Fighting in the trenches of a Western Conference swarming with playoff-caliber teams, the New Orleans Pelicans recognize what they need to refine if they’re going to earn a spot in the postseason come mid-April.
Averaging 116.7 points per game, it’s not the scoring. Pulling down over 47 boards in each contest, it sure isn’t rebounding. And, tied for the fourth-highest effective field goal percentage (55.3 percent) in the NBA, it definitely isn’t the shooting.
It really comes down to one facet—the Pelicans do not defend well.
On the season, New Orleans is a bottom five team in defensive efficiency, allowing 112.3 points per 100 possessions. Due to the quick pace at which Alvin Gentry likes to play, their opponents are basically matching their own field goal attempt totals and shooting 46.5 percent from the field.
There are a couple of glaring areas that stand out when it comes to these defensive woes.
First and foremost, the Pelicans must secure the perimeter. The right corner has given them fits, as their opposition has knocked down a league-high 43.9 percent from that mark on the floor. The left side hasn’t been quite as alarming, but if you combine both, New Orleans is allowing 7.4 corner triple attempts per game at a 41.4 percent success rate.
Limiting easy opportunities has been a thorn in the side as well. The Pelicans are giving up 50 points per game in the paint while yielding an average of 31 attempts in the restricted area. With Anthony Davis protecting the interior and Jrue Holiday matched up on opponents’ best scorers, there should be no reason as to why those numbers are as striking as they are.
And the “cherry” on top of all of it? A blistering 121.9 opponent points per game average on 51.3 percent from the field on the second night of back-to-backs.
On the other side of the spectrum, it’s not like New Orleans isn’t trying. Ranking eighth in total contested shots and third in defensive loose balls recovered, the hustle is there. They just need to ramp up the activity and aggressiveness.
That started Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena. Albeit against a downtrodden Cavalier squad on a lengthy skid, the Pelicans broke their own six-game road losing streak loudly with a 35-point onslaught. Up by nine at halftime, they used a 15-0 run out of the gate to crush Cleveland’s throat en route to a lopsided third quarter.
Gentry and the rest of the locker room understood they could take advantage knowing the Cavaliers were on a back-to-back, however, they also found out what playing consistent, aggressive defense can do for them if they can bring it consistently.
“We defended,” Davis said after the win. “I think it was probably our best game in my eyes defensively that we’ve had. We talked a lot. We were helping each other so when we talk and fly around on the defensive end, we are able to win games like this.
“This can’t just be a win and a one-time thing because it’s Cleveland, we got to do this next game and the game after that in order to get to where we want to be.”
Gentry echoes the same sentiments, as does Julius Randle, who spoke to Basketball Insiders beforehand about what it’ll take for the Pelicans to get back on track.
“I think we’re addressing issues that need to be addressed, mainly on the defensive end,” Randle told Basketball Insiders. “We’re just trying to find a breakthrough where we can put some wins together. I feel like we’ve been pushing and pushing, and it’s gonna come.
“We haven’t really been able to put a string of wins together. Been unlucky with injuries and all that type of stuff, but we gotta find a way to put some wins together. We know we can score the ball. We’re gonna do it through the defensive end. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
To do that, Randle says getting everybody involved will be the first step to accomplish the goal.
“A lot of times we rely too much on AD and Jrue – first team all defenders,” Randle told Basketball Insiders. “We gotta continue just to help each other on the floor, help the helper and just communicate and keep flying around, playing for each other.”
Whether it’s been players or coaches, this is a topic that’s been discussed at length inside the New Orleans locker room. Randle is vocal about it. You can say the same for Gentry, Davis and Holiday. Veteran guard Tim Frazier has given his two cents on the matter before as well.
“I think it’s been explained and everybody knows we can talk to each other,” Randle told Basketball Insiders. “So I don’t think it’s a message. It’s a lot of different guys. It just depends. We’re all a great group of guys. We’re not afraid to talk to each other, so we just gotta do that on the court as well.”
You’ll find no shortage of effort coming from Randle. In his first season with the Pelicans, the 24-year-old big man has put up some crazy stat lines, leading to career-high averages in points (20), rebounds (9.3) and three-point percentage (32.9).
Randle says he owes Davis some credit for drawing attention to open things up and make it “easy” for him. He gave props to Holiday, too, whose aggressive driving ability and playmaking results in good looks for him and his teammates.
But the real person that deserves the praise is Randle.
In May of last year, there were a handful of pros in attendance taking in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago to watch the next generation make their first impressions on the Association ahead of the Draft.
While those guys were spectating and other players might’ve been on a vacation elsewhere, Randle was tirelessly grinding away in the Roosevelt University gym with Texas A&M alum Tyler Davis and Dr1ven Training’s Tyler Relph…at 8 a.m. on a Friday in the offseason.
Work on the block and hard cuts (Julius Randle and Tyler Davis) pic.twitter.com/O4XxAVu4r2
— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies) May 18, 2018
If that doesn’t tell you what this game means to him, it can be summed up like this—Randle doesn’t take any days off.
Now, in a fresh environment where he can prove himself on a nightly basis, Randle’s dedication is showing.
“Years and years of work and opportunity meeting each other at the same time,” Randle told Basketball Insiders of his success.
“For me, that’s all it’s about. I’ve been putting in the work for a long time and I’m in a great place, great situation where I have the opportunity to do things.”
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