New Orleans Pelicans: Is Josh Hart the answer at backup power forward?

Josh Hart #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images)
Josh Hart #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images) /

The New Orleans Pelicans beat the San Antonio Spurs 95-98 in their home opener behind versatile defense from Josh Hart.

After a concerning defensive performance against the Miami Heat on Christmas, Stan Van Gundy’s adjustments paid off, even though a late run by the Spurs threatened to scupper the New Orleans Pelicans first night at the Smoothie King Center.

It took a decisive block from Eric Bledsoe in the final seconds to seal the win for the Pelicans, but the defense was mostly encouraging throughout the entire game.

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New Orleans Pelicans: Josh Hart’s increased role on defense was the difference

Changing the rotation

Stan Van Gundy’s biggest change from the Pelicans’ first two games is that he left Nicolò Melli out of the rotation. Melli has struggled on defense early this season and, as I wrote in the wake of the loss against the Heat, his spot in the rotation is untenable when his shot isn’t falling since he is largely a turnstile on the other end of the floor.

Van Gundy astutely opted to play Josh Hart at the four for longer stretches of time. Hart’s energy and defensive know-how made a difference for the Pelicans during his season-high 33 minutes.

His contributions on defense are not reflected on the stat sheet, but Hart constantly prodded the Spurs into taking difficult shots and, on offense, he shot 50 percent from the field and got to the line five times.

Most of Hart’s defense was on DeRozan, who only shot 1-6 against him after scoring 55 points combined in his first two games.

Playing Hart at the 4 is a very valuable option for the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a particularly clever move against the Spurs, who have embraced going small this season by nominally using DeMar DeRozan at power forward. By sizing down with Hart, New Orleans had a zippier, more agile defense against a demanding offense with plenty of scoring options.

The  New Orleans Pelicans’ impressive team defense was a byproduct of Hart’s increased role. The Pelicans consistently showed active hands, tightened their defensive rotations, and even took some charges. This shows through their 17 deflections and 11 total steals. Everyone generally had a good understanding of where they had to be and how to cover for someone else, something which was not the case last season.

Below, Bledsoe covers for Jaxson Hayes when the center comes up to guard the pick-and-roll. That takes away Dejounte Murray’s intended pass, who then has to improvise a pass to DeRozan on the weak side. Despite essentially playing two-on-one at this point, Zion Williamson cleverly situates himself between DeRozan and Keldon Johnson and intercepts the pass.

The Spurs entered the Smoothie King Center having scored 125 points per game and the Pelicans held them to 35 points underneath that. Last season, New Orleans’ opponents only scored under 100 points four times, something this new Pelicans team has already achieved twice in three games.

This win was even more impressive considering that the New Orleans Pelicans only shot 20.8 percent from three and 38.3 percent from the field. Van Gundy’s defensive work on his new squad is evident early in the season, even if it naturally lacks consistency during the entire 48 minutes right now.

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Hayes and Adams: Jekyll and Hyde

There was only one piece of bad news for the Pelicans on a good defensive night. Against the Heat, the Pelicans’ defense was shredded to pieces once Steven Adams left the floor. Initially, it seemed like things might play out differently against San Antonio.

When Adams checked out in the first quarter and Hayes came in, the Spurs were “only” outscored by four points. The second half was another story with Hayes unable to even remotely replicate what the New Zealand center adds to the Pelicans.

The Pelicans’ defense completely collapsed with Adams on the bench and the Spurs went on a reinvigorating 25-13 run. We’re only three games into the season, but the Pelicans have a significant problem protecting the rim when Adams is not patrolling the paint.

Unlike Hart’s defensive performance, the stats accurately paint a complete picture of the difference between Hayes and Adams. Hayes was a -15 in 17 minutes, a massive drop from Adams’ team-high +18 in his 31 minutes. This is not sustainable over the course of a season and a solution must be found.

Van Gundy may have already removed Melli from his rotation (we’ll have to wait and see until the Pelicans play a bigger team than the Spurs) and he could be forced to do the same with Hayes if he doesn’t improve. Hayes was a very green and moldable prospect when he was drafted out of Texas in the 2019 draft. That had its positives and negatives—and it still does. But with the Pelicans vying for a playoff spot this season, pure potential won’t cut it for Hayes in the short-term unless he starts fulfilling some of it.

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