It is hard to remain in good spirits when you lose a basketball game. That is particularly true when that loss is your fourth in a row, comes to the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference, and occurs while you are in the midst of a playoff race with no margin for error.
But more than winning or losing, basketball is a game of process. The phrase “trust the process,” while primarily associated with the Sam Hankie Philadelphia 76ers, applies to all teams. If you have a good process, eventually, the wins will come.
To his credit, Coach Willie Green understands this sentiment fully. We saw it last year. After a 3-16 start and a myriad of controversies surrounding his team’s best player, Coach Green never lost hope. He continued to preach hard work and emphasized the development of good habits. And ultimately, his team battled back from their tough start to finish the season with a 36-46 record – winning the NBA Play-In Tournament en route to the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
This season, and specifically this four-game skid, is no different. What outside observers may see as a team desperately trying to stay afloat until Zion Williamson returns from a hamstring strain, Coach Green sees as an opportunity for defensive growth.
The New Orleans Pelicans took the league by storm early this season with their surprisingly stout defense (they were tied for fifth in Defensive Rating before the calendar turned to 2023). But as we discussed in a recent post, they benefited from some unsustainable opponent shooting luck.
Coach Green knows this. And he’s now trying to use Williamson’s absence as a chance to build a more sustainable defensive infrastructure to make them an even more prolific foe when he eventually returns.
He knows that without its best offensive player, the team no longer has the means to beat teams in a shootout. So, he’s catering his lineup and rotation decisions with an eye toward defense.
This is illustrated by decisions like bringing in Jose Alvarado (professional pest) as the first player off the bench against the New York Knicks; or choosing to play the more defensive orientated Jaxson Hayes as his backup five over Willy Hernangomez against the Orlando Magic. Most notably, coming out of the All-Star break, he decided to swap out Trey Murphy III for Josh Richardson in the starting lineup (the latter being the better defender between the two).
The Pelicans fell to the Magic last night on their home floor 101-93. But that final score is devoid of some key context. With less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 91 a piece. The Pelicans’ defense was in prime form, forcing the Magic to burn two timeouts in one offensive possession.
Now, let’s watch the Pelicans’ next five possessions and see what happens next:
The only times that the Magic scored were on midrange jumpers by Paolo Banchero. One may see that and say you can’t let a player as talented as him get to his shot like that. But the thing is, that isn’t really his “shot” yet.
Banchero is a 36% midrange shooter (36th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass). As a defense, you much rather prefer he takes that shot late in the game than one deep in the paint or at the free throw line. Any coach will tell you that that’s great process right there.
The bottom line here is that, yet again, the Pelicans’ defense showed some great process on that end of the court. That’s not the reason they lost. They lost because of their offense. One that has been faltering of late but will surely return to form once their superstar is back in action.
The good news is, when he does come back, Williamson will be surrounded by a much better defensive team than the one he was playing with before he went down.