Note: This post was written before last night’s game against the Jazz. But if you watched it then you’ll have some video evidence for what is discussed.
The other day Ryan pointed out that while the Pelicans’ defense is improving it will struggle to hold a lead. Basically, he summed it up with the fact that teams are getting high efficiency looks (from behind the 3-point line and in the restricted area), and if the Pelicans’ opponents get hot then they can go on big scoring runs. It’s a pretty significant problem.
Yet the numbers say the defense is much better this season than the last season’s version. The team’s defensive rating ranks 15th in the league compared to 28th last year. If you prefer standardized stats they give up the 9th fewest points per game after finishing 14th last season.
So it appears we have a bit of a contradiction: The defense will cost the team wins through its struggle to keep a lead yet it is supposedly improved. So what is really going on here? Let’s first take a look at two areas where the team has definitely improved.
This piggybacks off Ryan a little but the point is worth looking at again. The Pelicans are 8th best at forcing opponent turnovers, sitting at 16.2%. That’s a huge improvement over last year’s 13.1% and 25th ranking. The main reason for this is the Pelicans are stealing the ball from their opponents more. The Pelicans currently rank 11th in total steals compared to last season’s dead last ranking.
Part of this is from new addition Jrue Holiday. On defense, Holiday presses the point of attack and does a good job of not letting the opposing ball handler get set and pick out the best pass to make. By playing close, harassing defense above the 3-point line, the ball handler needs to dribble and pass sooner than he’d like. It has allowed Holiday to pick an occasional pocket and average a career high in steal per game. But it also forced bad passes at times which Holiday’s teammates have been jumping. Davis and Aminu with their long arms are swatting away entry passes; a finally healthy Gordon is taking advantage of any slow pass to his man.
With Vasquez starting last season the Pelicans did not have a player who could apply this type of defensive pressure, and the difference is huge. This season five Pelicans are averaging a Steal % above 2 (including Davis and Gordon who are above 3%). Last season, of guys who played significant minutes, the Pelicans only had two such players, and it all starts at the point of attack.
Steals lead to transition, fast breaks and easy offense, in addition to wasted a possession for the opponent.
The Pelicans have vaulted from 11th overall in blocks to 2nd this season. Jason Smith has also made his presence felt by increasing his blocks per game by about a half block. Even Greg Stiemsma in his limited minutes is blocking a shot per game and watting away 5.7% when he is on the court.
But largely this improvement is due to the leap Anthony Davis has made this season, blocking 8.2% of all 2-point shots while he is on the court and 3.4 blocks per game.
Once you get past those two areas, Monty’s defense looks an awful lot like last year. 3-point defense was a large problem and it looks like it will continue to be this season. The team’s rankings are slightly better than their counterparts from a year ago but in their 8 games thus far the Pelicans haven’t played an elite 3-point shooting team. Yet opponents are making shots from deep at a high percentage than last season. Once the schedule gets harder expect to start seeing teams bomb the Pelicans from deep.
Rebounding is another area where the numbers look good but are very misleading. The Pelicans rank 4th in defensive rebounding, grabbing 77.3% of all available defensive rebounds. That number looks great but when you dig a little more there are some concerns.
Despite the high defensive rebound percentage the Pelicans rank 13th in total defensive rebounds. That’s a big disconnect between those two stats. But they also measure different aspects of the same area. Defensive rebounding percentage only factors in when an opportunity for a defensive rebound is available. If opponents are making their shots then no opportunity is present. Opponents are shooting incredibly well against the Pelicans, hence the low number of total rebounds.
On the season, opponents have an eFG% of .523 against the Pelicans. That’s good for 5th worst in the league. What good is being an elite rebounding team when those opportunities are not there all that often?
An Easy Improvement
Anthony Davis struggled with his rotations and court awareness last season. He’s much improved in that area but still seems too focused on his own assignment and misses a guard driving from the perimeter. Unfortunately this happens to other Pelicans as well. An opponent crosses over his defender and has a free lane to the basket for a layup or dunk. Completely uncontested.
If the Pelicans want to compete for a playoff spot this season this needs to change. The team is so talented at causing disruption with its length and athleticism that simply rotating over and sliding a body in the way of the attacker will cause the eFG% to drop. If it drops the numbers tell us the Pelicans will clean up the defensive glass. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that there is a good chance of a block occurring after a proper defensive rotation. Or a steal.
The signing of Lou Amundson, whose rotations were very impressive last season, was a move to shore up this weakness in the team. The move isn’t sexy or a franchise changer but it will stem some of the bleeding that occurs when the second unit is on the court.
Monty Williams has taken a lot of heat this season as many fans think replacing the coach will be quick fix for what ails the Pelicans. That’s not really going to be the case since players and the performance are just as culpable for the team’s lack of early success. However, a coach’s job is to put his players, and team, in position to succeed and if the Pelicans’ defensive scheme continues as such, I’m not sure Monty is doing that.
Maybe the defense will get fixed, or maybe it won’t. But there is promise in the fact that the team has improved in some key areas. Hopefully it spreads to other aspects.