Projecting the 2014-2015 New Orleans Pelicans’ Defense

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The New Orleans Pelicans had a disappointing 2013-2014 season. After getting derailed by injuries in a tough Western Conference they stumbled to a disastrous 34-48 record, giving the 10th pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the past two off-seasons, the Pelicans have decided to mortgage their future by trading away first round picks for players that can help them win now.

Owner Tom Benson has made no secret of his desire to win as much as possible immediately, putting GM Dell Demps and the rest of management in a tough spot. After their poor performance last season, patience is wearing thin in New Orleans. This may be the last chance for both Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams to prove their worth to the organization.

While the Pelicans managed to post an offensive rating ranked in the top half of the league, their defense was an absolute disaster. They finished 26th in defensive rating allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions. If they want any kind of shot at making the playoffs next season, the defense will need to be much better. Considering the addition of Omer Asik and Anthony Davis’ potential as an impact player on the defensive end, a big improvement is not out of the question. With that said, how good could this team realistically be on the defensive end?

The first step to projecting the Pelicans’ defensive potential for next season is looking back at what happened last year.

Injuries really hurt this team last year as they lost several key players for long stretches. Most notably, Jrue Holiday played in just 34 games before undergoing season ending surgery. Holiday might not be a big plus on defense, but his injury meant more minutes for Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts, which was problematic for obvious reasons.

The bigs rotation was also a disaster as all of their key players missed time during the season. Anthony Davis played in a respectable 67 games, but it only goes downhill from there. Jeff Withey (58), Greg Stiemsma (55), and Alexis Ajinca (56) played between 55-60 games each, while both Jason Smith (31) and Ryan Anderson (22) missed over half the season.

Talent aside, the Pelicans were easily one of the league’s most injury prone teams last season. 15 different players started at least one game for the team last year. With players constantly coming in and out of the lineup it can be impossible to develop chemistry on defense and it made life a lot harder for the coaching staff, especially with such a young (not to mention new) group of players. After experiencing injuries and being eliminated from the playoff hunt early, the Pelicans completely fell apart after the All-Star break, allowing 109.5 Points per 100 Possessions. That would’ve been the worst mark in the league over the full season.

Every team has to adjust to injuries throughout the season, but it would seem unlikely that the Pelicans’ extreme injury woes continue into next season. Hopefully this will translate into more continuity on the defensive end in addition to actually being able to have their most talented players on the court.

Another key concern regarding the Pelicans defense has to be defensive strategy put in place by the coaching staff. Last season the Pelicans’ opponent shot distribution showed some slightly disturbing trends.

The Pelicans allowed the 9th most shots in the Restricted Area while allowing the 6th highest percentage (62.8%) on those shots. Despite allowing opponents to have their way in the paint, the Pelicans were not able to protect the three-point line. Opponents shot 503 corner threes (easily among the 10 worst marks) against the Pelicans last season and converted these attempts at a high rate (including a 48.2% mark from the right corner).

The one place the Pelicans did succeed was in preventing mid range jumpers and defending them effectively, with only the Heat and the Knicks conceding less of these shots. Interestingly, the three teams that forced the most mid range jumpers (the Pacers, Bulls and Spurs) finished 1st, 2nd and 4th in defensive rating.

While these stats don’t necessarily prove anything empirically about the Pelicans’ strategy, it is obvious that they are contesting mid range shots, while giving up massive amounts of efficient shots both at the rim and from behind the arc. This is where it’s hard to tell if the Pelicans will improve. If these stats do directly reflect the instructions of the coaching staff, that is definitely cause for concern.

Maybe spending the summer with Tom Thibodeau at the FIBA World Cup will rub off on head coach Monty Williams, maybe it won’t. If the Pelicans are able to force more of the “right” types of shots, it will have a big time impact on the bottom line.

While the Pelicans’ defensive strategy was definitely questionable, their struggles can be largely attributed to a lack of talent.

Last season Jason Smith (27), Greg Stiemsma (20), Alexis Ajinca (30) and Jeff Withey (4) combined for 81 starts.

One big problem with these centers is that they were all terrible rebounders. Smith, Stiemsma and Withey all posted a DReb% <20%. Ajinca was slightly above 20% but on the whole it was a disaster. The Pelicans were 21st in DReb% as a team at 73.8%, and despite blocking a ton of shots, they didn’t protect the rim effectively either. When you don’t protect the rim and you don’t clean up opponents’ misses, things get ugly quick. All four of the centers the Pelicans used last season were below average NBA players (and defenders).

Next season, the presence of newcomer Omer Asik will have a huge positive impact on the Pelicans defense.¬†Asik was a dominant defensive player during his first season in Houston, grabbing 30.3% of all defensive rebounds and protecting the rim. With Asik in the game Houston’s DReb% was 3.2% better, and the defense overall improved by 6.5 points per 48 minutes per 82games. Last season (the first season of player tracking), Asik allowed opponents to shoot just 46.8% at the rim per SportVU and was excellent defensively in his limited role.

The bottom line is that the Pelicans were getting nothing from the minutes Asik is replacing, and he will be a very big upgrade.

After a disappointing 2013-2014 season that was mostly spent on the bench, Asik is entering a contract year in which he will play big minutes for the Pelicans.¬†Asik got the trade he wanted this off-season, and he should fit in perfectly next to Anthony Davis. Asik can clean up a lot of Davis’ mistakes and rebound behind him when he jumps to challenge shots. In addition, Asik is a true center, and can take on bigger players while Davis handles easier assignments.

Davis had a pretty good 2013-2014 season, but he will have a chance to have a bigger impact this year. He was a decent defensive rebounder and he protected the rim pretty well, but the team was just .5 points per 48 minutes better defensively with him on the floor per 82games.

Last season was just Davis’ second as a pro, and it can take a while for young big men to adjust to the NBA game.

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This graph (stats from 82games) shows a player’s on/off defensive impact on the team (negative is good) and how it develops from their rookie year, to the second year, and then to the third year. This is the average performance of all the players in the sample from each year.

I wanted to get a decent group of younger, quality defensive big men for the sample, but there weren’t enough of these players to create as large of sample as I would’ve liked. The sample includes Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, Joakim Noah, Tiago Splitter, Derrick Favors and Taj Gibson.

While this data analysis is far from complete, it supports the simple idea I mentioned earlier. As young big men get more experience, they tend to have a greater positive defensive impact on their teams. It takes time to learn the nuances of pick and roll defense and general timing. This makes sense intuitively.

This, in combination with the experience Davis got playing on Team USA at the World Cup this summer could indicate that Davis is ready for a breakout season impact-wise. His counting stats are already really good (he posted a PER of 26.5 last season); the next step for Davis is dominating the game on a team level. This is especially true on defense. Another factor to consider is that Davis played 45.7% of his minutes at center last season per 82games, however, next season he will spend more time at power forward alongside an excellent defensive center.

All the evidence points to Anthony Davis taking a big step up individually next season. Pair him with one of the league’s premier defensive centers, and things get much more interesting.

Say what you will of New Orleans’ perimeter defense, but in 2012-2013 Asik anchored Rockets posted the league’s 16th best defensive rating with Jeremy Lin and James Harden starting in the backcourt with no other defensive impact players. The 2014-2015 Pelicans will have better perimeter defense by default, plus they have a player who lead the NBA in blocks per game last season and is still improving next to Asik. It’s safe to say Davis and Asik will be a destructive defensive duo.

Last season the Pelicans were a mess in nearly all aspects of defense. They struggled against the pick and roll, post ups, spot ups and especially in transition, where they yielded the highest efficiency in the league per Synergy (RIP). They should improve in all of these areas next season, especially in defending both the pick and roll and post ups.

Assuming reasonable health for both Asik and Davis, I think the Pelicans should at least approach the top-10 in both DReb% and FG% allowed in the Restricted Area.

If Tom Thibodeau had been hired to coach this team, I think they could finish between 5-10 in defensive rating. With Monty Williams, I am slightly less optimistic, but they will still be good. My guess is they land somewhere between 8-13, meaning a huge upgrade from 26 last season.

Whether or not this improvement lands the Pelicans in the playoffs is hard to say, but I think it definitely puts them in the conversation. Big leaps in defense are much harder to spot than the same leaps in offense, but they matter just as much. The Pelicans will be better than people think next season.

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted

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