Maybe it’s 15. Maybe it’s more.
The truth is, Eric Gordon can’t tell you the average number of defensive play calls he has had to learn in his seven NBA seasons. The New Orleans Pelicans guard can only do so much math in his head.
“It’s just so many,” he said. “Last year, we almost had more defensive calls than offensive calls.”
But Gordon — who estimates the Pelicans had 15 defensive sets last season — can tell you exactly how many plays he has to know in new defensive coordinator Darren Erman’s system: There are three.
New head coach Alvin Gentry is best known for the up-tempo offense he favored in Phoenix. But one of his offseason priorities was to overhaul the Pelicans defense. He and Erman are hoping to shore it up by paring it down.
“We just wanted to make it so it wasn’t one of those things where you could say, ‘Well I thought … ,’ or ‘I was going to … ,” Gentry said. “No. Your responsibility (is) to be right here, and you’re supposed to be right here.”
For all the Pelicans did right last season — they won 45 games and reached the first round of the playoffs — the defense too often went wrong.
Only 10 teams allowed fewer points per game than the 98.6 New Orleans gave up last season. But the Pelicans allowed 104.7 points per 100 possessions, ranking 22nd in the 30-team NBA in defensive efficiency.
More significantly, the Pelicans allowed 32.6 shot attempts per game from inside 5 feet, most in the NBA. And though the presence of Anthony Davis — the league’s leading shot blocker at 2.9 per game — helped limit opponents to 58.7 percent on those attempts, the Pelicans still give up an average of 19.1 baskets per game from that distance.
“It’s a point of emphasis that we really had right from the start,” Gentry said. “One of the things we said is that Anthony Davis should not lead the league in blocked shots because he has a ton more opportunities than anybody else. We’d like for him to lead it in blocked shots because of the four guys that get around us and get to the basket, he blocks a couple of them.”
Limiting attempts in the paint starts on the perimeter. Containing dribble penetration is key. So is stopping backdoor cuts to the basket, an area that forward Ryan Anderson said was a particular weakness last season.
Erman employs a simple system, the players said, that’s predicated on solid individual fundamentals and a trust that teammates will be in the right positions and make the right rotations.
To that end, the Pelicans focused on fundamentals early. One of Erman’s first lessons was on a better technique for closing out on a jump shooter, and he has routinely drilled it — and other defensive fundamentals — this preseason.
“Honestly, I’ve had an hourlong workout where it’s not shooting or something,” Anderson said. “There’s zero offense. It’s all slides, it’s moving your feet, it’s staying in position, it’s a lot of closeout work.”
That’s part of an overall defensive emphasis that started this offseason. With few roster changes, the Pelicans knew they had to improve individually if they hoped for a better defense collectively.
Davis put on weight in part to better hold his position in the paint. Anderson dropped pounds in part to improve his defensive versatility and feel more comfortable switching onto smaller, quicker offensive players.
But there also have been philosophical changes.
Erman’s defense is built first and foremost on the concept of limiting the opponent’s opportunities in the paint. That will be a priority the Pelicans lacked last season.
“Last year, we were almost playing center field with everybody,” Gordon said. “We would try to protect the paint, but then once somebody penetrated, somebody leaks out and gets an open 3. We tried to take away too many things instead of keeping it simple, keeping it basic and try to force nothing but jump shots. That’s what we’re doing now.”
In a small sample size, the change appears to be paying some dividends.
Through two preseason games, the Pelicans have allowed an average of 24.5 field-goal attempts in the paint, 10th fewest among NBA teams.
The Pelicans are allowing 104 points per game, eighth-most among NBA teams in the preseason. That number is unlikely to faze Gentry, who said points allowed is “not going to be the measuring stick for us” in an up-tempo system that will attempt to maximize offensive possessions per game.
More possessions means more opportunities to score — for both teams — and Gentry will more closely monitor what kinds of shots New Orleans allows this season, and what percentage its opponents make.
Last season the Pelicans’ opponents shot 45.6 percent, 10th-highest in the league. This preseason, opponents are shooting 42.8 percent against New Orleans.
Whether that carries over into the regular season remains to be seen, but Erman said “everyone seems to have bought into our philosophy on defense.
The Pelicans’ hope is that Erman’s emphasis on fundamentals and communication is “a lot of little things that are going to make a big difference,” General Manager Dell Demps said.
“Guys are working on defense individually — defensive slides, closeouts, everything like that,” Davis said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be better, because we don’t know yet, but the way everybody’s feeling right now about our defense, we feel like we can be a top-five defensive team.”