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Dissecting the Defense

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Published: December 7, 2018

 

Stop me if you have heard this before – the Pelicans have a lackluster defense. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve certainly heard the bemoaning for weeks. If you don’t, you maybe noticed the Clippers waltz into the Smoothie King Center and leave shooting almost 60% from the floor. That’s nuts. The Pelicans own the 24th ranked defense and have spent significant time in the bottom 5 of the league in that measure. In fact, the Pelicans are currently the holders of the franchise’s worst ever defensive rating. This team was good on that end last year – so how did we even get here?

For weeks there was chatter about how turnovers were making life difficult on the defensive end. Cough the ball up and watch opponents run it down your throat. Don’t get me wrong, turnovers were and are definitely a problem. They contribute to the 7th highest opponent fast break points per game the Pelicans currently surrender. Yet the Pels are actually fairly average at taking care of the ball. They sport the 13th best turnover rate in the league and there are teams far worse at giving the ball up but are far better on the defensive end. Something doesn’t add up.

 

Perhaps the most glaring example of there being a deeper issue was the above mentioned game against the Clippers. The Pelicans only had 7 turnovers but allowed the Clippers to drop 129 points shooting 59% from the field. The defense was a disaster and the defense without Davis on the floor even more so. But it was after this game that Coach Alvin Gentry offered an adjustment he felt worked in the second half.

“I thought in the dribble handoffs and screen and rolls, we weren’t physical enough and our bigs weren’t playing up quite enough,” Gentry said. “I thought we did a much much better job in the second half at that and we were much more aggressive.”


Our bigs weren’t playing up quite enough. Huh. Why weren’t they playing up enough? Has that been the case this whole season? Before I answer those questions, allow me to briefly explain what “playing up” means. When defending the pick and roll, or a handoff, teams can choose to deploy bigs in a variety of ways. A common approach that the Pelicans have used is drop or “soft” coverage. This involves the bigs hanging back from the point of the screen without applying pressure to the ball handler up front. “Playing up” is the opposite of that. Typically the big starts higher as the screen approaches and then engages the ball handler as they turn the corner. Each approach has its inherent advantages. For example, Utah loves to hold Gobert back and funnel everyone towards him. This works well for them because of Gobert’s disrupting length and size, however not every team is suited for this style of play.

The Pelicans like to try and do the same with Davis from time to time. If you ask Associate Head Coach, Darren Erman, he’ll rave about Davis’s ability to operate in space and protect the rim.

“He’s in the pick and rolls and he’s an elite, Top 5 pick and roll defender,” Erman told Scott Kushner from the Advocate this summer. “We sent everything to Anthony and he would meet them at the rim. He’s just great at it. He’s great at ‘playing two’ in the pick and roll, meaning he’s playing the ball handler and the roller, and he makes great decisions on who to get at the last moment. So, we send everything to him and tell him to handle it at the rim.”

 

 

Davis is indeed great at handling two in the pick roll. With his unique combination of speed and length, Davis covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Even if Davis makes a bad read on the initial play he has the ability to recover and contest. Ball handlers are generally terrified to go near him and often settle for midrange shots that Davis is able to pressure. The goal of a good defense is to generate low efficiency looks and Davis is fantastic at forcing those.

Yet drop coverage is tricky, even for Davis. Perimeter players in the league are growing more confident pulling up for threes off screens or taking the midrange the moment they have separation. This sometimes leaves Davis in no-man’s land caught between the rolling big and the driving small. With only moments to react, making the wrong read here can lead to an easy look at the rim. What’s worse is that you wonder if Davis sometimes gets bored hanging back there. With not much activity around him, Davis sometimes gets glued watching the ball as shown at the end of the following clip.

 


So what happens when you aren’t a freakish athlete with gangling arms? Well, the results aren’t pretty. Neither Mirotic nor Randle possess the physical traits of Davis, nor do they share his defensive awareness. In drop coverage they often have trouble staying in front of the ball handler and offer little resistance at the rim. Guards aren’t afraid to challenge them and even when one of Mirotic or Randle are able to get a contest up, they don’t possess the length to make the offense uncomfortable.

 

With every team possessing dynamic perimeter players in the pick and roll, it’s even more important to apply pressure at the point of the ball screen. So when Gentry said the bigs did a much better job of playing high on the screens, he meant this.

 

Right away you can notice how much “higher” the bigs play relative to the screen than in drop coverage. Both Randle and Mirotic are much better at harassing the ball handler high off the screen and then recovering, than they are trying to defend in space. Mirotic in particular did an excellent job of executing this coverage all throughout the Portland series in the playoffs. Playing high frequently pushes the ball out of the main guard’s hands and forces others to make decisions. It requires finely tuned rotations as someone on the weakside has to “tag” the roll man, preventing an easy dunk like you see Holiday do to Gortat when he breaks up the lob. Players also need to be ready for 3 point kick outs to the tagger’s assignment, as you see when Davis closes out on Barnes in the corner. When the defense is all on the same page, this works beautifully. It is also perhaps why Alvin Gentry would like his team to have a little more consistency when executing this coverage.

“I think we got to get better at that, and I think we got to get consistent at that,” Gentry told me before Wednesday night’s game against the Mavericks. “You have to be up on the screen and roll because the guards coming off those things are just too good in the league. When you think about a Lou Williams or when you think about what Luka Doncic can do off screens, it’s almost imperative your bigs be up. You have to slow the guy coming off it, turning the corner, and heading downhill on you. That’s an area that we definitely talked about and have to get better.”

The coverage in large part was responsible for improving the Pelicans second half defensive rating against the Clippers by almost 35 points per 100 possessions. Gentry says the adjustment was more of a re-emphasis rather than an active change.

“It was a re-emphasis. We talked about being up. As the game goes on, you back up a little bit further and we just kind of re-emphasized at half time in a really strong way that you have to be up.”

 

So why haven’t the Pelicans been able to deploy this coverage consistently? Even the numbers point to a significant increase in playing “soft” from the year before.

Data courtesy of Second Spectrum

One answer may lie with the increase in pace. Pace and defensive efficiency are at an inherent conflict. When you ask a player to run hard on offense, make quick cuts,  set early screens, and then to run back and play high on screens to chase the ball handler – they are expending a lot of energy. Then you toss in the fact that the team has made securing offensive rebounds a point of emphasis as well. The players are asked to do a lot on a nightly basis and you are just creating more opportunities for a defensive breakdown to occur. Playing 8 man rotations due to injuries and lack of depth doesn’t help the cause either.

However, Davis doesn’t see it as an excuse. “It’s effort. It’s all effort,” Davis told me. “We have responsibilities to get back. That’s really it. We want to go to the (offensive) board, we want to push it fast, but we also have responsibilities to play on the other end too.”

Davis may not shy away from responsibility, but between increased pace, shorter rotations, and the desire for defensive efficiency, something has to give. All this perhaps raises the most fascinating question to me – is it better to have a baseline scheme and make small adjustments to your defense, or is it better to vary depending on the matchup? There is no right answer, however, Solomon Hill insists the Pelicans want to start with consistency but aren’t afraid to change things up.

“We want to come out aggressive,” Hill told me Wednesday night. “If we come out aggressive and that is hurting us, we’ll make adjustments. We want to have the majority of what we do be consistent but then it’s going to change too – if certain teams are good cutting teams, we want to be mindful of that, or if a team is a strong 3 point shooting team. We want to be mindful of the things that are working for them. I think we have to have a combination of both things – a consistent base defense that you do and then alter it a bit, tweak it depending who you play.”

A consistent base can go a long way towards establishing a defensive identity. Just look how the Nuggets made a similar adjustment by “playing up” more in this fantastic article by Chris Herring. The Nuggets now maintain the league’s 5th best defense despite employing similar wing talent to the Pelicans. My talks with the team leave me optimistic that the Pelicans will continue to stress the importance of playing high in a league filled with perimeter talent. With more health and consistency, the results should begin to manifest themselves on the court as well.

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