The New Orleans Pelicans’ Biggest Problem

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Published: December 26, 2013

I am about to introduce a ground-breaking concept, so prepare to be amazed. In the game of basketball, there are only three ways (excluding the clock expiring at the end of a quarter) that a possession can end: a made shot, a missed shot + defensive rebound, or a turnover. The defense’s objective, therefore, is to force one of the latter two options. Wild, right?!

To date, the Pelicans have forced their opponents into turning the ball over on 16% of their possessions, which ranks in the top third of all NBA defenses. However, their overall defensive rating of 105.4 points allowed per 100 possessions is 6th worst in the NBA. The resulting conclusion, then, is simple – when the Pelicans are not forcing turnovers, they are giving up a lot of made shots. Why have they been so bad at shot defense? Let’s take a look.

Shot Locations

So where are these shots coming from? With the season about a third of the way complete, we’re at a point where hot streaks and cold spells will largely have had enough time to level off, which means that there is a high likelihood that opponents haven’t just been getting lucky with ill-advised attempts. The numbers appear to support this hypothesis as well: the Pelicans force their opponents into shooting only 38.3 percent of all shot attempts between the rim and the 3-point line, fourth lowest in the NBA. For comparison’s sake, the Bulls and Pacers lead the league by forcing about 49% of their opponents’ shot attempts from this distance. To make matters worse, New Orleans’ opponents are making about 40.5% of those shots, which is 6th highest in the NBA. That number can be somewhat fluky, however, so the #1 goal should be forcing more shots from this area regardless of previous teams’ success rates.

Now that we know where the shots are NOT coming from, we can easily infer where they are coming from – either right at the rim or from 3-point range. New Orleans allows 27.4% of their opponents’ total field goal attempts from 3-point range, 8th highest in the NBA. While that’s not great, they defend the 3-point shots they do give up at about the league average rate, so the team’s three point defense is a little below average but likely isn’t as much of an issue as previously thought.

Finally, we come to New Orleans’ defense on shots taken at the rim. The Pelicans allow 34.3% of opponents’ total field goal attempts from the restricted area, 8th highest in the NBA. Unlike the team’s mediocre 3-point defense, however, they compound this issue with poor interior defense on these shots, allowing opponents to make them at a rate of 61.5% (22nd in the NBA).

Additional Scoring Opportunities

The Pelicans allow the 7th worst effective field goal percentage (FG% weighted for the added value of a 3-pointer) of 51.4%. Despite everything detailed above, that ranking doesn’t appear to be bad enough to result in the league’s 6th worst defense given how good the team is at forcing turnovers. So what gives? As it turns out, there are two additional factors which are dragging the Pelicans’ defense down even further.

First, by allowing opponents to shoot the ball right at the rim so frequently, they are also much more prone to fouling and subsequent free throw attempts. Sure enough, New Orleans is tied with Miami for the 3rd worst free throw rate allowed to opponents, as they attempt .313 free throws per field goal attempt. The end result of this statistic is easy to see, as the Pelicans allow just over 25 free throw attempts per 48 minutes, 8th worst in the NBA. That’s almost 7 more free throw attempts allowed per game than the division rival Spurs, whose 18.5 free throw attempts allowed per game rank 2nd best in the NBA. Given the league average free throw percentage of right around 75%, that’s about 5 more points per game New Orleans is allowing from the free throw line than San Antonio. Add those 5 points per 48 minutes to the Pelicans’ average scoring margin, and they’d be sitting right in between the Clippers and Rockets at 7th best in the NBA. While that example is certainly a stretch, it gives some perspective in regards to how important it is to both attempt shots at the rim and prevent opponents from doing the same.

The second problem comes via the glass. Even if you’re able to force missed shots, it means relatively little if opponents grab the ensuing rebounds and give themselves extra scoring opportunities. Sure enough, the Pelicans allow an opponents’ offensive rebound rate of 27%, the 6th worst percentage in the league and a ranking which makes them the only team to fall in the league’s bottom 7 in both opponents’ eFG% and opponents’ ORR%. So, to put it simply, the Pelicans are giving up a high percentage of made shots and a lot of extra scoring opportunities after missed shots. Not exactly a recipe for success.

Conclusion

Plain and simple, the Pelicans need to take back the paint on defense. Given the fact that the team has Anthony Davis, this shouldn’t be as big of a problem as it is, but he ends up outside of the paint far too frequently. If the team won’t commit to playing him at center, then he’s going to end up chasing some players away from the rim or getting tied up in pick and rolls. The result, as Zach Lowe alluded to in his recent Grantland column, is no interior defense left to either protect the rim or come down with defensive rebounds. When Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson play together, Davis HAS to be played as a true center and last line of defense between the ball and the hoop (see: Hibbert, Roy). Otherwise, this team will continue to get dominated for position inside and give up tons of points down low until it can find a legitimate defensive center who doesn’t commit fouls every 30 seconds and is competent enough on the offensive end to be played regularly. This Pelicans team can’t become the Pacers overnight, but they really should not be as bad on defense as they have been so far. With a greater commitment to protecting the rim, we could start to see some real improvements on the defensive side of the ball.

 

All raw statistical data obtained from the NBA’s media stats tool (and subsequently manipulated in this spreadsheet).

 

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