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The Pelicans have the NBA’s saddest defense and a healthy Zion Williamson won’t fix that

The case for the New Orleans Pelicans as a playoff darkhorse in the deep Western Conference was based on four reasons for excitement. One, Zion Williamson was looking like a superstar from Day 1. (Get well soon, King). Two, Jrue Holiday had “permission to dominate” for the first time in his career. Three, the revamped roster was deep as hell, with the three former Lakers especially poised to take big steps forward. Four, the team’s defensive potential was tantalizing, with former Rockets defensive guru Jeff Bzdelk installed as lead assistant and the combination of Holiday and Lonzo Ball forming a lockdown backcourt.

About that last one. Here is the Pelicans’ defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in each of their first seven games this season:

  • at Toronto: 113
  • vs Dallas: 118.3
  • at Houston: 113.5
  • vs Golden State: 121.8
  • vs Denver: 103.9
  • at Oklahoma City: 111.7
  • at Brooklyn: 120.5.

That’s one game in which the Pelicans posted what’d currently be an average defensive rating this year and six where they’ve given up the equivalent of a bottom-five unit or worse. This after a preseason — pour as many grains of salt as appropriate — in which the Pelicans gave up the third-most points per 100 possessions among NBA teams.

This is how the Pelicans have started 1-6 despite Brandon Ingram’s early-season flamethrowing. Williamson’s eventual return from knee surgery will fix a lot, but it’s not going to fix this, based on the evidence of preseason and the uphill battle rookies generally face learning the speed of the game.

“We just gotta follow our schemes,” Ingram said after New Orleans’ loss in Brooklyn. “When we go in and follow the gameplan, I think we’ve been playing pretty well. Defensively, that means getting into the basketball, keeping the ball in front, and communication.”

So what’s wrong with the Pelicans’ defense? After watching the film, I think a lot of factors are at play and it’s tough to suss out which one matters most.

One thing that’s obvious: the Pelicans’ defense is yielding the absolute worst kinds of outputs. On average, the two most efficient shots in the game are layups/dunks and corner threes. The least efficient shots on average, of course, are mid-range jumpers. The Pelicans yield the second-highest percentage of opponent shots at the rim, the fourth-highest percentage of corner threes, and the lowest from mid-range areas, according to Cleaning The Glass. They’re also the second-worst defensive rebounding team, behind only the hapless Bulls. It doesn’t take an advanced Basketball PhD to know that’s bad.

Those three weaknesses — rim protection, three-point defense, and defensive rebounding — compound each other in a simple way. The Pelicans can’t contain the ball at the point of attack, so it’s easy for opponents to generate shots at the basket. To stop those, the other Pelicans rotate off the perimeter, which creates easy three-point shots and driving lanes. And if those still don’t go in, the Pelicans’ defense is spread so thin that they can’t put a body on offensive rebounders. Here, let me show you:




Actually solving this problem leads to two thornier questions. One, is the problem Bzdelik’s scheme, or poor personnel? If the answer is some combination of both, what’s the most important part of the operation to plug?

Let’s tackle the second one first. In essence, this is what we’re really asking:

(Seth Partnow is a writer for The Athletic and the former director of basketball research for the Milwaukee Bucks. Steve Jones is a former Brooklyn Nets assistant coach and Memphis Grizzlies video coordinator. Full disclosure: I consider both to be friends).

The most boring and accurate answer is “both,” but the fixes aren’t necessarily the same. To me, the lack of containment on the ball falls more on the players than the coach. Pelicans guards get too easily beat on ball screens, which in turn neuters the effectiveness of the bigs when they jump out level to the ball. It’s too easy for crafty pick-and-roll operators to accept the Pelicans’ trap and make the first pass out to create an odd-man situation.


It’s also too easy for those players to exploit the prolonged gap between the guard recovering from the screen and the big man needing to contain the ball. That leads to drives and open off-the-dribble threes.



This isn’t an issue you’d expect with Holiday or Ball, both of whom have terrific defensive reputations. But Holiday doesn’t look like himself due to nagging injuries, and Ball still needs to build more strength to avoid getting knocked back by screens. Derrick Favors’ on-again, off-again knee issues haven’t helped matters, either. His absence in the middle means Jahlil Okafor and rookie Jaxson Hayes have been pressed into duty.

That said, poor ball containment doesn’t fully explain why the Pelicans are giving up so many three-point attempts. When asked about this trend after Monday’s loss to Brooklyn, coach Alvin Gentry credited the Nets as a tough team to keep off the line. “They’re the No. 1 three-point shooting team in the NBA, so they’ve done it to other teams too, right?” he said, before repeating himself when asked a follow-up.

(As of Nov. 5, the Nets do lead the league in three-point percentage, but are tied for seventh in three-point attempts per game).

In an especially damning pair of sequences, the Pelicans gave Joe Harris, the league leader in three-point percentage last season, two wide open threes in the final two minutes of a close game. They got lucky when he missed the first time, but lightning never strikes twice.



The Nets do take and make lots of threes, but this is not an isolated problem for Gentry’s team. The one win over Denver was an oasis in a desert of long-range bombing — the Pelicans have surrendered somewhere between 35 and 45 three-point attempts in their other six games.

This is where I wonder if Bzdelik’s scheme actually fits with his new roster. Best as I can tell, the Pelicans call for a third player to rotate down into the paint on pick-and-rolls, even if that means leaving shooters like Harris. I understand the desire to protect the basket, but I’m not sure what utility this player has when they’re this close to the hoop. There’s not much they can do from that position to deter a shot.



I’m also not sure why this level of paint protection is necessary when the screener is someone like Danilo Gallinari, who wants to pop for a three instead of roll to the basket.




Asking that third player to stand so far from the three-point line creates long closeouts that are nearly impossible to execute properly. Even if Ball hustles as much as humanely possible, he’ll struggle to cover the distance needed to deter Justin Jackson’s three. (Ingram is closer, but he’s responsible for helping on the roll).


Bzdelik has forgotten more about basketball than I’ll ever know, and he’s been dealt a tough hand due to the injuries to Favors and Holiday. It’s certainly hard to build defensive continuity with a new coaching staff when the team’s two best defenders are shuttling in and out of the lineup.

But these Pelicans aren’t the 2018 Rockets, who were stocked with long, veteran wing players that covered a ton of ground and rarely botched a switch. These Pelicans are quite small on the wing, especially with Ingram playing up a position due to Williamson’s absence. They’re also quite green: players like Ball, Josh Hart, Frank Jackson, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker in particular may not have enough experience to balance the many responsibilities Bzdelik’s system seems to ask of them. Their botched switches and shaky positioning have been hallmarks of the Pelicans’ defensive ineptitude early in the season.


It might be time for the Pelicans to simplify their defensive system. Otherwise, their shaky start could quickly snowball no matter how well Williamson plays when he returns from injury.

PRESEASON QUESTIONS, ANSWERED

Before the season, I listed the 100 most interesting basketball-specific questions of the season. Each week, we’ll see if we have enough information to answer one of them.

QUESTION 58. How responsible is Devin Booker for the Suns’ recent ineptitude?

As several of you noted, Booker was mostly absent from my deep dive into the Suns’ early-season success, which published before he lit up the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday. So as a postscript to that piece, let’s talk about him a little more.

I’ve seen a lot of suggestions that the Suns’ early-season success with Booker leading the way shows the stupidity of holding him even one percent responsible for the Suns’ toxic culture in the past. I’ve also seen the inverse of that argument: Booker has actually addressed his bad habits and is now a different player. The truth lies somewhere in the middle — though probably further tilted to the first argument. Anyway, I’m not terribly interested in re-litigating the past.

But I did want to shout out two areas where Booker’s game has improvement. First, the defense. Even Booker’s most enthusiastic supporters had to concede that he didn’t always give a crap on that end in the past. But that’s not been the case this year.

It’s been beautiful watching him blow up ball screens and dribble handoffs like this:



Phoenix still posts a better defensive rating with Booker out of the game, but he’s been far from a squeaky wheel in their defensive rise.

The second: passing out of double-teams. (What delicious irony after this video sparked an offseason pseudo-controversy). I’ve noticed a lot of growth with the way Booker manipulates defenders to create the passing angle he wants instead of the pass they want him to make. His assists are down, but he’s more willing and able to make simple passes when he doesn’t have a shot, whether they directly lead to buckets or simply trigger more ball movement.



Combine those improvements with his electric scoring ability at all three levels, and it’s obvious that Booker is a “winning player” now, whatever that means. Speaking of: his three-point play late in the 76ers game was ridiculous and I don’t have much more to say about it than what I already tweeted.

CLOSEOUT OF THE WEEK

Three-point shooting is essential, yet there’s no good stat that credits defenders for the essential act of preventing a three-pointer from being taken. We must reward these efforts.


LeBron James giving real effort on defense in a way that’s contagious. You love to see it.

REBOUND JOUST OF THE WEEK

Last year, I wrote about the rising trend of teammates fighting each other for defensive rebounds. These moments usually end harmlessly, but occasionally, they can cost a team. Here’s to over-aggression!


DeAndre Jordan will be a regular in this space. Let’s freeze this play at the moment he realizes the shot was partially blocked.


It was so unnecessary for him to go for this rebound, and yet so beautiful. Long live Jordan’s stat padding.

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