The Pelicans’ Surprisingly Reasonable Path to a Top-10 Defense

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Published: March 26, 2015

As we all know, the Pelicans have again endured countless injuries which have again derailed the team’s quest for its first playoff berth since Chris Paul left town. Despite this recurring theme, New Orleans has maintained a top-10 offensive rating this season (hovering right around 105 points per 100 possessions), a remarkable feat when you consider who the Pelicans have been forced to start at times this year. Apart from injuries and the depth of the Western Conference, the main issue keeping the Pelicans from becoming an annual postseason lock comes on the defensive side of the ball.

In Anthony Davis’ three years in New Orleans, the team has ranked 28th, 25th and now 24th in the NBA in defensive rating. None of these rankings are more surprising than the present one, as many expected Omer Asik to help vault the defense to at least league average caliber. Instead, while the team has improved its defensive rating a full 2.5 points per 100 possessions, it has barely moved the needle from a league ranking perspective. Additionally, the Pelicans are allowing the second most points in the paint per game in the NBA, a number that is initially hard to come to terms with given the team’s supposedly elite defensive front court duo of Davis and Asik. A common response to these unsettling statistics is to say that Asik’s limited offensive repertoire is costing the team more than his defense is benefiting it, and that the Pelicans’ latest front court experiment has failed.

Nope. Not even a little bit.

Most of the more avid Pelicans fans (as well as frequenters of this site) understand that core of the Pelicans’ defensive issues lie not at the rim, but on the perimeter. However, that fact doesn’t automatically mean Asik has done enough defensively for the team to be sold on him as the starting center moving forward. What has been very difficult to quantify is exactly how good the Pelicans’ starting front court of Asik and Davis has been defensively relative to the rest of the defense. Statistical tools such as ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus are created with this goal in mind, but it does so through numerous regressions which are not exactly easy to explain. While not quite as scientific, I believe to have found a way to at least begin to point us in the right direction.

With the help of the NBA’s Stats database, I sorted every two-man unit in the NBA by 2014-15 defensive rating (with a qualifier of at least 1,000 minutes played together for each set of two players). Of those duos, Anthony Davis and Omer Asik come in 33rd in the NBA, allowing opponents to score 99.3 points per 100 possessions while they are on the court together. Of course, there is a great deal of noise in these numbers, as each duo is heavily impacted by the other three players with whom they share the court. This explains why Warriors 2-man units hold each of the top 8 spots in these rankings. To paint a better picture of exactly how impressive Davis & Asik have been defensively, I grouped each of the top 35 defensive duos by team, listed how many unique pairs of players for each team appeared in the top 35, and also gave the team’s 2014-15 defensive rating for reference. (Note: a player can appear more than once, just never with the same second player.) Take a look:

Screenshot 2015-03-26 at 3.01.31 PM

An example of how to interpret this table: the league-leading Warriors defense has 9 unique pairs of players who have played at least 1,000 minutes together this season that rank among the top-35 pairs in 2-man defensive rating. Intuitively, it should make sense that the league’s best defense boasts many pairs of players appearing on this list, because the Warriors play such good defense as a team. Only once do a pair of players from a defense that ranks in the bottom half of the NBA appear on this list, and that’s Anthony Davis and Omer Asik of the Pelicans. You can see similar impacts being made by players like Rudy Gobert for Utah and Nerlens Noel for Philadelphia, but both of these players are part of defenses that are among the top half of the league this season (it should also be noted that the two Philly pairings are the only two on the list with negative net ratings). New Orleans falls well below that mark as a team, and yet Davis and Asik are still finding a way to make the defense not just good, but great, when they’re both on the floor together.

So what does this mean going forward? Simply put, that Asik & Davis are indeed a fantastic defensive pairing, and they will only get better as Davis continues to gain experience at the NBA level and approaches his prime. With the return of a healthy Jrue Holiday, this Pelicans team may be just one strong wing defender away from not only a league-average defense, one that ranks comfortably in the top half of the league. For a second, imagine either of these two scenarios:

A) Tyreke’s 6’6″ frame covering opposing PGs, Jrue & 3&D Free Agent X on the wings, Davis & Asik front court
B) Jrue pestering PGs, Pondexter & 3&D Free Agent X on the wings, Davis & Asik front court

The conversation of who that undetermined “3 & D free agent” may be is a topic for another day, but the player who makes the most sense to me given the Pelicans’ current financial constraints would be either DeMarre Carroll on the more expensive end or Jared Dudley on the cheaper end. To me, a “finishing five” of Evans, Holiday, Carroll, Davis, and Asik is one that can be an excellent lineup on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, you could tinker with it by inserting Anderson for Asik to add shooting, or Pondexter/Gordon for Evans to further improve the defense/floor spacing.

The main point is this: despite the underwhelming defensive numbers for the team as a whole, Anthony Davis and Omer Asik have sufficiently proven how good this New Orleans defense can be with both of them playing together in the front court. If the Pelicans can get fully healthy and upgrade their perimeter D this summer – especially via a player with 6’7″-6’8″ size who has 3-point range – watch out.

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