’s posted some impactful overall games as well. But that’s not the point of this exercise, trying to balance out the bad with the good.
Along with Steven Adams, Bledsoe was expected to be a steadying presence. However, Bledsoe hasn’t led by example nearly as often enough as the team’s starting center, and most troubling of all, he is blocking key development.
There’s little doubt in my mind that David Griffin’s latest public comments were aimed at trying to stay ahead of the growing amount of calls for more minutes regarding several players on the depth chart. In a wayward season that currently has the Pelicans six games under .500, Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker should be receiving more consistent minutes.
The hope is that Bledsoe gets moved before the March 25th trade deadline, relieving some of the strain of an incomplete roster with a few ill-fitting pieces. Perhaps by continuing to play him real minutes either catches the eye of another front office or gives Griffin a little more bargaining power in trade talks. However, if things don’t unfold as smoothly, I pray the Pelicans strongly consider selling low. Bledsoe isn’t long for this roster, but by making a move this month instead of say in the upcoming offseason, that could alleviate several problems at once and possibly deter others from forming, too.
Just like two young guards on the roster, the Pelicans’ defense needs to be given a chance to grow. There’s no easier way to accomplish that feat than by moving the player whose minutes have far too often echoed of not wanting to be in New Orleans. But if that’s not possible, then a change to the rotation should be made soon.
Team improvement should sit higher on the priority list than recouping the value of an asset, especially with the young core performing better individually than a year ago yet with so little to show for it. Have you noticed the identical winning percentage of .417 between last season and this current group? I bet the players and those closest to them have.
Surely, everyone can recall the emphasis that was placed on buy in and rostering elite competitors before this campaign began.
For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.