The Pelicans Defense – and why they can’t hold a lead

Published: November 7, 2013

The season is young, and game to game numbers can shift fairly dramatically as the Pelicans run into teams that are hot – or not – or having babies like they did last night.(Congrats, Z-Bo!)  As the Pelicans stand today, they are scoring 104.4 points per 100 posessions – and giving up 103.3 points per 100 posessions.  Those numbers rank 10th and 12th respectively in the league and both of those numbers are improvements over last year, when they finished 16th and 28th in the league.

Given the chance to write about exciting offense, or fundamental boring defense, I will now, predictably, take defense.  Buckle up, and let’s talk Turnover Rate, Defensive Rebounding, Free Throw Rate, and Field Goal Defense!

Opponent Turnover Rate

The Pelicans most impressive defensive improvement is obvious to those who watch the game, as this year’s squad is dramatically more athletic, faster, and more disruptive.  Last season, the Hornets managed to generate turnovers on 13.1% of plays – the 5th worst rate in the league.  This year, the Pelicans are the 8th best in the league, forcing turnovers on 16.8% of plays.  if you want to find the primary reason the Pelicans aren’t still a disaster defensively, this is the place to look.

Defensive Rebounding

Happily, the Pelicans are even better overall in another defensive category, though it wasn’t that much of a leap from last year.  Last season the Hornets snatched 74.4% of all available defensive rebounds and finished 8th in the league.  Despite featuring only two skilled rebounders for their position, the team has managed to improve on this number, grabbing a massive 79.1% of available defensive rebounds – and moving up to 4th in the league.  This is a hard number to sustain, but if they do, they will easily post a top-3 finish.

Opponent Free Throw Rate

Here’s where things start turning a little sour.  The Pelicans are actually giving up more free-throws this year that last, allowing a free throw attempt every 4 field goal attempts.  Last year, opponents earned a free throw every 5.  This marks a decline from 19th to 21st in the league, though free throws are up across the league.  We’ll have to watch this to see if whistles are blown less often as the season goes on – but if a focus on calling fouls remains strong this could be a problem.

Field Goal Defense and BS Rate

The last category, and probably the most important, is Field Goal defense.  Last year, New Orleans allowed an effective field goal percentage of 52.0%, ranking 28th in the league.  And . . . this year the Pelicans are allowing a 52.0% effective shooting percentage.  Sigh.

Since this is so vital, I decided to dig in even further.   For those of you who have read my work here – or listened to the podcast – you know how I feel about mid-range shooting.  In general, good defenses force opponents to take shots in the Dumb Zone – taking away three pointers (particularly corner threes) and shots at the rim.   Last year the team was terrible at keeping opponents from the rim – and nearly as bad at the three point line.  This year, that trend has continued and it needs to be addressed.

To illustrate, I put together a stat I call Bad Shots Rate (BS Rate) – I combined the percentage of shots a team’s opponents take at the rim and from behind the three point line – and end up with a ranking on how good each team is at forcing teams to take mid-range shots.  The Pelicans, predictably, have the 7th worst BS Rate, as 37.23% of shots taken by New Orleans opponents are inside the Dumb Zone.  The league average is 41.22%.  The Pacers, with the best defense in the league, force 47.49% of opponents shots to be taken in the Dumb Zone.

Controlling the type of shots an opponent gets is a foundational principle for any defense – and this  foundation is badly cracked.  It doesn’t matter how well you contest if the other team is getting the shots they want, and other teams are really getting the shots they want.  Pelican opponents get corner threes – the most efficient shot in basketball – on 9.51% of their attempts.  That’s the third highest rate in the league.  The league average rate of shots at the rim is 33.3%.  Pelican opponents get shots at the rim 35% of the time.

This means that when turnovers stop coming in bunches – something that inevitably happens for stretches – all those good shots will start going down in bunches.  That means that unless this is fixed, the Pelicans will be susceptible to big runs by their opponents.  That means no lead is safe.  As we’ve seen.

Let’s hope the Pelicans will get better at this as they grow familiar with one another.



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