Why is New Orleans’ offense so bad without Zion?

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

If you consider yourself a fan of the New Orleans Pelicans or follow the team in any meaningful capacity, you’ve surely heard some version of the following statistic. Before Zion Williamson went down with a hamstring strain on January 2nd (37 games), the Pelicans were 8th in the NBA in Offensive Rating. Since then (34 games), their league-wide standing in that statistic is 26th.

Everyone with any semblance of knowledge about the game knows that this Pelicans’ offense is better when Williamson is healthy and participating on the court. But what exactly about his presence makes this offense so much better?

For starters, at its core, basketball is a game of efficiency. The team that wins is usually the one who can either create the most efficient shots for themselves or successfully deny those types of looks to their opponents (in the ideal world, you’d like for your team to be able to do both).

So what are the most efficient shots?

Generally speaking, the most high-value shots a team can get are shots at the rim, free throws, and three-pointers.

This is not to say that midrange shots should be outlawed. In fact, they are a great playoff counter when opponents try to take those more valuable shots away. But, in most instances, they are not the shot you should be aiming for on any given possession. Unless, of course, your team happens to roster elite midrange shooters (more on this in just a second).

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the Pelicans’ shot diet before and after January 3rd (the day after Williamson’s last game):

With Williamson healthy, the Pelicans were elite in two of the three high-value areas: shots at the rim and free throws. They were also 3rd in the NBA in Cleaning the Glass’ Location Effective Field Goal (Loc eFG%) statistic – a stat that seeks to measure the efficiency of a team’s shot profile.

This makes sense as Williamson himself is one of the league’s premier paint scorers (1st in points in the paint per game) and foul drawers (97th percentile in free throw attempts per 100 possessions).

Since his injury, the team has fallen off drastically in both these measures, and as a result, their Loc eFG% has plummeted from 3rd in the league to 24th in the league.

They have replaced those high-percentage looks with less efficient midrange shots. Part of this has to do with Williamson’s absence, but a lot of it also has to do with Ingram’s return from a toe injury that kept him sidelined from November 25th until January 25th.

Ingram is in the 99th percentile in midrange attempts per 75 possessions (per Dunks & Threes), which is okay because he’s also in the 64th percentile in efficiency (that’s really solid given how high his volume is).

[Sidenote: CJ McCollum also takes a ton of midrange jumpers (95th percentile) and converts his attempts at a comparable rate to Ingram (60th percentile).]

The problem is that you don’t want Ingram’s midrange jumpers (and McCollum’s) to be your only streams of on-ball income. You want those midrange jumpers to act as a reliable side dish to Williamson’s ferocious rim escapades. When the midrange jumper is your only punch, it is a heck of a lot easier for the defense to scheme against you.

Also worth noting, the Pelicans are taking more three-pointers without Williamson. However, they are converting them at a much lower rate without him (34.8%, 26th in the NBA) than they were when he was healthy (37.8%, 9th in the NBA).

The reason for this is that, without Williamson to collapse the defense on his drives, the types of threes the Pelicans are taking are much more heavily contested.

So there you have it. That’s why the Pelicans’ offense is so bad without Williamson.

New Orleans Pelicans all-time draft bust starting 5. dark. Next