The loss was notable, not only because both these teams are battling for playoff position in the loaded Western Conference, but also because it highlighted a potential fatal flaw of this Pelicans team moving forward – one that exists regardless of if All-Star Zion Williamson is healthy or not.
That flaw, of course, is their rim protection, or should we say lack thereof.
In their loss to the Lakers yesterday, the Pelicans surrendered 56 points in the paint. For some context, the San Antonio Spurs, the team that allows the most points in the paint per game, averages 56.4 opponent points in the paint per game (per NBA.com). That means that last night the Pelicans defended the interior at the same rate as the worst team in the NBA in that measure.
With that said, it is worth mentioning that the team was without their best big man defender in Larry Nance Jr., who missed the game with left groin soreness. However, even though his absence last night was significant, he is more of a small-ball switch defender than an interior stalwart.
To understand the Pelicans’ problem and what makes it such a serious issue, we need to first establish why rim protection is so important.
If you’re a fan of professional sports, you have likely heard the old sports cliche that “defense wins championships.” Well, in basketball, rim protection is oftentimes directly correlated with defensive rating. So strong rim protection means a strong defensive rating. And weak rim protection means a weak defensive rating. In some ways, you could say that the cliche should actually be that “rim protection wins championships.”
Okay, so how do we measure rim protection?
The simplest way to do it would be just to look at opponent frequency and accuracy at the rim. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans are tenth in opponent rim frequency (meaning they don’t allow too many shots at the rim) but 30th in opponent rim accuracy.
This is a byproduct of their defensive scheme. One that prioritizes creating turnovers on the perimeter to avoid inside shots being taken in the first place (eighth in opponent TOV%). But one that also can’t alter those shots once offensive players have broken through their perimeter barrier.
But why can’t they alter those shots?
So, similar to how rim protection prowess serves as a good indicator of overall defensive efficacy, block percentage serves as a solid measure of rim protection capability.
As a team, the Pelicans are 23rd in blocks per 100 possessions. This may seem a bit strange when you think of the anatomical structure of the roster, one that touts a handful of giants on the frontline.
The problem is that none of their giants are prolific shot-blockers. None of the five players classified as a “Big” on Cleaning the Glass (so Williamson, Nance, Jonas Valanciunas, Jaxson Hayes, and Willy Hernangomez) has a block percentage in the 55th percentile or higher for their position.
So they don’t have great rim protection, how do they still have a top-10 defensive rating?
Part of this just boils down to opponent shooting luck. The Pelicans have the lowest opponent three-point shooting percentage on wide open threes (35.7%) in the entire league (per NBA.com).
The other reason is what we hinted at earlier. Their perimeter-focused defensive style helps them mitigate the damage done by their lackluster rim protection.
This approach has worked, for the most part, but it gets worrisome when they play great paint scoring teams like the Lakers, who are currently third in the NBA in points in the paint per game.
And unfortunately, they aren’t the only great paint team that New Orleans has to worry about as they make their playoff push. The Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Oklahoma City Thunder are all in the top-5 in points in the paint per game and also all battling for Western Conference playoff positioning or project to be potential playoff opponents for the Pelicans in the postseason.
This is all the more reason for the Pelicans to pursue some rim protection assistance both in the buyout market and as they look to build out their core in the offseason.