The trend line on the New Orleans Pelicans’ defense resembles a turbulent stock.
It’s gone from good to bad, bad to ugly, ugly to respectable and now respectable to formidable.
After a disastrous midseason swoon, the Pelicans picked it up on the defensive side, re-shaping their image amid of a flurry of roster changes.
The Pelicans ranked No. 8 in defensive efficiency in January and are on the same path in February, a critical bounce back after slipping to No. 29 in December.
“Everyone is really playing a lot better,” said Darren Erman, the Pelicans’ assistant coach charged with leading the defense. “We had a solid start and then things got pretty bad, but the guys have worked really hard to get better and really, we’ve been pretty good for the past six weeks or so.”
It has allowed New Orleans to stay firmly in the mix of the jumbled Western Conference standings, despite losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles and shuffling its rotations around in the process.
But the largest mountain to climb was working around a midseason move to group three guards together in the starting and finishing lineups, forcing E’Twaun Moore to cover longer swingmen — a challenging matchup for the 6-foot-4 shooting guard.
And Moore wasn’t alone in facing a revised assignment.
“Guys just haven’t been always been in their natural positions on defense,” Erman said. “Jrue (Holiday) isn’t used to guarding 2s, and E’Twaun definitely isn’t used to guarding 3s, so everyone had to learn a little bit.”
So, as the Pelicans’ offense skyrocketed to No. 2 in December, its defense suffered. However, in recent weeks, New Orleans adjusted accordingly, utilizing Holiday’s ferocity on the ball while taking advantage of Anthony Davis’ versatility.
Erman pointed to an increase in switching at the power forward position as a particular boon to the Pelicans’ defensive improvement. While they’re cautious of routinely sending Davis out to cover the perimeter, leaving a rebounding dearth in his absence, Nikola Mirotic has filled the position admirably since he arrived.
“DeMarcus was playing really well defensively, especially in the last few weeks, and when he went out and we were in a really good place,” Erman said. “But we’ve managed to maintain recently because Mirotic has done what we’ve needed and can make those switches we ask him to.
“He plays really hard and he fights for position with guys like Blake Griffin and battles for rebounds while moving his feet well. He’s just a physical guy who plays hard. That’s nice.”
But the Pelicans’ defense, like their offense, truly hinges on the performances of Holiday and Davis, both of whom have allowed the team to function without Solomon Hill. New Orleans’ best wing defender tore his hamstring in August and hasn’t played this season, leaving a shortage of players who can effectively cover one of the NBA’s most lethal positions.
Over the past several months, Erman has seen Davis carry some of the burden, not only in switching situations but in traditional matchups.
“Last year, (Davis) became an elite pick-and-roll defender and this year he’s become elite at guarding guys off of the dribble,” Erman said. “You can see it when we played Oklahoma City and guarded Carmelo (Anthony), and when we played Milwaukee, he was really good on Giannis (Antetokounmpo).
“He’s gotten a lot better at doing that. And it’s been an adjustment, but he’s gotten really good at it and it’s changed a lot for us.”
Meanwhile, Holiday has been employed in nearly every defensive scenario. He’s occasionally switching onto bigger players to guard the post, and is often charged with defending the best perimeter player, responsible for shutting off drive-and-kick options while closing out on shooters.
Considering he’s also averaging career-best 18.8 points and 4.4 rebounds, it’s clear Holiday is carrying a mammoth load on both ends of the floor.
Coach Alvin Gentry has repeatedly mentioned his desire to dial down Holiday’s role, but his 36.7 minutes per game have been desperately needed.
“Jrue has been awesome this year,” Erman said. “He’s been fantastic. If he’s not the best two-way player in the league then definitely in the top three or four. We can rely on him to do so much.”
And without Cousins’ prolific scoring ability at their disposal, the Pelicans will need the defensive foothold to maintain position in a crowded playoff picture.
While the numbers display obvious improvement on his end of the ball, Erman said he’s only concerned about the bottom line. And considering New Orleans is 14-8 in 2018, and riding a season-best four game winning streak into Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks, there’s clear evidence the defensive turnaround is charging the Pelicans’ season.
“I don’t care what our defense is ranked,” Erman said. “I just want to make the playoffs. I don’t look at it as one side. I look at our net rating, because it’s the best indicator and right now we are in the positive.
“I don’t really look at the defense on its own, as long as we’re winning. I study to see what we can better at, but it’s just about winning games.”