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Film Study: Pelicans’ Transition Defense

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Published: December 29, 2017

Earlier this month, I shared the biggest issue holding the Pelicans back from competent defensive metrics: their transition defense, specifically after missed shots. However, that article only covered the “what”, not the “why.” So why are the Pelicans having so much trouble stopping opponents from scoring after their own missed shots? Speculation based on eye tests is an okay start, but the most effective way to learn about something like this is through watching the film. By leveraging Cleaning the Glass’ excellent database of stats, I was able to identify a few of the Pels’ worst performances in this phase of the game. I then moved to NBA.com’s stats portal to look at the film from these games (linked at the bottom of this column). In particular, I looked at every possession that moved from an opponent defensive rebound to an opponent score in ~7 seconds or less.

The Data Set

The games that I reviewed are the following four (identified in the below table): 10/22 @ LA Lakers, 11/15 vs. Toronto, 12/10 vs. Philadelphia, & 12/11 @ Houston.

At the bottom of this column, you can find a detailed breakdown of every relevant play that I identified. For those hoping to find a quicker summary of the findings, I broke play results down into 4 categories as shown below:

Summary of Findings

  1. DeRozan and Harden are beasts in transition. I know, major finding, right? But when you look at the film, the difference between opponents like Toronto & Houston vs. Philly and Los Angeles is clear – the former two teams have initiatiors that know how to cause a ton of trouble for opponents. Having all 5 players back on the defensive end of the floor is not enough; you better be set in the right place or else players like these (and even Ben Simmons to a degree already) will make you pay.
  2. The vast majority of the Pelicans’ transition mistakes are either effort related or poor decision-making. Rebound location or offensive positioning tend to be hot topics as it relates to transition defense, which is understandable. After reviewing the film of these four games, however, these points appear to be less important than may be expected. Yes, there were a couple of plays where long rebounds helped to jump-start the opponents’ offense, and there was a score or two on plays when the Pels had 2 players camped out in the corners until the shot went up. But review the film below for yourself – across all of these scenarios, the underlying problem is overwhelmingly due to either poor effort or mental mistakes. For example, there is no reason for a Pelicans player to hang in the corner until a rebound is corralled – he should be moving as soon as the shot goes up. By doing so, it would be exceedingly difficult to get beat down the floor no matter where you’re standing. The combination of a long rebound around the free throw line along with two players in either corner could definitely result in easy points for the opponent, but such circumstances are few and far between. Make the effort and don’t take stupid gambles, and you’ll solve a lot of problems.
  3. The Pelicans’ big men are typically more to blame than the guards or wings. No one expects Cousins or Davis to be the first players down the floor on defense, particularly given their frequent proximity to the rim on offense. But as far as transition scoring goes, it is not uncommon to see them (Boogie more so than AD) either lag back due to ref complaints or ill-advised steal attempts, or fail to close out on opposing big men who aren’t afraid to let it fly from deep. That being said, the low probability back court steal attempts or weak closeouts are certainly not limited to just those two, as the film below shows.

Ultimately, better effort and better decision-making would fix the majority of the Pelicans’ existing defensive issues in transition – in fact, we have already seen the team improve in these areas over the past few games. Sometimes, you’ll run up against elite creators like DeRozan and Harden who are going to make life difficult regardless, but most of the time, if the Pelicans can stay disciplined and maintain good effort, then better results will follow.

Appendix: Detailed Video Breakdown

Pelicans @ Lakers

  1. Long rebound, Lonzo bull-rushes Jameer, who tries to take a charge; block is called
    http://on.nba.com/2Ch4n2l
  2. AD slow to get back after missed shot + Ian Clark whiffs on back court steal attempt. Defense out of position, corner 3 + foul
    http://on.nba.com/2CiV95G
  3. AD gets tied up with Ingram & falls on rebound attempt of Boogie 3, KCP shoots midrange PUJIT over Boogie. Bad luck
    http://on.nba.com/2Ck3eHg
  4. Moore misses corner 3, then jogs slowly back up court as KCP beats the rest of the D for a layup partially thanks to good spacing by Kuzma in the corner
    http://on.nba.com/2CkgOL3
  5. Boogie going for steal in back court causes confusion among defensive assignments, allowing Clarkson to get free for a 3
    http://on.nba.com/2CjoU6I
  6. AD misses a 3 at the top of the key & gets back in time, but just sags too far off of Hart
    http://on.nba.com/2ClYqBu
  7. Boogie misses a 3 at the top of the key & everyone but Jrue stands around to watch for too long while the Lakers start running. Easy transition layup for Randle.
    http://on.nba.com/2CjAleo

Pelicans vs. Raptors

  1. Pels get back in transition well enough, but a good screen from Poeltl & great playmaking by DeRozan trump them.
    http://on.nba.com/2DsM8Gy
  2. Same as above re: DeRozan. Just great at getting the defense out of sorts in transition. Creates a wide open mid-range look for Valanciunas.
    http://on.nba.com/2DscWXt
  3. Siakam gets the board inside after a Cunningham wing 3 miss, pushes up the floor, and creates space for a Lowry 3. Again, reasonable transition defense, just a better offensive play.
    http://on.nba.com/2mtWhPL
  4. Lack of communication here. DeRozan and Diallo are the last two down the floor after Diallo fights hard but unsuccessfully for the offensive board, but DeRozan gets the pass with a full head of steam and no one stops him.
    http://on.nba.com/2DuJhgf
  5. Fight at the rim for the board with a bunch of players clustered in the restricted area, but the ball pops out to DeRozan who dumps it to CJ Miles for a wide open 3.
    http://on.nba.com/2DuJIqT
  6. The second that Valanciunas grabs the board, Ibaka (who was closing out on Nelson’s 3-point shot) sprints down court and gets great inside position on Jameer. Ibaka kicks it back out to VanFleet who finds Lowry for an open 3. Again, Toronto just knows where to be in transition.
    http://on.nba.com/2DtB0cN

Pelicans vs. 76ers

  1. Made 3 – Davis doesn’t close out well enough on Saric
    http://on.nba.com/2l0zozh
  2. Made layup – just a great play by Simmons
    http://on.nba.com/2kXZlzP
  3. Made FTs – again, great job of forcing issue by Simmons before defense is set
    http://on.nba.com/2l1RscG
  4. Made layup – Boogie thinks he gets fouled and doesn’t get back on defense in transition
    http://on.nba.com/2kZ7Ave
  5. Made FTs – Boogie’s bad steal attempt at the opposite FT line leads to FTs on the other end for Booker
    http://on.nba.com/2kZ9oo0
    BONUS – Boogie not giving a damn about boxing out
    http://on.nba.com/2kYyPGl
  6. Redick 3 – bad luck on this possession. Good transition defense overall, but AD gets caught ball-watching and gives up an offensive rebound, resulting in a deep 3 from Redick (Rondo could have closed out better, but it was a DEEP 3)
    http://on.nba.com/2kYYe2x
  7. And-1 – AD yells about a no-call and hangs the rest of the defense out to dry, leading to an and-one for Booker
    http://on.nba.com/2kXJq4k

Pelicans @ Rockets

  1. Long rebound after a missed wing 3 by Miller, Harden finds Ryno for a very deep 3 before Miller can get to him on a closeout
    http://on.nba.com/2CkHLOH
  2. Defense gets back in time, but Gordon takes advantage of a Jalen Jones slip & fall to hit a PU3IT. Jones kind of coasts back down the court before the shot as well.
    http://on.nba.com/2Ck9q21
  3. This one appears to be on a combo of Moore and Miller. They both leave Rondo out to dry on the strong side of the court, leaving Rondo to figure out how to cover both Tucker and Ariza. He ends up fouling Ariza on a made 3.
    http://on.nba.com/2CnKB5s
  4. Miller misses a quick open 3 at the top of the key, Harden grabs the board and goes coast to coast. Holiday tracks back with Harden, but is in no position to defend his drive, and Harden beats Asik for an easy layup.
    http://on.nba.com/2Cm6W3a
  5. Holiday goes over a Nene screen for Harden, who scores over decent defense from Cousins. Harden is good.
    http://on.nba.com/2CkJS55
  6. Gordon gets the rebound and pushes the ball up then dumps it to Tucker, causing defensive confusion. Asik stops Tucker’s drive, but he squeezes a bounce pass into Nene, who scores. Decent defense, better play.
    http://on.nba.com/2CoUL5W
  7. Chris Paul isn’t fair. Gets the rebound, dribbles up court, and hits a 3 as time expires in the 3rd over Jalen Jones, though Jones should have recognized the clock running to 0 and closed out a bit better.
    http://on.nba.com/2CpcNVx
  8. E’Twaun Moore falls asleep and gives up an open wing 3 to CP3.
    http://on.nba.com/2Cnx4uO

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