What Went Wrong: The Pelicans Defensive Woes

Despite the hiring of proven assistant coach Darren Erman, as well as featuring a handful of players with well regarded defensive ability, the Pelicans have once again struggled to form a competent defense.

To say that the 2015-2016 NBA season has been a colossal failure for the New Orleans Pelicans would be an understatement. After grabbing the 8th seed last year, many fans and analysts expected the team to take at least a modest leap forward. After a couple of high profile coaching hires, those expectations grew, not only from outsiders, but from team personnel. Yet with 14 games remaining, the team sits at 26-46, a lofty 8.5 games out of a playoff spot in a considerably weaker western conference. The players and coaches themselves aren’t entirely to blame. Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans will have missed 94 games combined once the season is through. Quincy Pondexter, the projected starter at the small forward spot, has not and will not play a single minute this season. Backup point guard Norris Cole has missed 23 games. Omer Asik,whom the team signed to a five year deal in the offseason, has missed 13 games. Anthony Davis, who is pretty much the team at this point, had missed seven games and left early in a few more (he was shut down for the year following the writing of this). With all these injuries, continuity has been hard to come by and that is important for any team trying to implement a new system, and for players trying to learn it. But, the injury excuse can only go so far. Especially on defense, an area where the Pelicans seem to struggle on a nightly basis.

Of course, that has been the case for years, as the team has ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency every season since the 2012-2013 campaign. With the hire of renowned defensive coordinator Darren Erman, however, that was supposed to change. Players on the team were certainly excited, as Davis was quoted before the season, saying “We feel like we can be a top five defensive team.” According to multiple players, the schemes and calls on defense were going to be a lot more simplified. To Erman’s credit, the defense has been exactly that. What the Pelicans do now is a lot more in tune with how the rest of the league plays. Under former head coach Monty Williams, it often appeared as though the scheme would change on a game-to-game basis, and he would often have his big men defending the pick and roll too far away from the basket, forcing frantic rotations on the backline. Under Alvin Gentry and Erman, the Pels simply have their big men hang around the paint (Davis plays a little higher than Asik), while the man defending the ball handler will either force their man to either their weak hand on middle pick and rolls, or towards the baseline on sideline pick and rolls. At least in theory, that is what they want to do. Despite the overall simplicity of the concept, the players have struggled mightily with it over the course of the season.

When an offense runs a sideline pick and roll, most defenses try to ice it. Ice, as mentioned above, is a defensive concept where the defending team funnels everything towards the baseline. This minimizes the amount of rotations that the defense has to make and is designed to force ball handlers into taking mid-range shots. For New Orleans, there have been far too many games where they struggled to consistently execute on defense.

On both plays Lee is given a direct path to the middle of the court, and on the latter play he is even allowed to dribble all the way to rim unimpeded. New Orleans is about league average in blocks per game, averaging 4.5 swats per night, but constant defensive breakdowns has them all the way down at 28th in opponents FG% at the rim.

Even when the Pelicans do successfully execute they run into trouble.

On this play, Cunningham is able to force Batum to the baseline, and both Asik and Davis are in proper position. Unfortunately, the player Davis has helped off of is Marvin Williams, a 40% three point shooter. Williams, who plays the role of a stretch four for the Hornets, is the exact type of player that has burned the Pelicans all season. In a late February contest, the Washington Wizards were able to take full advantage of the Pels’ base defense, using flare screens to generate open threes for Jared Dudley, their designated stretch four.

Having your 6’11 shot blocker extraordinaire spending most of his time patrolling the 3 point arc on defense and guarding guys like Dudley seems like it would be counterproductive, but truth be told the team doesn’t have any other options. Davis is the only big man on the team with a hope of defending on the perimeter, and due to the absence of shooting on the wings, the team doesn’t have the luxury of matching teams who go small such as the Wizards. When Gentry has attempted to guard rangier “big-men” and wings with Ryan Anderson, the results have been nothing short of disastrous. Anderson himself is one of the premier stretch fours in the league, capable of both knocking down threes and posting up smaller players that opposing defenses switch onto him. On the other end, however, Anderson has been an absolute sieve. He lacks the foot speed and length to be a good defender and when he is out there it often seems as though the Pelicans are gifting points to the other team. Put him in situations where he has to close out to a shooter and good things will happen for the opposition. The Hornets exploited his defense, or lack thereof, consistently, forcing Anderson to defend the pick and roll over and over again.

Because of his inability to guard rangier big men, Anderson is occasionally tasked withguarding the opposing centers, even when he is paired with Davis. The Pelicans opponents are quick to take advantage of this as well, and Anderson fares no better dealing with the brutes and behemoths of the association. Per synergy spots data provided by nba.com, Anderson ranks 60th among 73 big men who have defended at least 60 post ups in field goal percentage against. He ranks 67th in points per possession allowed at 1.01. The average for post ups throughout the whole NBA is just 0.87 points per possession. Again, Anderson just lacks the length to compete down low, and by leaving him one on one with bigger guys it’s as if the Pelicans are conceding that they’d rather give up a two than a three. In the clips below, it appears as though Anderson’s matchup is doing nothing more than going through a faster than usual training session, rising up and hitting shots like no defender is in the vicinity.

It is hard to build a top level defense when the other team can go at one player so easily and get good results nearly every time, but all of the blame does not lie with Anderson. The Pelicans’ perimeter defenders have done the team no favors throughout the season, and if your defense isn’t good at the point of attack, then it won’t good anywhere else either. One of the issues the smaller players on the team have is getting over screens and staying attached to their man.

During this play, Toney Douglas makes two critical errors. Not only does he allow Kemba Walker to get back to the middle of the floor, he gets hung up on the screen, which essentially takes him out of the play and leaves Davis in a two on one situation. Davis was almost able to compensate for this mistake, but if a guard cannot navigate screens, the effect it will have on a team’s defense is monumental.

The breakdowns aren’t limited to on ball defense either. The Pelicans have been no better at navigating screens off the ball.

Not only is Alonzo Gee a step or two behind Nic Batum on the play, he compounds this mishap by going under the Zeller screen. Batum isn’t the greatest three point shooter in the world, but he is certainly capable from distance. If Gee stays with Batum and fights over the top of Zeller, he would have forced a tougher shot or forced the Hornets into a late shot-clock situation. Plays like this, coupled with the inability to guard stretch fours, are why the Pelicans are 25th in the league in above the break threes (otherwise described as all 3’s not from the corners) given up per game. Opponents are shooting a robust 36.3% on those shots, which ranks 25th overall.

Only one question remains for the Pelicans defense; is there hope? Is there one area of defense that the team can hang its collective hat on and build upon as they hope to improve next season? According to synergy sports, probably not.

Source: Kyle Howard

The Pels rank in the bottom half of the league in defending eight major play types, and come in dead last when it comes to defending spot ups and cuts. As stated previously, they rank 28th in opponents FG% in the restricted area and 25th in opponents above the break threes FG%, so none of this should come as a shock.

Still, it has be alarming to a team that raved throughout the offseason about how good their new defense could be. They’ve regressed in just about every facet and it leaves one to wonder how they might fix it. Sure, it’s fair to say that injuries stopped the team from reaching its full potential this year. But, would Quincy Pondexter and Tyreke Evans really help that much? Would 82 games out of Eric Gordon make that much of a difference? It’s not like the Pelicans are going into games with a bunch of rookies either. Their rotation is filled with guys who, while not the most talented, have been around in this league and have, without a doubt, faced and played in the type of defensive scheme Erman runs. If this team wants to get back to the playoffs any time soon, they are going to have to commit themselves to not only learning the scheme, but executing it each and every night. If they don’t, all the health in the world won’t help them live up to expectations.

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