The New Orleans Pelicans are on the precipice of opening training camp in preparation for the 2018-19 season. So, The Advocate took the opportunity to sit down with two members of the Pelicans’ coaching staff for an unfiltered two-part question-and-answer session exploring a variety of topics before officially opening the NBA season.
The first segment features Darren Erman, who enters his third season as Alvin Gentry’s assistant coach, primarily in charge of the defense. After a slow defensive start last season, New Orleans rallied to post the league’s No. 4 defensive efficiency in its final 32 games, kick-starting the Pelicans run toward its first playoff berth since 2015 and first playoff series win since 2008.
Now, in a wide-ranging interview, Erman discusses how the Pelicans orchestrated the turnaround and what’s necessary to maintain the same level of defensive success while incorporating free agent acquisitions Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton into the rotation.
Part Two will run later this week, displaying a conversation with fellow Pelicans’ assistant Chris Finch, who is in tasked with implementing the team’s offense.
The lasting image of the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans is a blur.
The Advocate: Was there a point last season where you felt the defense was correcting itself or did it mostly coincide with DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury?
Darren Erman: I thought before DeMarcus went out, in the last eight to 10 games, we had really started to click. I thought we were playing well then. Jrue (Holiday) was great then, DeMarcus became a good defender too, and with Anthony they started to gel together.
So right then, I felt like we became good. You could see games at Boston, at Charlotte and at home against Houston. So, you could see it before DeMarcus got hurt, and so our improvement had nothing to do with him getting injured. But, you could tell we were figuring it out. I was saying that we are a good defense. And I felt like we were actually a good defensive team and time would show it.
TA: Was any particular adjustment made after Cousins was injured, though? The statistical improvement after Feb. 1 was dramatic.
DE: One thing that helped was Anthony (Davis) became the 5. DeMarcus is a good pick-and-roll player and when you’re the 5, you’re getting put into basically every pick-and-roll. There’s no way to get out of it.
DeMarcus handled it and he’s an upper echelon player there, but Anthony is elite. So, Anthony is in that role as the 5. He’s in the pick and rolls and he’s an elite, Top 5 pick and roll defender.
For the year, we were the No. 2 pick-and-roll defense and were No. 1 the last 40 games. So, we were good before, but we were elite with Anthony. That played a huge part, moving Anthony to the 5, so he was guarding every pick and roll and we changed our defensive philosophy a little bit because Anthony was able to protect the rim so well.
So we sent everything to Anthony and he would meet them at the rim. He’s just great at it. He’s great at “playing two” in the pick and roll, meaning he’s playing the ball handler and the roller, and he makes great decisions on who to get at the last moment. So, we send everything to him and tell him to handle it at the rim.
TA: Do you anticipate his role will be the same this year? Can he fit next to Julius Randle there?
DE: For sure. And, we’ll split different times, depending on matchups and what we’re trying to do. Like, there are specific game plans. For instance, Anthony didn’t play the 5 against Portland. He played the 4 and Niko guarded the 5. Against Golden State it was different. It just depends on the match up and what we are trying to accomplish that game.
TA: Does the fast pace improve or impair your ability as a defense? It would seem to run counter-intuitive to a typical defensive-first philosophy.
DE: I love the pace we play at. We are just trying to win games. That’s a way to increase our best shots and we’re better at a faster pace as a team. If that’s our best way to win, then we definitely should do it. Especially with Anthony at the 5 being a gazelle and then Niko(la Mirotic), Julius or whoever in the frontcourt with him, it’s very advantageous for us to run.
TA: Did your transition defense improve or were you so good in half court that it neutralized the league-leading pace?
DE: We played a lot better half-court defense and we did get better in transition. We were one of the worst teams for a while and then we became about average there.
One thing about pace, is that if you’re ranked high in it, there’s usually some correlation to turnovers because it’s a change in possession. So, a lot of turnovers increases the possessions and increases the pace numbers. And it’s hard to stop a team off of a turnover. But, I think we got a bit better at that as the year went on and it showed in our numbers, because even though our pace was faster, our defensive efficiency got better.
So, Anthony Davis is hiring a new agent.
TA: How do you incorporate Randle and Elfrid Payton into the defense? Is it as simple as saying they’ll replicate what Cousins and Rondo did?
DE: Elfrid has more size, so he’ll switch more. And Julius is a good switch player, so he’ll switch a bit more. I think that’ll change us a little bit to become more of a switching team, at times. I mean, we didn’t switch hardly at all last year. So, now we can do it more with those guys on the floor and switch it between 1-through-4.
But we’re also going to be game-plan based. You don’t want to switch all of the time. But maybe it can be more of a base package than it was last year.
TA: How does Payton project out at this point, after entering the league with a defensive reputation but largely losing that label over the past four years.
DE: He came in with a great reputation and he was good early, but had some ups and downs like a lot of young players do. But, I think the biggest thing he’s done so far in the individual drills, in what we’ve been doing, is having the mentality of “don’t die on screens” and pursue the ball and always fight. He’s really been doing that.
I think he’s going to have a really, really good defensive year. I think he’s going to have a really good year overall, and I think he’ll surprise people how good he is defensively and offensively.
TA: How does that affect Jrue Holiday? Do you anticipate him playing off the ball more often if Payton is capable of taking that role?
DE: It’ll help because we can put someone else on the ball some, and that will give Jrue a little bit more rest. At least at times, it’ll give him a break. For example, Jrue can guard Kemba Walker but Elfrid can also guard Kemba Walker. A lot of times Jrue had every rep against the other team’s top perimeter player. And with Solomon (Hill) coming back, he’ll be able to help Jrue too.
Jrue is an elite defensive player. I remember I told (The Advocate) in February he was a Top 5 two-way player and people thought it was coach-speak, but he definitely is a Top 5 two-way player and he’s probably Top 3 now. He’s a great defensive player but you don’t want to wear a guy out over 82 games.
Jrue does a great job, and people don’t know this, of taking care of his body, working out with the strength coaches to play heavy minutes and play hard in those minutes. I mean, Jrue plays a hard, physical 35 minutes over 82 games. That’s why he’s great. That’s why there’s not many Jrue Holidays in this league.
Anthony’s body is good too, and that’s why he was able to play those kind of minutes and excelled. There’s just not many guys that play so much offense and defense. Rudy Gobert isn’t getting Top 10 possessions on offense like those guys are. Jrue and Anthony get so much attention and have to do so much on both ends. A lot of guys can just kind of focus on one side.
With Julius, Niko and Anthony together, hopefully now Anthony doesn’t have to do every rep and we did that a bit in the playoffs by putting Niko on the 5 some, since we asked so much of Anthony on offense. Same with Jrue. I think that’s what Elfrid and Julius will bring, is some added depth to help give them a bit of rest.
The New Orleans Pelicans open training camp in three weeks.
TA: Is there a way to play Mirotic, Randle and Davis on the floor together unless there’s a particularly unorthodox matchup on the other side?
DE: I’d say we can. Niko guarded Kevin Durant and did a good job, so it’s definitely feasible. Niko is really smart and slides his feet well. He did a great job defensively last year. He switches a lot as well, so he’s guarding quicker guys sometimes. But it’s hard for those guys, not so much on the perimeter, but when it’s smaller guys running around screens.
I don’t want to put them on JJ Redick or Kyle Korver, but other guys they can guard who aren’t running off screens. Niko has done it and Julius can do it, but he’s never really been put in that position so far.
TA: Is there a guiding principle or particular scheme that defines your defense, or will it vacillate depending on matchup?
DE: I think, for us this year, and we did it the last 35 games and the playoffs, we were really leaning on game-planning for other teams. I used to be really big on the idea of we have a way to do it and we are going to play our way. But, now, since our guys have been the system a bit longer, we are more flexible. E’Twaun (Moore) has been here. Solomon has been here. Darius Miller and Niko and Ian (Clark). Obviously Jrue and Anthony.
So, we were really able to implement game plans to match up specifically with whoever we were playing that night. Julius and Elfrid are smart and I think they’ll be able to figure it out. We want to be more about game-planning per team and do the best thing to stop them, as opposed to just doing the same thing every time.
We will have a base system, but we’ll adjust it throughout.
TA: Would it be possible to play that way if there was less continuity on the roster? There are already two pretty significant changes in Randle and Payton who command major minutes.
DE: Not really. The continuity has been great here. That’s how championship teams are built. Very rarely is there a 2008 Boston Celtics that are built overnight and win a championship. Usually it’s San Antonio, Golden State or Miami, who even took another year after LeBron got there. Having guys who know the other guys on the floor and can build their knowledge rather than starting over is really helpful.
TA: How do you replace Rajon Rondo’s in-game coaching and opponent recognition? There were times last year when it seemed he was coaching while out on the floor and was lauded by his teammates for it.
DE: Rondo was a great vet leader and everyone loved him and respects him. You don’t replace that necessarily, but Anthony and Jrue know it’s their time to step up there and they’re ready. They did it in the playoffs. They can be the vocal leaders to some extent. Rondo was really good at supporting coaches and relaying the message, and Anthony and Jrue have been great throughout.
Now, after being around Rondo they’re ready to step their game up to be more vocal. And Solomon is a vocal leader too. He didn’t get to play much because of the (hamstring) injury and he looks really good and he has the capability. Elfrid can do it too, but we’ll probably have to do it as a group, so it’s not one guy controlling so much. Instead, it’ll be three or four guys.
TA: What does Frank Jackson need to do this preseason to prove he’s capable of winning the backup point guard spot, which is a position up in the air right now?
DE: Fans are going to love Frank. He plays really hard. He will have his ups and downs because he’s young, but everyone does. He’s a physical freak and an athletic freak. He’s strong, and defensively he’s really good and can be special. He’s that good. He fights through screens and he’s ultra-competitive on every single possession.
He probably needs to get better from a team defensive perspective but that will come with time because our system is so different than Duke, at least I think so since I haven’t seen much of Duke, and he missed all of last year. But, his tools and the drills we’ve done, he’s been awesome.
TA: What’s been the advantage in having the leeway to operate the defense and have that freedom from Alvin Gentry to design and implement what you feel is best? How does the relationship between you, Alvin and Chris Finch work?
DE: It’s really a disservice to coach when people say I do the defense and Finch does the offense and he just operates in the background. It’s really coach’s defense and he gives me the leeway to implement and he delegates some of it to me. It’s his system, and the same on offense, because he delegates Finch to do it.
That’s the great thing of working for him. He knows what he wants but he empowers his assistants to implement their ideas. So, it’s unique because a lot of coaches want to do everything. And some are more delegating to give coaches the opportunity to grow and get better.
I’ve been fortunate to have coaches believe in me and give me that freedom. But it’s their system and I just do what they want.
But the chemistry here is great. Whether it is coach, Finch, me and everybody else, we are all about winning. Period. Some games it might be a defensive game like when we beat Indiana and sometimes it might be like Golden State where we had to score a lot to win there. But, when you put the team first, good things tend to happen and coach really is the key to keeping all of us together in that mission.