The New Orleans Pelicans were a pretty poor defense by every metric during 2013-14.
They were the fourth-least efficient defense in the league, giving up 110.1 points/100 possessions. Opponents shot 46.5 percent from the field, and got to the line more frequently against the Pelicans than against any other team.
All of this led to a team that did a lot of productive things on the offensive end, but couldn’t consistently outscore opponents due to their woes on the other end. A variety of the usual suspects that cause a team to have a bad defense hit the Pelicans last season, including injury, youth, and an inability to defend in transition.
In addition to those causes, though, New Orleans had a bigger, overarching problem to solve defensively: they severely lacked rim protection.
The Pelicans allowed 53.4 percent at the rim per NBA SportVU data, the 23rd-ranked percentage in the league. This came on 22.4 attempts per game, meaning the Pelicans gave up just less than 24 points per game at the rim.
This wasn’t the worst mark in the league, as other noted defensive sieves like the Mavericks and Celtics surrendered more at the rim. However, this kind of revolving door defensive tactic doesn’t work if other aspects of the defense aren’t picking up the slack.
The Wizards gave up a higher percentage at the rim than the Pelicans, but they also had the league’s fifth-best perimeter defense, and were able to manufacture a top-10 overall defense. The Timberwolves were similarly average despite the league’s most porous rim defense, thanks to one of the league’s lowest foul rates.
The Pelicans combined all of these issues. They were just average on the perimeter, and went from average to bad once Jrue Holiday went down with injury. Opponents also got to the line almost once for every four field goal attempts, by far the worst mark in the league. This combination of fouling, porous perimeter defense, and even more porous defense at the rim made for a terribly inefficient defense on the Gulf shore this season.
It’s sometimes difficult to determine which of these factors hurt the Pelicans on defense the most, due to the connections between them. Poor rim protection allows opponents to be more comfortable driving from the perimeter, and poor perimeter defense can expose subpar rim protection and lead to fouls.
And when those fouls hit the players that are the best at defending the rim, the cycle repeats itself. However, for the Pelicans, it was fairly easy to determine which caused which.
While Eric Gordon and Brian Roberts are bad defenders, particularly against spot-ups, guys like Holiday and Darius Miller were decent defenders on the perimeter, and the Pelicans’ perimeter defense as a whole was not nearly as bad as their performance at the rim. The perimeter defense could certainly have been better, but it wasn’t the main issue.
Instead, the problem surrounded the players the Pelicans most commonly had protecting the post. Anthony Davis was a fairly strong defender overall last season, but he still gave up 48.9 percent shooting at the rim, far lower than rim protecting anchors like Roy Hibbert or Serge Ibaka.
He blocked an insane amount of shots, which deterred opponents from attacking him as commonly as those players, but he also was often out of position when the Pelicans played two posts together, due to guarding the other team’s quicker forward.
His footwork in defending drives is still slightly raw, as well, which made him susceptible to fouling inside. When he was the primary center, the team stats were similar to Davis’s SportVU data; opponents didn’t take nearly as many shots at the basket, but they shot a ridiculous 65.7 percent within 3 feet of the rim, according to NBAwowy.com.
When Davis wasn’t the primary center, the opponents’ field goal percentage improved, but the problem changed. Greg Stiemsma, Jason Smith, and Alexis Ajinca were the most commonly used centers for New Orleans, with Ajinca getting the most starts alongside Davis, and Stiemsma playing the most minutes.
Both of these players can contest shots due to their size, but neither is very laterally quick, and neither has great shot-blocking instincts. When these two are your primary centers, it results in issues at the rim. Both gave up better than 50 percent shooting at the rim, but an even bigger problem arose when these two played: foul trouble.
Stiemsma and Ajinca fouled at comical rates in 2013-14, with Ajinca being the more serious offender. Stiemsma fouled at an even 6.0 fouls per 36 minutes, and while he’s a decent rim protector otherwise, he has consistently been a foul collector throughout his career, and that limits his effectiveness.
Meanwhile, Ajinca was even worse, fouling 7.1 times per 36 minutes and collecting five or more fouls 14 times in 56 games despite playing about 17 minutes per game. He has cinder blocks for feet, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he can’t be relied on as a rim protector. However, both Ajinca and Stiemsma got plenty of chances to do that last season, and both gave up plenty of points, at the rim and at the line.
The Pelicans need improved rim protection in order to become a more passable defense, because it appears that is going to be easier to improve based on the current makeup of the roster. With guys like Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Austin Rivers coming back next year, and no real small forward options, the perimeter defense is unlikely to improve much next season.
However, it will be more possible and probable that the Pelicans get better at defending the rim next season, due to how their frontcourt situation looks right now.
The easiest and most critical way for the Pelicans to improve in this department will come with the development of their young talent inside. Davis is likely going to get better as a defensive presence next season, simply due to experience’s effect on defensive understanding.
He’s already an impactful defender thanks to his shot blocking ability, and moving into his third year, his progression from attempting to block every shot that comes near him, as he did during his rookie year, to contesting every shot, should make him a more impactful overall defender. It’s similar to the development guys like Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan have experienced, in that they’ve become better overall defenders as they’ve learned to pick their spots in shot blocking more.
Jeff Withey‘s development will also be important here. Withey saw limited playing time in his rookie season, but blocked 3.8 shots per 36 minutes, and had a better FG% allowed at the rim than Davis did. Withey’s issues have come on the offensive end, where he struggles to score much outside of tip-ins, but he did improve as the season went on, and there is hope that this offseason, he can become a more refined player on both ends and move into a bigger role in the rotation.
Further, Smith, Stiemsma, and Ajinca should be out of the picture next season. Stiemsma and Smith are both free agents, and probably won’t be back next year due to Smith’s injury issues and Stiemsma’s tendency to foul everything. Ajinca, meanwhile, technically is under contract next year, but he will likely be relegated to a deep reserve role.
With Smith and Stiemsma off the books, it will give the Pelicans options, whether they want to promote Jeff Withey to a bigger role, or sign a reserve like Anthony Tolliver or Aaron Gray in free agency. There are also reports that the Pelicans may want to move into the first round of this year’s draft, where they could look to draft Clint Capela or Adreian Payne in an attempt to add rim protection.
The Pelicans have options to improve their ability to protect the rim, and they need to exercise those options in order to ensure improvement on defense. The team could simply attempt to rely on improvement from Davis and Withey, and hope they get more from Ajinca, but adding an extra defensive center for cheap might be a better option, as both Davis and Withey are still very young, and Ajinca is bad.
Regardless of the decision, the Pelicans need better rim protection as they move forward, and likely won’t have even a passable defense until they get it.