ATLANTA — It’s a long way to good, but the Pelicans defense is taking steps in that direction.
Despite a 1-7 record and a 106-98 loss to the Hawks on Wednesday, the Pels — who play the Raptors on Friday night in Toronto — are showing signs of progress defensively after monumental struggles on that side of the court to open the season.
New Orleans remains last in the NBA in scoring defense (112.4 points per game) and defensive rating (110 points per 100 possessions), but after a miserable start, the Pelicans are working their way toward defensive respectability.
“We’re finally containing the dribble a little bit more,” guard Eric Gordon said. “We’re doing everything a little bit better. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re doing a lot of things.”
And though the Pelicans hardly are defensive stalwarts, there’s a difference you can see, hear and measure.
After allowing 112.6 points per 100 possessions in their first five games, the Pelicans have allowed 105.6 over their past three. That’s not where New Orleans wants to be — the Pels rank 18th in the league in defensive rating over that three-game span — but it’s an improvement.
The Pelicans are talking more on defense. They’re directing the ball where they want it to go more often. They haven’t stopped dribble penetration, but it’s burning them less often.
“I think we are getting better at some things,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “I think they’re beginning to communicate a little better. We made some minor adjustments that they seem to be picking up on.”
The Pelicans have cut down on fast-break points and second-chance points over the past week.
Still, there’s significant progress to be made.
New Orleans is allowing 49.5 points per game in the paint, second-most in the league, and that number actually has increased over the past three games (52 points per game). Pelicans opponents are shooting 48.3 percent this season, highest against any NBA team, and that number has been consistently high.
The Pelicans are better against dribble penetration but still allowing too much of it.
“It’s an area that we have to continue to work on,” Gentry said — and though defensive rotations have improved, there’s significant room for improvement in help defense.
One reason for the slow defensive start might be that, as with Gentry’s offense, the Pelicans are learning a new defensive system implemented by assistant coach Darren Erman. It puts a high value on reducing scoring close to the rim, on defensive rotations and closeouts on the perimeter.
Though the system was expected to be simpler than the one the Pelicans ran last season, it’s been an adjustment.
“It’s going be a learning process,” Gordon said. “It’ll take time. (The defense) is simple, but it’d be great if it was that simple and we were playing against a team that wasn’t (good offensively). We’ve played a lot of tough teams and a lot of teams that know how to score the ball. But we’ll be fine. We’ll be a better defensive team along the way, that’s for sure.”
Some of the Pelicans’ defensive issues are personnel based. Quincy Pondexter, who has yet to play a game, has a reputation as a strong on-the-ball defender. Jrue Holiday — whose minutes are limited as he recovers from an injury — and Norris Cole, who’s been out all season with a high ankle sprain, are expected to help contain dribble penetration when they’re healthy.
And one of the Pelicans’ most impactful defenders, center Omer Asik, has played only 47 minutes this season after straining his right calf in the preseason.
In that small sample size, the Pels defense has been dramatically better with Asik on the floor. New Orleans is giving up an average of 111.2 points per 100 possessions with Asik off the court and 101.4 when he’s on.
Last season, Anthony Davis led the Pelicans in defensive win shares — a statistical estimate of how many wins a player contributes with his defensive ability — at 14. Asik and Tyreke Evans were the only other players over four.
Though Asik is working his way back into the rotation, Davis missed Wednesday’s game and is doubtful for Friday’s with a hip contusion. Evans has yet to play this season after preseason knee surgery.
In learning a new system, Gentry said, it “helps to have guys that’s playing together consistently,” so they can learn each other’s defensive tendencies.
“We just haven’t had an opportunity to have that happen this year in any situation,” Gentry said. “And then it’s to the point where when we do kind of have that, something else comes up. This is a challenge, it really is. It’s kind of a Job season for us.”