Darren’s Detailed Defense

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Published: July 8, 2015

The Pelicans had offense in mind when they hired Alvin Gentry. However, offense was not Gentry’s main concern when answering questions at his introductory press conference. When asked about what he needed to do in New Orleans to get a Pelicans Parade down Canal St. Gentry answered:

We have to become better from a defensive standpoint. We have to be … a very good defensive team that happens to be good offensively. That’s gonna be Darren [Erman] and his crew

That defense would be the main concern this offseason should be no surprise: the Pels finished the season in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency; and they might not have made the playoffs at all if not for the improvements on D in the 2nd half of the season that came with the additions of Cunningham, Pondexter, and Cole. Going forward the major improvements this team needs to make are on the defensive side of the ball. Just to illustrate, look at the competition:

contenders defensive improvement (ranking)

contenders defensive improvements (rtg)

(I threw out this past season for OKC as they didn’t make the playoffs for injury related reasons).

These teams all made the jump to home court advantage in the West by becoming good defensive teams. It is a must to be at the very least consistently capable on that end. The Pels could not say that this past season, and for them to contend they must improve on that side of the court.

The Pelicans don’t have all the defensive versatility of the Warriors, but they have a start. Holiday, Pondexter, Cunningham, Asik, and Davis are all plus defenders, bring back Cole and that’s one more, but there still is some depth issues on the wing. One problem is that Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, who played 34 and 33 minutes a game on the wings this past season, have both been subpar defensively for the Pels. This is not for lack of trying by Gordon and not for Evans’ lack of physical capability. Getting the most out of both should be a top priority (obviously).

As McNamara wrote in his season review of Tyreke Evans, on the ball Tyreke is a good defender. In isolation, he only gave up 0.53 points per play, with opponents shooting 22.7% in those situations; that is fantastic. He has all the physical tools to be a good defender, strength and length and athleticism, so it isn’t surprising he bothered players 1 on 1. Off the ball is another story. He gets lost on rotations and was often late closing out on shooters.

Gordon’s issues are basically the opposite as they stem from a loss of athleticism due to injuries and surgeries. That, coupled with already being undersized, can’t really be fixed. Gordon will not be a great defender unless he can somehow manage to get some of that athleticism back, but Gordon isn’t a low IQ player and this past season he showed a real willingness to work on that side of the floor, which is normally enough to be at least an average defender.

In steps 40-year-old Darren Erman, ex-attorney with no playing experience turned basketball coach. Erman is very well respected around the league: any time his name comes up, so do the phrases “work ethic” and “detail oriented.” Rajon Rondo likened him to a “baby Thibodeau,” while claiming he’s certain to be a future head coach, a sentiment echoed by LA native Brandon Bass:

“It takes a special person to be focused all the time on defense, and it’s an offensive game. I think one day he will be a head coach.”

Erman is credited with the defensive improvements of players like Stephen Curry, who Mark Jackson used to hide on defense, Harrison Barnes, and specifically Klay Thompson, who is now considered one of the best two-way two-guards in the NBA.

Celtics Coach Brad Stevens couldn’t stop raving about him and how he works with players:

“[He’s] really excited to help these guys get better. And he spends a lot of time … with the individuals. That’s as big of a key right now as anything else. Darren’s really a great defensive coach, he’s more than that. I think sometimes we pigeon-hole guys because he’s obviously specialized in that. But he is detail-oriented as detail-oriented gets. If your hands aren’t in the right place as you’re guarding in a pick-and-roll, or if your body positioning is not at the right angle, or you don’t guard the post in the exact right way, he’ll stop it and he’ll correct it.”

If Erman can get both these guys to improve, specifically get Evans to at least average off the ball, the perimeter defense of this team should see dramatic improvement. Things are already trending up on the defensive end:

[table id=75 /]

If that trend continues, look for the Pelicans to make a little more noise this season in the crowded West.

From 2007 to 2011 Darren Erman worked with the Boston Celtics under Doc Rivers and alongside Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank, all great defensive minds. Boston had a 234-94 record (.713 W%) over those 4 seasons with defenses ranked 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 2nd in the league. His work ethic in game planning really paid dividends for Boston, as high IQ defenders Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo were able to identify opponents’ plays on a regular basis and shut them down. The defense was known for aggressive hedging, helping, and switching (similar to the Heat’s defense in the Lebron era). They wore down opponents physically and mentally and are remembered as a historically great defense.

In 2011 Mark Jackson hired him as an assistant for the Golden State Warriors.

“This guy gets it, really a great guy who wants to be a great coach. I pretty much hired him on the spot” – Mark Jackson

In Golden State he took a 26th ranked defense and improved it to above league average in one year, and then to 3rd in the league the next. Like Boston the team is known for aggressive switching and an aggressive pursuit of the ball, and the team is built perfectly for it: Thompson, Igoudala, Livingston, Green, Barnes, and even Holiday are all within the 6’6” – 6’8” size and can guard every wing position, and Green specifically can guard 1-4. Switching can stall offenses because it doesn’t give opponents the space to work with that is typically created by not switching and having guards fight over, under, and through screens. Golden State switches so fluidly on ball that they don’t give teams space, and so well off the ball that they avoid bad mismatches. Even though they do it a ton, Golden State almost never messes up a switch or misses a rotation, a testament to how much that team has grown together.

One thing that carried over from the Celtics to the Warriors was the impact of Erman’s game planning. Kent Bazemore credited Erman with their defensive improvement:

“We’re running other team’s prime plays and getting into certain spots and making sure they can’t have a fluid offense.”

Erman also knows how to work with the strengths of his team. Instead of an aggressive hedging style as was seen in Boston, where the bigs would “show” to stop dribble penetration and allow the small to recover, Erman convinced Jackson to change the defensive strategy all together in Golden State to where the bigs would sink, dropping in to protect the rim and contain the ball handler. This played to Center Andrew Bogut’s strengths, and the results speak for themselves.

After being fired in Golden State amid a controversy where he undermined his head coach, he was hired within a month back at Boston, where he spent this past season.

“Darren Erman got fired for secretly recording Mark Jackson, and teams are fighting over him. Think about that.” – Zach Lowe

Boston, with a very lackluster roster, improved from 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, to 12th, and was 9th for the 2nd half of the season. They improved 17 wins and won the 8th seed in the East. Everywhere this guy goes, major improvements follow, especially on the defensive side of the ball; that is a FACT. That’s why the Pelicans made sure he would come here before they even hired Gentry. For those questioning how much a coaching change can actually improve a team just look at this past season’s NBA Champions. Golden State was basically the same team as ’13-’14, but with a new entire coaching staff they improved 16 wins. If the Pelicans improve by half as much they’d be at 53 wins, which would have tied them with Cleveland for 7th best in the league last year.

This is the NBA. Offense can get you to the big show, but you need defense to win it. Darren Erman and the other assistants have their work cut out, but they do have some talent to work with.

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