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Grainy Defense

Published: August 5, 2017


“What’s the basketball vision right now? What kind of team are they? We don’t know.”


It took until the last day of the regular season, but by the time the dust settled on April 15th, 2015, the New Orleans Pelicans found themselves in possession of the final seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, and by the narrowest of margins too. The team managed to edge out the Oklahoma City Thunder by virtue of a tie-breaker, won by a last second shot courtesy of Anthony Davis. So much had gone wrong up until that point, but just enough managed to go right for the struggling franchise. The first round sweep was brushed off as the season was seen as stepping-off point for the team and Anthony Davis, who erupted for a historic individual season and an even more impressive post-season. The core was locked in for another year, and fans and media alike thought the team was on the way up.

Zach Lowe, writing for Grantland at the time, had Davis winning MVP, DPOY, and the team making a massive jump on defense in his “crazy but still probable” predictions for the ’15-’16 season.

Even those with less-over-the-top predictions had the Pels improving, even if just a little. But rather than taking a step up, the team stepped off a ledge. The 2015-16 season was over almost as soon as it began for New Orleans. Through the first two months, the team had the 2nd worst defense in the league, and they never recovered from losing 11 of their first 12 games. The start to 2016-17 was just as poor, as the team lost 10 of 12, but this time the performances found a fan base numbed to disappointment and ready for change. All that went into the playoff run seemed to unravel and then some and all in barely over a year.

The 1-11 start after the playoff appearance was simply jarring for the team and organization, who had invested heavily in the squad. To be sure, the injuries sustained by the team’s core over four, gruelingly long seasons were a large factor in its failures. They created deep cracks in the foundation and widened others that already existed. Now, what is left is the image of a team that was never able to mesh, save one brief moment years ago. “Identity” was an issue even during Monty Williams’ time in New Orleans, and a culture of constantly changing parts and roles has been hindering the Pelicans from establishing a team personality for years, despite having a generational superstar to build around.

“Just been a lot of transition, a lot of guys in and out. So what’s the stability there?”

Eric Gordon criticized the organization’s failures once he bolted for the Houston Rockets, and many of his criticisms are valid. Myself and others know to take Gordon’s words with a large grain of salt, but the bottom line for guys like Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson is that their time in New Orleans was filled with role changes, turnover in the roster and staff, and poor results. That constant moving of pieces coupled with a lot of losing doesn’t inspire confidence. “What is my role here” is an important question to ask.

But since the breakdown of 2015-16, the Pelicans have done some repairing and retooling. They decided to invest in “The Process.” (Jason does an excellent job explaining what the Process is for the Pels, and I encourage you to read his pieces on the subject)

The players who didn’t buy in to what they were doing, either with establishing the pecking order or with defensive effort, were given the boot. This was a top priority, as it should have been. Reports of players “not giving a damn” needed to disappear, and they have. The emphasis isn’t just spin to the fan base, the team has stuck by it in retooling the team.

“We have to be a very good defensive team that just so happens to be good offensively”

One of the first things Alvin Gentry said of his vision for this Pelicans team two seasons ago has not totally come to life. The offense has failed to find its footing in the league, however, the defensive beat has marched to success. The team finished with the 9th ranked defensive unit by Drtg. For those questioning how important a step this is, just look at recent seasons:

28th in 2015-16

22nd in 2014-15

25th in 2013-14

28th in 2012-13

The emphasis on defense doesn’t look like it is going to change. Gentry recently claimed that the focus for the team with DeMarcus Cousins should still be on the defensive end, both in an interview with Adrian Wojnarowski and in an interview with Scott Kushner of the Advocate:

“We’re trying to maintain where we were defensively and even get a little better to get into the top five instead of the top 10.”

That is easier said than done. The Pelicans avoided taking a step back with the re-signing of Jrue Holiday, as he was crucial to what they were able to do. He was 14th in defections per game, finished 3rd among point guards in DRPM, and was 11th in steals and 7th in blocks for all guards.

He, Solomon Hill, and Anthony Davis were really the core of the defense this past season.

This guard, wing, big trio played 1352 minutes for the Pelicans in 2016-17. Only 39 other trios of players logged at least 1300 minutes in the NBA last season, and among those, Holiday-Hill-Davis had the 3rd best defensive rating (100.7). The only two ahead of them were Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, DeAndre Jordan and Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green.

When any one of these guys left the court, the Pels’ defense took a sizable hit:

[table id=112 /]

The defense remained fairly consistent statistically throughout the season and its changes (including Holiday’s absence, changing to small ball and back, and a small roster overhaul). The players the Pelicans have brought in on the periphery the last couple of years, like Hill and E’Twaun Moore last year, like Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham in 2014-15, and even some of the smaller name guys who haven’t stuck around, have had a positive impact when put in the right role, but too often their roles are too big. It is no secret that the Pels have lacked talent on the roster. Their core set the tone on defense, and they had a couple pieces able to step in without giving up too much, but many of their lineups were littered with limited players. The Pels’ didn’t completely recover from their collapse, but they did win 4 more games than in 2015-16 and improved their point differential from -3.8 to -2.1 despite having arguably less talent. That’s what a strong defense can do for you.

The Pelicans were a good defense but they lagged behind the league’s best. According to NBA’s playtype data, they did well limiting easy buckets for opponents in transition and through putbacks. They were slightly above average in isolation, and they did a good job limiting and contesting opponent’s spot up opportunities. But their biggest issue was in navigating screens and giving up cuts, which is fundamental for any strong defense.

[table id=115 /]

“Do you guys have to spend more time thinking about how they play defensively than offensively?”
“I think so, I think so…..What we got to do is that we got to get them to the point where, obviously we are going to get attacked in screen and roll offense, and our screen and roll defense is going to have to improve, but it is something that I think we can very much take care of.”
– Gentry & Wojnarowski

Being able to navigate screens and execute against them is a major part of being an elite defense, and in this regard the Pelicans are not elite. How can one improve execution in screen and roll defense? It isn’t on one player, but rather everyone.

  • Communication is key. You have to be in sync timing-wise with your teammates. Even if there is a breakdown, communication is needed to get back on track.
  • Having a strategy implemented with good scouting to back it up.
  • IQ. What good is having fantastic scouting and a good strategy if the scenarios aren’t recognized on the court.

Seemingly, the Pelicans have improved in these areas.

The addition of DeMarcus Cousins and the departure of most of the Pelicans’ guard depth mid-season threatened to undo some of the success the team had seen in 2016-17. I was optimistic at the time of the trade that Cousins could be a positive addition to the Pelicans’ defense, and there wasn’t much post-trade to suggest that he wasn’t.

The 4-man-lineup of Holiday-Hill-Davis-Cousins played 344 minutes together and posted a stellar Drtg of 98.8. The Pels packed it in for the final 4 games of the season, skewing some of the numbers a bit, but the defense overall improved in key areas:

They were among the tops in the league in contested shots/game both pre- and post-AllStar break.
  • They managed to turn more of the deflections they were getting (tied-7th in deflections pre-trade) into turnovers (9th in opponent turnovers post-trade).
  • They were also able to cut down on opponents’ 2nd-chance and transition points.

Turns out that talent matters.

Cousins himself has potential to be a force on defense, though he has had his issues throughout his career. This past season he was 10th in deflections per game, 2nd in steals for centers, and he has been among the best in the league in charges drawn since he’s been in the NBA. His addition made the Pelicans that much more disruptive.

After posting 112.9 Drtg for Cousins’ first 3 games, the team put up a 100.6 rating for the entire month of March (with a 10-6 record). There is still plenty to work on, but the blueprint is there. The team continued to develop on a nightly basis as the staff experimented with how to use the big talent. But at times they really gelled.

It is a small sample, and keeping Cousins engaged and active over 82 games is a whole nother issue, but nonetheless, Cousins is a real basketball talent. He is smart and better than Cunningham, Terrence Jones, Alexis Ajinca, and Omer Asik (all the front court partners for Davis this past year).

In addition to Cousins, the Pels have now brought in Rajon Rondo. Despite what some critics may say, the addition is in line with the team’s efforts to build a strong defensive identity. Rondo has his flaws, but intelligence, scouting and IQ, communication, and screen and roll defense are among his strengths. His signing is in line with the Pelicans’ “process.” He might not be the defensive force he once was, but the hope is he can still help. And if not, it is only a one year deal. He does have the benefit of being familiar with Darren Erman and DeMarcus Cousins. The 3-man lineup of Holiday-Hill-Davis now has 2 real talents to fill out the last 2 spots. Rondo can help the defense more than Tim Frazier, Langston Galloway, or E’Twaun Moore could in the same way Cousins did over other less talented frontcourt players.

Faced with re-signing Cousins and building something resembling a winner, the Pels have a tough road ahead. They have to win enough this year to convince Boogie to re-sign with the team. Then they have to repeat that success, and likely improve on it, to even be considered a place to be. The issue with Holiday’s big contract (and hopefully Cousins’ next one) is that even if they achieve that level on the court, the money on the books will make it difficult to improve the roster.

However, difficult doesn’t mean impossible. A year or two from now, the Pelicans might not have any space, but they might find it easier to move on from some of their contracts. They own all their own picks. If the team is going to bring in another star player, their best option has always been by trade; Free Agency has not been kind to New Orleans. In fact, recent signee Rajon Rondo is probably the biggest name to sign in New Orleans, even if it is a small deal.

The Pelicans are going against the grain. Day in and day out during the NBA season they are going against teams doing something different than what they are doing. If they want to be successful they are going to have to be able to defend against what typical NBA teams do. Otherwise they are going to lose day in and day out. The Pels are not attempting to put an outdated style on the court, and in their two big men they have somewhat of an link between the bigman dominated past and the perimeter-skilled present, and frankly, it is one of the more interesting experiments in the NBA today. Davis and Cousins can be the the motors of a unique offense, but an elite defense would go a long way in supporting their efforts.

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