Who Is New Orleans Pelicans’ Best Wing Defender?

Apr 9, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker (17) is defended by New Orleans Pelicans forward Darius Miller (2) in the first half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 9, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker (17) is defended by New Orleans Pelicans forward Darius Miller (2) in the first half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports /

The New Orleans Pelicans were one of the worst defensive teams in the league in 2013-14. The Pelicans gave up 110.1 points/100 possessions, and allowed the worst free throw rate in the league (.249).

A lot of these problems stemmed from their interior defense, which was horrid, especially when Anthony Davis wasn’t in the game. The Pelicans had to rely on Greg Stiemsma and Alexis Ajinca in the middle for much of the season after Jason Smith was lost to injury, and that resulted in many made baskets in the paint and trips to the line for the opponent.

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    Omer Asik

    . Asik is a very solid interior defender, and his skills in the post combined with improvement from Anthony Davis should make the Pelicans a very strong team on the interior.

    However, this wasn’t the only problem with the Pelicans’ defense last season. They were horrible at protecting the rim, yes; but you do not sink to 27th in the league in defensive efficiency simply by giving up baskets inside.

    The Pelicans did not play well defensively on the perimeter either. And unfortunately for New Orleans, that aspect of the defense did not improve by much this offseason.

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    The Pelicans allowed opponents to shoot 35.7 percent on 3s, which was right around league average. However, in particular Synergy perimeter-based offensive categories, they were pretty terrible.

    The Pelicans finished 22nd in defending pick and roll ball-handlers, 25th in defending spot-ups, 27th in defending shots off screens, and dead least in the league in transition defense. Those numbers need to improve for the defense to improve as a whole, and that’s going to be difficult, because this is a team with a lot of question marks playing perimeter defense.

    The Pelicans have a lot of offensively gifted wing players. Between Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, John Salmons, and Jimmer Fredette, the Pelicans have plenty of guys who can score from the perimeter.

    However, none of these guys is particularly good as a perimeter defender. Attempting to find the best combination of players to defend the wing will be key for New Orleans as they head into next season, but from the options they have, “best” may be a relative term.

    With that said, we can look at the various defensive metrics available, and see which players New Orleans can rely on for various duties defensively.

    Basic synergy numbers are the best place to start with these players. Here’s a table representing each Pelicans wing, their overall defensive synergy ranking, and what they are best and worst at defending.

    PlayerSynergy Overall RatingBest at DefendingWorst at Defending
    John Salmons69 (0.82 Points per Possession)PNR Ball Handler (11th, 0.62 PPP)Isolation (219th, 0.93 PPP)
    Luke Babbitt190 (0.88 PPP)Isolation (65th, 0.72 PPP)Spot-Ups (106th, 0.91 PPP)
    Tyreke Evans221 (0.89 PPP)Dribble Hand-offs (7th, 0.59 PPP)Spot-Ups (224th, 1.0 PPP)
    Austin Rivers298 (0.92 PPP)Off Screen (108th, 0.96 PPP)Spot-Ups (343rd, 1.16 PPP)
    Eric Gordon319 (0.93 PPP)Dribble Hand-offs (42nd, 0.79 PPP)Spot-Ups (299th, 1.08 PPP)
    Darius Miller319 (0.93 PPP)Isolations (37th, 0.66 PPP)Spot-Ups (322nd, 1.12 PPP)
    Jimmer Fredette (Kings)344 (0.94 PPP)PNR Ball Handler (76th, 0.75 PPP)Spot-Ups (365th, 1.24 PPP)

    As you can see, off-ball defense is probably going to be a problem for New Orleans in 2014-15. Every player but Salmons had spot-up attempts listed as their worst defensive play, and it was his second-worst play.

    Babbitt was the only player to give up lower than 1.0 PPP on spot-up opportunities, and he did that in garbage time, so his numbers aren’t particularly impressive. The good news here is that the Pelicans have some decent on-ball defenders in this crop, particularly Miller and Evans.

    Also, Asik’s presence should mean that the wings won’t be require to drift off the ball and help as much, which could cut down on effective opportunities for opponents. However, the fact still stands that these numbers are awful, and even if Asik/Davis have an impact, there’s concern that it will be enough to even pull the Pelicans up to league-average on spot-ups.

    Salmons appears to be the best wing defender of the crop based on Synergy numbers, which is both unexpected and good. Now, Salmons did spend most of last season playing off the bench with the Toronto Raptors, a solid overall defensive team, which could have skewed the numbers a bit.

    However, Salmons posted the exact same defensive PPP in his limited time with the Kings, a much worse overall defense. Salmons and Miller are the only two players the Pelicans have with the size to defend small forwards consistently, and Salmons being able to do so competently is a good thing for the Pelicans, especially if many of the players he’s paired with are likely to get torched at times.

    Next, let’s look at Net Defensive Rating for each player. This is how each player’s team’s defensive rating benefitted or suffered from the player being on the floor as opposed to on the bench, and is a decent measure of a player’s defensive impact.

    PlayerDrtg OnDrtg OffNet DRtg
    Darius Miller102.9108.2+5.3
    John Salmons101.2103.5+2.3
    Luke Babbitt107.6109.3+1.7
    Austin Rivers106.6107.6+1.0
    Tyreke Evans108.7105.8-2.9
    Jimmer Fredette (Kings)108.6103.0-5.6
    Eric Gordon110.4103.9-6.5

    Here, Salmons shows he was productive once again. Salmons made an already excellent Toronto defense better when he was on the floor, further indicating that he can be a strong presence for the Pelicans to lean on defensively.

    Despite somewhat ugly Synergy numbers, Miller also had a solid defensive impact, which is interesting. Miller has solid size and while he’s not the quickest defender, he can be a strong contributor on the defensive glass, and helps solve matchup problems for the team against stronger, bigger forwards like Luol Deng or Shawn Marion.

    Rivers and Babbitt were also positives, although again, a lot of that came in garbage time.

    Evans, Fredette, and Gordon were net negatives. Gordon and Fredette are awful, so this makes sense.

    Evans wasn’t as bad, and this could be because he was playing out of position a lot of the time defending small forwards. With Salmons and Asik on board, this season Evans should be doing this less often, and his defensive numbers could improve because of that.

    Finally, let’s look at another overall defensive metric, Defensive Real Plus-Minus. DRPM attempts to adjust a player’s overall plus/minus for team and opponent play, giving a better overall view of a player’s impact.

    Darius Miller+1.45
    John Salmons-0.25
    Luke Babbitt-1.84
    Austin Rivers-3.03
    Tyreke Evans-3.72
    Eric Gordon-4.75
    Jimmer Fredette (Kings)-5.64

    DRPM hates the Pelicans’ wings. Here we see another metric that is positive towards, supporting the idea that despite his Synergy numbers, he should be a decent defensive option for the Pelicans.

    However, the rest of the Pelicans’ options are minuses accoring to DRPM, including Salmons. This metric points to the issues the Pelicans will have on the wings, especially when playing Evans and Gordon together on the wings.

    Overall, it appears that the Pelicans’ small forward options are going to be very helpful in contributing to the Pelicans’ perimeter defense. The addition of Salmons and another year of experience for Miller should help attempt to negate the clear negatives that Gordon, Evans, and Fredette are going to be, and when you have what should be an excellent frontcourt in Asik and Davis, that could be enough to help boon the defense to at least top-20, which is where it needs to be with how excellent the Pelicans’ offense projects to be.

    Salmons and Miller appear to be the best wing defenders for New Orleans, and hopefully they have a bigger impact than the negative one guys like Gordon and Fredette will have.