The Pelicans Are Improving On Defense

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Published: May 3, 2021
SOURCE: Ashley Amoss/Pelicans
Photo Cred: Ashley Amoss/Pelicans

Going into the season, one of my biggest questions around the Pelicans was if they could put forth a sustainable defense around Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Stan Van Gundy, Steven Adams, and Eric Bledsoe were all brought in to steady the defense around the Pelicans’ undisciplined young core. However, the Pelicans are currently one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Contributing to the 27th ranked defense are a number of maladies – from opponents bombarding the Pelicans from deep on a nightly basis, to Eric Bledsoe turning into one of the least impactful defensive guards in the league. Yet beneath the wreckage, there are kernels of promise indicating the Pelicans are heading in the right direction when it comes to their defense. Over the past 35 games, the Pelicans sport the 15th best DRTG in the league. This ranking jumps to 6th over the past month – a sample of 17 games. So what has turned the Pelicans defense around?

Normally when a team makes a considerable jump on the defensive end, I like to look at underlying causes and see if it’s a result of fluky opponent shooting, or something else. Over the past 35 games, the Pelicans still rank 21st in opponent three point shooting percentage. While this number has improved from 28th in the first portion of the season, it’s still among the bottom 10 in the league and isn’t the driving force behind the Pelicans’ improvement on defense. Instead, the Pelicans have made jumps in two prominent areas – one is the opponent shot profile, the other is opponent FG% at the rim. Both are related to one change in the defensive scheme.

“We made one significant scheme adjustment,” says Stan Van Gundy, “It was starting with the Boston game at home (2/21) where we’re not up as high on pick and rolls as consistently, so that we’re not in rotation quite as much.” Sure enough, the scheme adjustment reveals itself in the metrics. Prior to the Boston game, the Pelicans only dropped on 23% of their screen and rolls, this was good for 28th in the league. Since that game, the Pelicans are dropping 46% of the time which would be the 9th most frequent rate in the league. The results have been quietly staggering.

Since shifting to drop, the Pelicans’ defensive shot profile has transformed. They have gone from ranking 29th in opponent three point attempt rate to 14th post drop. Not only this, but the Pelicans rim protection metrics have also taken a jump. By sitting a big back in the paint, contests have been easier and the Pelicans have jumped from 26th to 15th in opponent FG% at the rim. These shot profile metrics represent a meaningful improvement in the Pelicans execution. Last season when the Pelicans made a similar defensive jump before the shut-down, it was largely due to poor and unsustainable opponent three point shooting. There was no measurable change in the Pelicans defensive shot profile as there has been this year.

Drop defense has allowed the Pelicans to mask the shortcomings of their premier players. By dropping the big back on the screen and roll, there is less help responsibility from the Pelicans perimeter to stop the roll, and it allows them to stay at home on shooters. The young Pelicans’ perimeter players proved consistently that they could not master the art of the help and recover, leading to the team being in a constant state of rotation. The more ground the Pelicans were asked to cover, the more opportunity they had for mistakes. Drop has simplified responsibilities.

The simplification is a double-edged sword, however. The league’s premier shooters relish an opportunity to play against bigs who will not meet them at the point of screen. Damian Lillard dropped an easy 50 points against the Pelicans in mid March. While the onus on help defense decreases, the responsibility for the point of attack to get over on screens and chase shooters off the line becomes increasingly important. The Pelicans’ starting backcourt has consistently struggled to navigate screens and apply pressure to ball handlers. As three important games vs the Warriors and Steph Curry loom, it will be fascinating to see if the Pelicans stick with drop or work through different looks. Nevertheless, the Pelicans may have a blueprint for at least a league average defense going forward, and that is an important development in building a team around Williamson and Ingram.

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