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Defensive Deficiencies: A Look at the Pelicans Biggest Defensive Problems

At last week’s postseason press conferences for both head coach Monty Williams and general manager Dell Demps two main points kept popping up.

First, injuries didn’t allow the Pelicans to get a feel of how the core of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson fits together going forward. In all reality there isn’t much of a way to fix that problem without seeing the group play together to start next season if the team hasn’t decided already that Gordon actually isn’t part of that core.

The second point though is one that can be fixed and will probably be something that every move the team makes this offseason will in some way shape or form related too—the defense has to improve.

This season the Pelicans ranked tied for 25 in the league in defensive efficiency with a disastrous 107.3.

The biggest problem for New Orleans is the deficiency wasn’t just in one area; it was in a multitude of them.

In fact via the Pelicans ranked in the bottom ten in the league in defending the four play types most commonly used against them– spot-ups (25), pick-and-roll ball handler (22), transition (30), and post-ups (24).

Williams seemed to think that some of the issues came from the center position, using games against Joakim Noah and Nene as examples.

A mobile center should solve some of the issues. By adding one it could help the Pelicans defend the pick-and-roll the way Williams seems to want to, by jumping out and hedging hard, though late in the season there was more dropping back into the paint by New Orleans bigs trying to goad teams into taking inefficient mid-range jumpers.

Williams’s scheme changes can also help the issue here. If he allows Anthony Davis and whoever is at center to lay back and corral the ball handler coming off a screen instead of running themselves out of the play by hedging too hard it eliminates the issues with missed rotations that can happen with young teams.

Finally Holiday’s return should help things. Jrue is known as a pretty good defender and will do a better job than what Brian Roberts and Austin Rivers did for the Pelican’s this season. His size at the very least should make getting over screens a bit easier than it is for the smaller and slighter Roberts and Rivers, meaning there are less situations where switches are necessary and big men get left on islands against guards.

The post-ups are a problem due to young, weaker big men like Davis, Alexis Ajinca or rookie Jeff Withey. Luckily for New Orleans that problem isn’t a massive deal. Post-ups are typically one of the least efficient offensive plays in the league and therefore are being phased out of offenses. If teams want to attack New Orleans via post-ups going forward the Pelicans have won the battle.

The transition issues are something that could be fixed a bit by the roster returning to full health. With the losses of Holiday and Anderson the Pelicans really struggled to space the floor, ending the season second to last in three pointers attempted per game.

What that led to was shots taken inside the three-point line where there were already three more teammates like in this Austin Rivers shot from the last game of the season against the Rockets:

Transition defense issues

Still courtesy of media central video.


Four players were inside the three-point line, including the shooter, and one other was in the strong side corner. On the shot at least one of the two players in the red boxes should have rotated back on defense and yet none did, which led to a transition shot attempt by the Rockets.

Combining the poor spacing with the slow foot speed of people like Ajinca and Withey and it is easy to see why teams did so well in transition against the Pelicans.

The return of Anderson and Holiday should help things as they will be able to space the floor out more and have someone rotating up the wing in situations like this for threes, meaning they are easily able to get back defensively.

Finally spot-up shooting is something that may even out a bit next year. Obviously teams are going to make an above average amount of wide open looks but if a few more of those shots miss things could look drastically different. The emergence of Anthony Davis as a whirlwind defensive force can also help things as his ability to stop offensive actions dead could lead to fewer rotations and therefore less missed rotations and wide open jumpers. Growing up should also help some of those issues, as Williams spoke during his press conference about how young players struggle on defense. The fewer guys get beat off the dribble means fewer times rotations come into play which means few blown rotations that can lead to a wide open jumper.

So while the numbers for this season were ugly that doesn’t mean next season is definitely going to be for New Orleans. With some scheme adjustments from Monty Williams, improved offensive spacing and growth from young players, most importantly Anthony Davis on defense seeing the Pelicans become at least an average defense next season isn’t too difficult.

With the offense that the core has shown in short time they can produce, an average defense may mean the playoffs for the Pelicans.

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