One Team, One Stat: Pelicans finally get defensive

One Team, One Stat: Pelicans finally get defensive
New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis poses for a portrait at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans during the NBA basketball team's media day, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Doug Parker)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

NBA.com's John Schuhmann gets you ready for the 2017-18 season with a key stat for each team in the league and shows you why it matters. Today, we look at the New Orleans Pelicans, who finally built a good defense around Anthony Davis.

THE STAT

The New Orleans Pelicans allowed 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions last season than they did the season before.

THE CONTEXT

That made the Pelicans the league's most improved defensive team in a year when league-wide efficiency increased by 2.3 points per 100 possessions and hit an all-time high.

The Pelicans ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency in each of Anthony Davis' first four years in the league, unable to build a decent defense around his length and athleticism. At times, they were particularly bad at protecting the rim, even though they mostly played Davis and another big together.

But they took a big step forward defensively last season. They went from 27th to 14th in opponent field goal percentage in the paint. And they went from 22nd to 12th in opponent effective field goal percentage from outside the paint.

They also fouled less often. Their opponents attempted 23.3 free throws per 100 shots from the field (fifth lowest rate in the league) last season, down from 28.7 (10th highest) in 2015-16. No team reduced its opponent free throw rate more than the Pelicans.

Before the All-Star break and before they traded for DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans' defense was at its best (allowing just 100.7 points per 100 possessions) with Davis playing center, a configuration that coach Alvin Gentry fully embraced after he used Davis at the four for more than half of his minutes in '15-16.

The Cousins trade, of course, pushed Davis back to the four. The Pelicans weren't very good offensively with Cousins and Davis both on the floor after the trade, but they started to come around on that end of floor in their last seven games together.

And on the other end of the floor, the Pelicans allowed less than a point per possession with the All-Star bigs sharing the floor. Among the 250 most-used two-man combos after the All-Star break, only four had a better on-court DefRtg.

As the Pelicans try to crack the playoff picture in the Western Conference this season, that defense can be the foundation. The question is whether the Pelicans have enough on offense, where they ranked in the bottom five last season.

Jrue Holiday will likely be the barometer for the team's offense. Last season, Holiday shot just 30.1 percent from 3-point range after the trade/break, having shot 39.3 percent before it. That was the biggest drop-off in 3-point percentage among players who attempted at least 100 threes before the break and 100 after it.

In those seven games in which the Cousins-Davis combo looked great, Holiday shot 15-for-36 (41 percent) from 3-point range and had an assist/turnover ratio of 4.0.

PELICANS NOTES - GENERAL

1. Alvin Gentry's two seasons as the head coach are the only two seasons the Hornets/Pelicans have played at a pace faster than the league average in the 15 years they've been in New Orleans.

2. One of four teams (Cleveland, Detroit and Memphis were the others) that had the same number of wins as "expected wins," based on their point differential.

3. Ranked 29th in both offensive rebounding percentage and total rebounding percentage, grabbing just 47.5 percent of available boards. They were better on the glass, but were still outrebounded with Cousins and Davis on the floor together.

4. Were 16-5 when they outrebounded their opponent.

PELICANS NOTES - OFFENSE

1. According to SportVU, 87.9 percent of their 3-point attempts were uncontested, the second highest rate in the league.

2. Ranked second in the league with 9.3 pass-ahead passes (when the ball is passed from the backcourt to the frontcourt, traveling at least 18 feet toward the basket) per game.

3. Took only 10.8 percent of their shots, the second lowest rate in the league, in the last six seconds of the shot clock. Only Golden State (9.6 percent) did a better job of avoiding late-clock shots.

4. Have ranked in the top 10 in turnover rate in each of the last four seasons and in 10 of the last 12.

5. Scored just 100.2 points per 100 possessions, the second worst mark in the league, when playing the second game of a back-to-back. They scored 104.1 when they had a day or more of rest.

PELICANS NOTES - DEFENSE

1. Opponent effective field goal percentage dropped from 52.3 percent (fifth highest in the league) in 2015-16 to 50.9 percent (10th lowest) in '16-17. That was the league's second biggest drop, behind only that of Brooklyn. As noted above, the Pelicans also saw the league's biggest reduction in opponent free throw rate.

2. Allowed 102.4 points per 100 possessions (the league's fourth best mark) in the first and third quarters, but 107.7 (the league's 10th worst mark) in the second and fourth. They ranked 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage in the fourth quarter.

3. Allowed their opponents to take 13.1 percent of their shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock. That was the seven lowest rate in the league and below the league average (14.1 percent), but up from 11.0 percent (lowest rate in the league) in 2015-16.

4. Allowed 1.15 points per possession on opponent drives, the seventh best mark in the league and down from a league-worst 1.23 in 2015-16.

PELICANS NOTES - LINEUPS

1. One of four teams - Philadelphia, Sacramento and Utah were the others - that didn't have a lineup that played at least 200 minutes together.

2. Their 11 most-used lineups (those that played at least 50 minutes together) all had a positive plus-minus and outscored their opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions in 1,044 total minutes. All other New Orleans lineups were outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions in 2,932 minutes.

3. Were 10.4 points per 100 possessions better with Davis on the floor (plus-1.7) than they were with him off the floor (minus-8.7). That was the 16th biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential among 277 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team.

4. Even with the trade for Cousins, Davis played more minutes at center (1,595) than at power forward (1,110) last season. The Pelicans were 4.2 points per 100 possessions better with him at center (plus-3.7 vs. minus-0.6).

5. Holiday played 22 percent of his minutes with another point guard (Quinn Cook, Tim Frazier or Jarrett Jack). The Pelicans were a plus-2 in those 491 total minutes.

PELICANS NOTES - INDIVIDUAL

1. Using 36.4 percent of his team's possessions while he was on the floor, DeMarcus Cousins ranked second in the league in usage rate. But his usage rate dropped from 37.6 percent with Sacramento to 32.6 percent (about even with Davis) with New Orleans. Even with the career-high usage rate, Cousins also recorded career highs in effective field goal percentage (49.8 percent) and true shooting percentage (56.2 percent).

2. The 139 shots that Cousins took in the last four seconds of the shot clock were tied (with Carmelo Anthony) for the most in the league.

3. Dante Cunningham attempted 0.6 free throws per 36 minutes, fewest among 193 players who played 1,500 total minutes.

4. Only DeMar DeRozan (1,124) took more shots between the restricted area and 3-point range than Anthony Davis (909). Those 909 shots accounted for 59.6 percent of Davis' total field goal attempts. That was the eighth highest rate among 174 players who attempted 500 shots from the field. After taking 43 percent of his shots from the restricted area in his first three seasons in the league, he has taken only 32 percent of his shots from there over the last two seasons.

5. Davis set 2,461 ball screens, second most in the league. The 376 shots he attempted after setting a ball screen were 103 more than any other player. He led the league (by a wide margin) with 7.1 points per game scored as the roll man.

6. Davis was the league's leading scorer in the first quarter at 8.5 points per game.

7. Among the nine players who averaged at least 10 rebounds and one block last season, Cousins (28.0 points per game) and Davis (27.0) were the leading scorers. Karl-Anthony Towns (25.1) was the only other player in the group to average more than 17 points per game.

8. Jrue Holiday recorded career highs in both effective field goal percentage (51.0 percent) and true shooting percentage (53.2 percent) last season. He has reduced the percentage of his shots that come from mid-range in each of the last four seasons, from 34 percent in 2012-13 to 21 percent last season.

9. Though they played in just 62 games together, the 185 assists Holiday had to Davis (3.0 per game) were the fifth most in the league from one teammate to another.

10. Among 164 players who took at least 250 shots before the All-Star break and 150 shots after the break, Rajon Rondo (12.8 percent) had the biggest increase in effective field goal percentage. He had an effective field goal percentage of 40.7 percent before the break and 53.5 percent after it. Still, Rondo's 561 total shots were the most among players who scored less than a point per field goal attempt.

11. Solomon Hill spent more time guarding Kevin Durant (21 minutes) than any other player in the league last season. Durant shot just 3-for-11 and scored only 10 points on 60 touches against Hill.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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