Correlating the NBA preseason to its regular season is often an exercise in futility.
The differences in lineups, scouting and general effort make it foolhardy to assume the problems of early October will translate once the games actually count in the standings.
But, to New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, the defensive woes displayed in a dismal 0-5 exhibition campaign are concerning, regardless of the stakes. And with the season opener looming on Wednesday night, against the defending No. 1 seed Houston Rockets, there’s a lot of ground to be covered in a short period of time.
Watching preseason games reveals a noticeable difference in intensity and energy from the regular season. It can be seen in the disinterest in closing out on perimeter shooters and not running back on fast breaks.
However, there’s more to the Pelicans’ defensive problems than those easily fixable flaws.
“I don’t think it’s effort,” Gentry said. “I just think we have to do a better job of following the game plan and executing it. A lot of this has come because we are kind of in between. I don’t know if I would say we are not playing hard but we have to do a much better job of playing hard enough to contain the ball and to make sure the screen-and-roll doesn’t hurt us like it has.”
Thursday’s 134-119 home loss to the Toronto Raptors was particularly disconcerting for the Pelicans. Not only did New Orleans play its starters a nearly full complement of minutes, mimicking their rotations like a dress rehearsal, it was torched by a depleted Raptors team which sat their entire starting lineup for rest purposes.
Still, Toronto picked apart the Pelicans’ defense, scoring at will, just as the Heat, Hawks and Bulls (twice) did in earlier preseason wins.
So, can’t it all be solved with just a little extra effort? Perhaps.
“It’s a little bit of everything, but, it’s energy,” forward Julius Randle said. “I just feel like the team’s got to feel our presence. We are getting adjusted. There’s a lot of points of emphasis that we’re getting adjusted to. We’ve got to get adjusted to that and shore it up, but we’ll be fine.”
The personnel would suggest it can be flipped in a hurry.
Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday were the only teammates to earn first-team all-defensive selections last year and effectively quashed opponents’ pick-and-rolls for months at a time.
The offseason addition of point guard Elfrid Payton adds length and strength to the backcourt as well, allowing Holiday to more effectively cover the wing and add flexibility to his defensive assignment. But, thus far, it hasn’t slowed down the opposition.
“I think it’s a little bit of miscommunication between what we have to do,” Holiday said. “We have like six days to go back and correct that. Minor things, but I don’t think it’s anything effort-wise. I don’t think it’s anything effort-wise or anything like that, but miscommunication.”
The problems could be exacerbated by the Pelicans’ pace.
While Gentry was pleased with the speed, leading the NBA in possessions per game this preseason and lifting the Pelicans’ offense to lethal levels, the blistering pace wasn’t matched on the other end. Instead, the repeated transition opportunities turned into opponents’ open looks and worked against them.
It worked against the mantra Pelicans coaches have preached since they began cranking up the speed late last year. Pace doesn’t matter if it isn’t matched on the defensive end. And by allowing nearly 65 points per game in the paint, it’s clear the Pelicans’ problems are being exposed.
But, don’t expect them to slow down as a way to fix it. Instead, the Pelicans want to keep going faster.
And ultimately, according to Davis, the solution is already on its way. It’s first and foremost about effort.
That’s why he isn’t nearly as concerned as the numbers would reflect.
“Today in practice we played great defensively,” Davis said on Saturday. “It’s the preseason. A lot of people don’t play how they’re supposed to play. I think we did a good job in practice today and we’re working on stuff and being back to a team that can hang their hat on how they play defense.
“I think we will be fine. We know what we can do.”