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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is star attraction, but Pelicans would be wise to start prioritizing opponent 3-point shooting

New Orleans’ defensive rating may soon take a sizable hit if teams continue to receive a bounty of great looks from behind the arc

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Following a loss last Friday to the Grizzlies, the Pelicans will look to get back in the win column against the Thunder tonight and they’ll likely need to slow down a very hot Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 24-year-old guard is well on his way to posting numerous career-bests, including points (31.1), assists (6.2), steals (1.7) and blocks (1.3). He’s also attempting the most field goals (21.3) and free throws (8.8) of his career without the efficiency taking a hit (51.5 FG%, 92.2 FT%).

Gilgeous-Alexander has been so good that his name swirled in MVP talk earlier this month. However, the Thunder are likely several years away from making real noise, as evidenced by a trio of 3-game losing streaks or greater already this season.

So while we should keep an eye on OKC’s youth intently, there should be greater focus on New Orleans’ defense, specifically from 3-point range. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance for significant regression in the near future.

On the surface, the team defensive numbers look good. The Pelicans rank sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions. They’re limiting shot attempts inside the restricted area (25.7 FGA — 10TH). They are not putting opponents on the free throw line (21.8 FTA — 5th). They’ve also allowed more than 13 makes from the 3-point line just thrice in 19 games.

(Opponents knocked down 14 or more 3-balls a total of 35 times across 82 games last season!)

However, there’s real cause for concern that opponent 3-point shooting is on the verge of inflicting more damage.

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Celtics made 20 triples and then the Grizzlies knocked down 18 over the last four games, and to be fair, it feels like this trend was long overdue.

New Orleans’ opposition is averaging 36.5 3-point attempts per game. That’s the seventh-highest mark across the league. However, the Pelicans have mitigated the effects of this through a very low conversion rate.

Opponents have connected on only 33.3% of their looks from the 3-point line. Only the 76ers, Hornets, Hawks and Clippers defenses are enjoying lower opponent success rates.

There’s plenty of reason to believe this isn’t sustainable for New Orleans.

For instance, the Pelicans are allowing the fifth-most wide open 3-point attempts (18.5) and opponents haven’t torched them consistently (37.0 3FG% — 19th) to date. Worse, the amount of these looks is increasing.

After opponents shot 20+ wide open 3s only once in the first nine games of the season, the Pelicans have watched the opposition match or surpass 20 attempts six times in the last 10 contests.

The Pelicans are also giving up the sixth-most open 3-point looks (15.0) and opponents have failed to take advantage there as well (31.9% — 23rd) on the season.

Only one team that’s allowed more 3s per game than the Pelicans sits above .500: the Warriors at 11-10. Conversely, eight of the 10 teams that have allowed the fewest amount of 3-pointers proudly display winning records.

The 3-point shot has become an even deadlier weapon. Teams are seeking it include it within offenses more and more often. Due to these higher frequencies than from just a few years ago, coaching staffs have been forced to change their approaches on how to defend it.

The Bucks used to exclusively prioritize protecting the paint. Subsequently, they gave up in inordinate amount of makes and attempts from behind the arc. They still won frequently, however, including the 2021 NBA championship.

After watching the Celtics make 110 triples and get bounced in the second round of the playoffs last May though, Mike Budenholzer smartly decided to change Milwaukee’s defensive strategy.

So far, the move has paid off handsomely.

The Bucks have the league’s best defensive rating and it isn’t particularly close. They went from allowing the most 3-point makes (14.5) and attempts (40.6) in the last campaign to curtailing those numbers to 11.7 makes (11th) and 32.3 attempts (6th) this season.

Preventing 3-point makes is strongly tied to a team’s defensive efficiency. While attention to detail and effort can reduce the number of 3s that fall through the net, it’s best to not allow for fate to dictate the outcome. This is best accomplished by forcing opponents to shift their offense inside the arc.

With the Pelicans giving up a higher than average amount of quality looks from deep and opponents having failed to take advantage, we may soon witness something akin to a dam bursting as the law of averages plays catch-up.

New Orleans can circumvent this perhaps inevitable outcome though by joining the progressive wave of teams being much more mindful of the 3-point shot.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (11-8) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (8-12)

When: November 28, 2022, 7:00 p.m. CT

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, League Pass

Where to listen: WRNO 99.5

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.