New Orleans Pelicans: Lack of rim protection without Adams dooms Pels

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The New Orleans Pelicans’ defense came back to haunt them on Christmas as they dropped their first game of the season 98-111 to the Miami Heat.

Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson’s combined for 60 points almost dragged the New Orleans Pelicans back into the game, but a first-half offensive barrage by the reigning Eastern Conference champions proved to be insurmountable.

After holding the Toronto Raptors to under 100 points in their season opener, it was a return to reality for Stan Van Gundy’s squad which still has a lot of defensive progress to make.

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The New Orleans Pelicans’ struggles really started when Steven Adams checked out of the game with two minutes to go in the first quarter. At that point, the Pelicans led by one point. With the Kiwi center on the bench, the Heat went on a devastating 27-11 run. New Orleans had to fight back from behind after that.

Adams shined in his Pelicans debut and had a solid second outing. Although he only accumulated six points and nine rebounds, Adams made his presence known on defense. Four of his rebounds came on the offensive glass and he also racked up two steals and one block. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but the Pelicans outscored the Heat by five points with him on the floor and he was a deterrence at the basket.

Adams makes opponents think twice around the rim. He tends to be smartly positioned on defense to clog passing lanes or make his opponents have to shoot over him. Below, he stays with the play and gets the block. But there were other instances when, for example, Tyler Herro had to alter his floater just to shoot over Adams or when the 6-foot-11 center discouraged opponents from going at him near the basket.

The same cannot be said for Nicolò Melli and Jaxson Hayes. Van Gundy needs more production from his bigs on both ends of the floor—especially on defense. Whether he will get it is another story. Hayes only played for three minutes, a stark contrast to Miami’s Precious Achiuwa.

Achiuwa gave himself a nice Christmas present, making the most out of his 19 minutes on the court and showing why he is a part of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation. Remember, Miami picked Achiuwa with the 20th pick in this year’s draft, seven spots after Kira Lewis Jr. who is yet to play a single minute for the Pelicans and currently doesn’t have a clear spot on the team.

New Orleans Pelicans: Nicolo Melli is not getting it done.

In theory, Melli is supposed to provide the Pelicans some stretch shooting and basketball smarts. In practice, he has missed all six of his field-goal attempts this year. I’m still a believer in the Italian’s shooting; however, if his shot is not falling, he is borderline unplayable in the long-term because of his bad defense. Melli was a -7 in just over nine minutes and, at one point in the fourth, Van Gundy turned to Williamson at the 5 over him.

Opponents feasted at the rim without Adams on the floor. The Heat smartly targeted Melli in pick-and-roll during the second quarter. Once, it led to the lob above for Bam Adebayo. When the Heat went back to a similar action a few plays later, it resulted in free throws for Adebayo with Melli late rotating to help at the rim and JJ Redick having to foul.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ lack of rim protection without Adams was on full display in the third quarter. Similar to the first half, New Orleans’ defense was a sieve as soon as the former Oklahoma City man checked out of the game. Whereas Adams had blocked Achiuwa just before going to the bench, the rookie out of Kentucky immediately got two quick buckets and a pair of free throws.

Beyond Melli and Hayes, Williamson was also tasked with protecting the rim at different stages of the game. He didn’t fare any better, but I think it would be burdensome to regularly give him that job. To an extent, it also helps that he scored 32 points.

It’s evident that Stan Van Gundy needs more from Melli and Hayes going forward. If not, he has Willy Hernangómez on the bench, although he hasn’t exactly stood out for his defensive knowhow in years prior. There are other options, as well.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker could get some of Melli or Hayes’ minutes, which could mean Josh Hart sliding up to the 4 a bit more with Williamson at the 5. I have my qualms about that since I think Hart is too small to guard some of the NBA’s elite power forwards and Williamson doesn’t offer superior rim protection to the Pelicans’ natural options at center.

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Wenyen Gabriel is an interesting bench piece once he recovers from his knee/quadriceps issues. The South Sudanese forward can provide the Pelicans’ frontcourt with some energy, length, and athleticism.

Finally, Adams could play more minutes, but he’s never played more than 33 minutes per game in a season and it remains to be seen how he’d adapt to a larger role. Either way, the New Orleans Pelicans need to hope for much-improved performances from their bench bigs to avoid similar results going forward.

You can follow Wilko on Twitter @wilkomcv.