Building A Wall: Pelicans Must Find A Way To Protect The Paint

To conclude the season review series examining areas in greatest need of improvement on the New Orleans Pelicans, let’s turn our attention to the subject of rim deterrence.

The paint defense has been a glaring weakness on the roster for three consecutive years.

While players like Herb Jones, Dyson Daniels, Jose Alvarado, Larry Nance Jr and several others did an admirable job of keeping opponents out of the paint, the Pelicans were mincemeat if the first line of defense failed. No team gave up a higher opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area than the Pelicans during the 2022-23 season. Things went nearly as poorly in the two previous campaigns too, with the team finishing in the bottom five successively.

In addition to those suboptimal figures, there exists no intimidation factor in the lane. The Pelicans have been woeful in the swats department, posting a bottom-seven finish or worse in blocked shots since the start of the short-lived Stan Van Gundy era.

The Pelicans haven’t had a certifiable paint presence since Anthony Davis was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. A lot of hope was pinned on Jaxson Hayes, but he’s never taken advantage of his athleticism and size, failing to remotely reach his potential of being a one-man wrecking ball. Considering he posted his best block percentage in his rookie season — and his worst this past year, the Hayes project should probably be declared dead in the water as Jaxson will be in search of a new contract this summer.

Of course, the four-year player from the University of Texas isn’t solely to blame. Several of his teammates compared far worse to Davis.

PlayerField Goals Defended at Rim PercentBlocked Shots PercentageDefensive EPM Ranking
Anthony Davis57.5%5.1%11 (+2.5)
Jaxson Hayes63.8%3.0%231 (-0.3)
Willy Hernangomez64.0%2.7%425 (-1.7)
Larry Nance Jr.65.4%2.6%62 (+1.3)
Jonas Valanciunas67.3%2.5%466 (-2.2)

Few are obviously as good as Anthony Davis on the defensive side of the ball, as fans have witnessed firsthand in these playoffs. However, there’s a large chasm between him and Pelicans centers collectively.

The defensive Estimated Plus-Minus rankings for Jonas Valanciunas and Willy Hernangomez are ghastly. There’s less and less room in the league for slow-footed traditional centers, especially those who can’t defend in space for even a few seconds or force misses at the rim. Guarding perimeter players is inevitable with good offenses often getting defenses into rotation.

While Nance offers excellent versatility and instincts, he has a tendency to wear down over the course of a season. Additionally, his rebounding prowess isn’t strong enough to make up for teammates often lacking the skills to clean the glass effectively.

It must also be mentioned that we haven’t witnessed Willie Green employ an aggressive, swarming defense nor utilize a zone defense much to keep opponents out of the paint at all costs. So attempting to mimic the Miami Heat, though seemingly a viable avenue, might be fool’s errand.

I like to call it the Hyena Heat. As the name implies, when Miami is in this mode, they are ferocious. They are trapping/hedging, hard switching, gaping one pass away, digging/stunting at the ball, fronting in the post, and aggressively denying cutters the ball. The Hyena Heat have two main priorities: forcing turnovers (first in opponent turnover percentage) and keeping the ball in front of them (aka point-of-attack defense).

It’s hard to get shots off at the rim if the defense has two big bouncers waiting for you in the paint. But it is also hard to get shots off at the rim if you can’t get inside the three-point arc or can’t even maintain possession of the ball.


The reason that Hyena Heat flourishes while the Raptors desperately search for answers is that Miami has another pitch they can go to when teams are hitting their fastball. Or, like Former Coach Jeff Van Gundy said on “The Lowe Post,” they have an “alternative defense.”

That alternative defense Gundy mentioned is the Heat’s now patented zone defense. I say patented because, this year, they have become industry leaders in the field. Per InStat, Miami has run 926 zone possessions this season. The second most frequent zone advocates are the Portland Trail Blazers, who have run it a mere 365 times in 2022-23.

Perhaps making several of the right tweaks to the roster during this offseason could allow for a Miami-like transformation, but remember that Erik Spoelstra has spent years crafting defenses in a stable environment. He’s also had the services of Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker. Smart, seasoned veterans who understand all the tricks of the trade seems like a necessary ingredient.

The Pelicans climbed 12 spots in defensive rating, going from 18th in 2021-22 to sixth last season, but the team’s defensive ceiling feels capped at the moment. They’ve done about as well as can be expected in defensive rebounding, creating turnovers and forcing 3-point misses; they don’t have the personnel to make significant gains in deficient areas.

TeamDEF RTGBlocksOpp. Restricted Area FG%DREB %Opp. TO%Opp. 3PT%
Cavaliers109.9 (1)4.7 (14)62.7% (2)71.5% (20)16.1% (4)36.8% (23)
Celtics110.6 (2)5.2 (6)66.0% (13)74.6% (1)12.6% (26)34.5% (4)
Grizzlies110.7 (3)5.8 (3)62.1% (1)71.1% (22)14.8% (8)35.5% (9)
Bucks110.9 (4)4.9 (11)65.3% (7)74.5% (2)11.6% (30)35.4% (8)
Bulls111.5 (5)4.5 (19)66.4% (15)73.6% (3)15.0% (6)35.7% (13)
Pelicans112.0 (6)4.1 (24)71.2% (30)73.2% (5)14.9% (7)33.9% (1)

E.J. Liddell might help in the future, but how much responsibility should be placed on a player who will essentially be a rookie? And if Valanciunas’ offense isn’t going to be utilized fully or his rebounding skills late in close games, a different starting center makes more logical sense moving forward.

The front office and coaching staff have crafted a good defense in New Orleans, but there’s room for improvement, mainly at the center position. Two paths are available, but one feels better suited for this roster and head coach. Adding a true mobile deterrent or two in the lane should be the goal as mimicking the Heat seems like an incredibly difficult chore.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunesSpotifyStitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.


3 thoughts on “Building A Wall: Pelicans Must Find A Way To Protect The Paint

  1. Personnel..if you are going to rely on Z and BI on offense, two subpar defenders, you need more defensive athleticism in the front court.

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