The Pelicans Defense Needs To Get Better

The New Orleans Pelicans defense has been almost non-existent through the first part of the season, despite having two All-Defense caliber players in Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Here's why.

As you probably remember from the 2017-2018 playoffs, the New Orleans Pelicans have a special affinity for hyper-aggressive defense. Despite the general rarity of trapping at the NBA level, the Pelicans used it almost exclusively in their sweep against the Portland Trailblazers and it led to some pretty stunning results. Now that they've tried to translate that kind of aggressive principle to the regular season, the returns haven't been nearly as sterling.


Sure, that trap-heavy defense works really well in short spurts – like it did in that Blazers series – but as soon as teams have the time to prepare for it and figure out how to exploit the pretty glaring holes, it's all over. And we've been seeing that play out all season in NOLA.

The defense that the Pelicans used to basically dismantle the Blazers for four games is the same one that's landing them near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency, making them such an easy target on a nightly basis.

The big issue with trapping pick-and-roll defense is that it almost always leaves someone open. Whether that trapping style of defense fails or succeeds falls exclusively on the shoulders of the two guys entrusted with trapping the ball-handler. If they can do their job for long enough that everybody can get into their positions and make sure their bases are covered, they can force turnovers and destroy offensive game plans like they did at points last year.

When the trap doesn't work, however, and the guard can break free, the defense is basically playing three on five and they almost always lose. This isn't rocket science; it's the entire reason that trapping the pick-and-roll is almost completely extinct in the NBA. For the most part, guys who are orchestrating pick-and-rolls are just too good and too quick nowadays to be flustered by a simple trap, and if they can get around it like they usually do, they can do whatever they want.

The only reason that stuff like that doesn't happen every single time is that the Pelicans have two of the best defenders in the NBA in Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday who have the right combination of tools to run the scheme to perfection. But at the end of the day, that's all New Orleans really has two guys. As soon as you plug anyone else into that scheme, everything collapses in on itself. Just watch Nikola Mirotic try to fill the Anthony Davis role in containing a guard, only to be easily blown by and allow an easy three.

Those kinds of plays happen almost any time Niko is involved in a trap, and for some reason, New Orleans just hasn't stopped trying to do it. A system in which only a few of your guys can execute it on an adequate level and the rest are left essentially to their own devices is not going to be effective – and it evidently hasn't been.

Dropping in the Pick-and-Roll

It's not like the trapping style is a terrible thing that New Orleans shouldn't deploy periodically, but anything more than that is proving to be kind of a disaster. By almost any metric, the Pelicans can't stop a nosebleed. They have the fifth worst defensive rating in the league; they allow the fifth most points in the paint; they force the tenth fewest turnovers, and the list of stats like that just goes on and on and on.

Even when they're not trapping, their defensive strategy is puzzling at best. They often have the big drop back into the paint, which is generally a solid tactic, but when the big is anyone except Anthony Davis, they can't react quickly enough to either contest the layup or stop the guard from dishing it to the roll man for an easy bucket. Just watch how Randle drops in coverage, slides his feet towards the rim, and lets Emmanuel Mudiay walk into an open jumper:

Dropping isn't the worst idea in the world, but the coaching staff has so far made the weird decision of sending their guards over the screen, pushing both the big and guard into a pseudo-double team which almost never works. Neither guy is far enough up to put any real pressure on the ball-handler, but they're not far enough back to stop him from rolling to the rim, so they essentially make themselves powerless to whatever he wants to do. Just watch how Mirotic drops in coverage, slides his feet towards the rim and lets DeMar DeRozan get all the way underneath the basket, where he dishes to Rudy Gay for a wide-open three:

Even if, by some miracle, they end up actually making him uncomfortable enough to kick out to the perimeter, the still open themselves up to get burned. Because the guys in the pick-and-roll aren't the only ones dropping down in coverage, NOLA usually lets up a ton of open threes and drives to the basket. In a strategy that can best be described as confusing, The Pelicans are pulling their help defenders way too close to the basket and therefore opening themselves to barrages of three's from the other team because New Orleans can't get out quick enough to contest. Only the Milwaukee Bucks allow more wide open threes per game than the Pelicans at an astronomic 18.9.

Because New Orleans' guys can't close out quickly enough, that usually forces the next guy over to abandon his man and stop the shooter. If the shooter is paying attention to anything that's going on, he can just swing the ball to the open man and that cycle just keeps going. Even ignoring the problems with their coverage on the fringes of the pick-and-roll, their pure defense in the pick-and-roll overlooks a critical component of it: the guy setting the pick.

The defense isn't a complete disaster against guys like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond, but versus the Serge Ibaka's and Marc Gasol's of the world, it falls apart quick. By having the guard and big cover the ball-handler, all the other team's screen-setter has to do is step outside of the key and he can probably get a good look:

For a team that seems to understand the power of the three-ball and "catching the defense when no one's looking", they've done an exceptionally poor job putting that into practice on the other side of the ball. Their scheme is setting itself up to be bettered any time a half-decent facilitator decides to try and make something happen.

On the urgency of this year and next steps

It'd be one thing if this was a roster problem and the front office could bring in some guys to play better defense to fix the problem, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Of course, playing Mirotic more than 25 minutes per game is going to lead to some defensive issues, but not at the level where New Orleans currently is at now. Their complete inability to play defense seems to fall almost entirely on the coaching staff. The system they're trying to create clearly doesn't work, and this is way too valuable a year for NOLA to waste trying to force square blocks into round holes.

This looks like the first year in a while that the West doesn't have a legitimate challenger to the Golden State Warriors. If their issues are at least somewhat dealt with, New Orleans could fill that void. The Pelicans have one of the best offenses in the NBA, a top five player in Anthony Davis, and a borderline-elite point guard in Jrue Holiday. That's a recipe for success right there, but it can only work if they change their defense and stop hemorrhaging points on a nightly basis.

The changes don't even have to be monumental either. I'm not saying they have to have a Golden State level defense, but if they can just improve from 25th to maybe 15th, they could establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. All they would really have to change to do that is by toning down the aggression on defense and sticking to some of the more common tactics employed around the league. By just making those changes, New Orleans could take a huge jump.

Like no Boston Celtics fan will let you forget, Anthony Davis has more than enough leverage to force a trade out of the Big Easy, and he wouldn't be crazy for doing so. This is arguably the first year since he got there in 2012 that the front office has surrounded him with legitimate and compatible talent. There's a reason he's only been to the playoffs twice despite clearly being one of the best four or five guys in the NBA. Now that they finally seem to have the players around him, they need to prove they can start winning at a high level. Again, the Pelicans don't have to make a huge overhaul, because making some small tweaks could make a world of difference.

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