The value Darren Erman provides for the Pelicans on defense

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Published: November 20, 2017

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Lost in the concern over injuries and questions about Alvin Gentry’s future is a fact: Darren Erman has been a very valuable assistant during his time on the New Orleans Pelicans bench.

Since taking over as lead assistant for Randy Ayers before the 2015-16 season, Erman has crafted creative and resourceful gameplans and has been willing to change direction when one plan’s usefulness runs its course. He led the 2016-17 Pelicans — who won a mere 34 games — to the ninth-best defensive rating in the NBA. The other two years have been uneven, thanks to injury and inconsistency, but Erman’s willingness to experiment and adapt to change has been a positive for the Pelicans even when they’ve struggled to defend.

Three main ideas stand out as innovative uses of talent by Erman in New Orleans:

  • Using Jrue Holiday to defend bigger wings and forwards, something he rarely did in Philadelphia at the beginning of his career.
  • Turbo-switching screens during the 2016-17 season prior to the DeMarcus Cousins trade in an effort to maximize Solomon Hill and Dante Cunningham’s usefulness.
  • Changing the game plan this year to one in which Cousins drops back when defending pick-and-rolls.

Let’s go one by one.

Jrue Holiday

Prior to the season, several outlets reported that the Pelicans would lean even harder into Holiday’s utility as a switchable defender, after his success as the anchor of the switching scheme last year. It had to feel good for both the player and the coach (Erman) to see an out-of-the-box idea work so well. Holiday was able to make guys like Kristaps Porzingis and Paul Millsap uncomfortable all season, putting on legit clinics defending in the post.

Holiday is all chest and footwork when he gets down there, and much of the credit for unlocking that aspect of his game, as well as making it work within the Pels’ scheme, should go to Erman. The point guard, finally healthy, went on to finish third out of all NBA point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

(h/t to Kumar for this clip from last season)

Turbo-Switching

It was partially his ability to defend bigger players that allowed Erman to implement a switch-everything game plan last season. Thanks to consistent ineffectiveness by Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, the coaching staff was forced to play extremely small and rely on Anthony Davis full-time at center. With Cunningham and Hill as the best options in the frontcourt, Erman and head coach Alvin Gentry decided it was best to start them both and play through the defense.

The Pelicans limited opponents to an effective field goal percentage of .509 that season after hemorrhaging points and allowing over a .520 effective field goal percentage the prior season. It was the best the Pelicans’ defense has looked in years, and at the same time helped the Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore contracts look more reasonable.

Cousins

This year, Cousins has replaced Davis as the Pelicans’ representative in the top 20 of defensive box plus-minus in the NBA. He is dropping to around the free-throw line on pick-and-roll coverage, corralling ball-handlers rather than blitzing them or switching onto them. It’s probably the best use of his skill set and size — his feet are quick, but Erman has him using that foot speed to recover down low rather than trap up high.

Cousins does not have the hip flexibility of Davis, so he isn’t able to react to plays as well up toward the 3-point line. Instead, he keeps his head up on a slow backpedal toward the rim as the play develops in front of him. For the most part, his play has been a positive for the Pelicans’ defense.

Through nearly 600 minutes, the Pels’ defense has been more than 10 points better with Cousins on the court, according to NBA.com on/off data. Bigger problems elsewhere on the roster (Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson and Darius Miller, to start) explain the team’s poor performance on defense to this point.

Erman, Cousins, Davis and Holiday are an elite combination as the core of a competitive defense. The Pelicans’ lead assistant has shown once again this season why he is so valuable to the team as a defensive coach.

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