The Pelicans are killing fools on the backs of the league’s third-best defense, and it makes sense. With Brandon Ingram and Trey Murphy firing from deep and Zion Williamson finding his touch around the basket again, points come easily, and…
Wait. Third-best defense? Reeee-wind.
The Pelicans are filled with notable defensive stoppers, like CJ Mccollum and Jonas Valanciunas… hold on, that doesn’t make sense, either.
The Pelicans have the league’s third-best defense, thanks to incredible shooting luck. After all, opponents are shooting a mind-boggling 71% at the rim…pause. That’s a horrible number for a team to be giving up! Ugh. Let’s take five and regroup.
Yes, it’s true, the Pelicans’ defense has been special to start the season (no thanks to that horrendous rim protection number!). We’re more than a quarter of the way into the season, and small samples ain’t that small anymore. It doesn’t make much sense on the surface. After all, the Pelicans were just 18th in defense last year, and they added notable non-defenders in Zion Williamson (who missed all of last season) and CJ McCollum (who played 26 games for the Pelicans after being traded last year). How could this defense have drastically improved so much?
Let’s start with the biggest change (and biggest caveat): they are getting much, much luckier on opponent shooting from deep.
The Pelicans are giving up almost the same shot profile as last season. They know they’re vulnerable in the paint without much shotblocking, so they wall off the rim at the expense of giving up oodles of threes. Unlike last year, however, when teams made 37% of their bombs, teams are now shooting a league-low 32.9% from deep. That’s a massive difference.
I’ve heard people explain that number by noting the Pelicans are filled with lengthy, switchy defenders who can run out and contest hard, but that’s not borne out in the data. I calculated a team’s three-point contest rate from NBA.com’s available data, and the Pelicans are only contesting 54% of opponent threes, a bottom-ten mark. So teams are just missing, and luck is the likeliest explanation.
But it’s not all bad news. Even if the Pelicans were giving up a league-average percentage from deep (which might well happen going forward), they’d still be an above-average defense — an encouraging sign.
It’s hard to construct a quality defense when teams shoot tons of threes and don’t miss at the rim. You need to nail every other aspect, and the Pelicans have mostly done that. Their switch-heavy scheme (mainly when Jonas Valanciunas isn’t on the floor) prevents teams from getting to the rim, mitigating the impact of their lack of shotblocking. They rarely foul, and they force a lot of turnovers (they are third in the league in deflections per game). They also ensure the glass is squeaky-clean (top-ten in defensive rebounding).
The eye test is similarly confusing. They don’t feel like an elite defense: you rarely see them putting teams in a max-security prison for 24 seconds at a time, as you do with Milwaukee or Toronto. The starting lineup, in particular, is not filled with immense defensive talent. But getting so many things right on the margins makes up for a lot.
For example, second-year wing Herb Jones is a one-man fixer crew. Call him in, point him at a troublesome spot, and let him get to work, wearing his hard hat and equipped with ten-foot ladders for arms. I wrote about Jones’ uncanny defensive abilities last year: cha-cha sliding around on defense while remaining perfectly balanced, slipping around screens like they aren’t there, blocking three-pointers with gusto. He hasn’t really improved from last year, but it’s hard to improve upon something already so damn good.
Speaking of improvement, you’ve probably heard the noise about how Zion Williamson cares about defense this year. It’s…mostly true. He’s been a capable enough one-on-one defender in isolation and anecdotally seems to be moving his feet better. But he’s still slothlike tracking off-ball movement and gets caught ball-watching at inopportune times. For example, look at this screenshot of Zion contesting a Jamal Murray three. It doesn’t look that bad, right?
But when you see it in-game, it’s an ugly possession:
Zion gets crushed by a pick, doesn’t realize he’s supposed to switch until (rookie!) Dyson Daniels yells at him, and then sloooowly ambles over to Murray, the Nuggets’ premier perimeter threat. It only looks as respectable as it does because Jamal Murray takes all day to load up his shot. That’s a no-good, very-bad possession from Zion, and although this sort of space-cadet behavior happens less frequently than it used to, it’s something you still see too often.
Smart teams can leverage Zion’s tunnel vision. He might stick with his man through one assignment, but he’s often lost if he’s put in multiple actions. As a result, teams get to the rim almost 5% more often with Zion on the floor than off, a terrible number.
On the plus side, all that ball-watching does give Zion ample opportunity to hunt steals and blocks. He’s gotten quite good at digging down and swiping at opposing ballhandlers right when they’re mid-spin and can’t see him coming:
And when Williamson gets beat by a ballhandler, he doesn’t just give up on the play. Instead, he’ll hustle back and try to make something happen:
Add it all up, and Zion has been roughly neutral in his minimal role on the defensive end this season, significantly better than he has ever shown in the past. Some advanced stats even peg him as an above-average defender, although I’m not ready to go there yet.
CJ McCollum, the Pelicans’ aging point guard, has been typically porous. He’s short and small, and although he’s trying, offensive players can go through him as if he’s not there at all. Likewise, Jonas Valanciunas, the lumbering bearman in the middle, has looked a step slower than usual, and his minutes are way down with Zion’s return.
But coach Willie Green is getting maximum effort from almost everyone, and it’s paying off in the defensive performances of many heretofore-middling defenders. Brandon Ingram gave up the defensive ghost to focus on offense after his trade to New Orleans years ago, but Nawlins’ newfound competitiveness has resuscitated BI. He’s nimbly sliding on the perimeter, using his length to make up ground even when he gets shaken off, and closing out hard. Here, CJ McCollum gets caught in no-man’s land, losing track of his man but also not being in position to contest the drive. But Ingram quickly realizes the threat Grant William poses on the perimeter and sprints out to bother the shot:
Naji Marshall, Larry Nance, and Jose Alvarado have been defensive aces off the bench for New Orleans, and the latter two are both making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year. Alvarado is a basketball-swiping mosquito, buzzing in your ear and sticking uncomfortably close to ballhandlers no matter how much they try to bat him away. He has no regard for personal space, happily bothering guys full-court and fighting through screens with reckless abandon.
Nance has been New Orlean’s Swiss Army knife as an undersized center unlocking the switch button for the rest of the roster. Although Valanciunas starts, more often than not, Nance is the closer at center. He’s better able to hang with guards, and he can still provide solid help with savvy verticality:
Rookie Daniels (from the Zion clip above) has been awesome on both ends. It took him a while to crack the rotation, but he seems here to stay as a tall, heady player capable of quarterbacking the defense from the back or stymying an offense at the point of attack. The pre-draft Lonzo Ball comparisons seem spot-on.
Even guys like Devonte’ Graham and flamethrower Trey Murphy are playing greatly improved defense. They aren’t stoppers, but they have more focus and a clearer sense of scheme this year. Coach Green has everyone on the same page, and the Pelicans can string together some nice rotations for long stretches at a time that cover up lineups that lack individual defensive talent:
So what’s it all mean? First, even if teams start shooting better from deep, they also should start shooting a little worse at the rim. Opponent shooting regression would drop this defense from third, but it could still hover around 10th throughout the season. With a blistering offense that shows no signs of slowing down even as it navigates injuries to pretty much every rotation player (the Pellies only have a single lineup that’s managed to play at least 100 possessions together), an above-average defense is more than good enough to carry the Pelicans to a surprising top-four seed in a bonkers Western Conference.
I am concerned that the core group could get exposed in the playoffs. Smart offenses with time to prepare will be able to make mincemeat of Valanciunas and McCollum, especially, unless they choose to attack Zion and try to tire him out on the defensive end. But nobody in the West has been perfect, and even the best teams have significant blemishes. The Pelicans may be so good on offense that their defensive warts don’t matter as much, anyway.
I wasn’t sure about the Pelicans coming into the season. A meh defense from last year incorporating a presumably-rusty Zion set off all sorts of alarm bells for me, but I was wrong. Effort like this significantly raises New Orleans’ ceiling, and I think the Pelicans will be able to go toe-to-toe with just about anyone in their conference in the battle for a top-four seed. New Orleans thinks they’ve found a championship-caliber roster with superstars on offense and loads of defensive depth. I’m starting to drink the Kool-Aid.
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