NEW ORLEANS -- With optimism at a fever pitch following a breakthrough 2014-15 season, the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t waste much time hitting the replay button.
The Pelicans locked up budding colossus Anthony Davis to a no-brainer maximum extension at the earliest possible opportunity, then went on to re-sign five players, including Davis’ body man, Omer Asik. Their only new additions, Alonzo Gee and Kendrick Perkins, were acquired for the low, low price of the veteran’s minimum.
“At the end of the year, in talking to the players, we felt -- and they expressed to us orally -- that they enjoyed playing with each other and wanted to continue that,” general manager Dell Demps told Sports Illustrated last year. “We listened.”
The Pelicans had secured the almighty difference-maker for any team with high aspirations: continuity. And with it came a possible solution to the defensive issues that came priced into the ready-made contender for Alvin Gentry and his new coaching staff.
“We have continuity, which will definitely help,” associate head coach Darren Erman told the Pelicans’ team site in September. “Being on the same page is probably the No. 1 thing defensively.”
Erman, the team’s defensive coordinator, installed a simplified coverage system that eliminated overthinking by significantly trimming the number of calls. The early returns, despite consistent 100s being put up on the team in preseason, were encouraging. But by the time they decided to take the training wheels off and try switching en masse, injuries already had taken their toll. In their fourth preseason game, the Pelicans started a minutes-limited Jrue Holiday, training-camp invitee Chris Douglas-Roberts, Dante Cunningham and Perkins around Davis. That was only the beginning.
New Orleans became a virtual D-League showcase as it lost 351 games to injury and illness, the second-most in the NBA in the past decade, and slumped six spots to 28th in defensive efficiency. The team it brought back from a triumphant march into the postseason, brass will tell you, never played a minute together in 2015-16.
This summer, the Pelicans set out to build a new one.
“You want to be better defensively, you’ve got to get better defensive players,” Gentry said recently. “We feel like we upgraded some in that area right there, and we’ll continue to work and continue to try to put in the system that we always wanted to have in.”
Out went Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, the latter of whom gave away (minus-1.59 defensive real plus-minus) all of the value he added on offense (plus-1.59 offensive real plus-minus) as he struggled in virtually all coverages on the pick-and-roll, to the point that the Pelicans often would blitz with him late in the season out of lack of options. In came Solomon Hill (0.39 DRPM), E'Twaun Moore (minus-0.44) and Langston Galloway (0.56) -- all versatile and strong enough to hold up on switches.
Gentry estimated the new-look Pelicans spend 60 percent of their practice time on the defensive end, with the focus on ball pressure and containing dribble penetration.
“It’s no different than football,” he said. “If you have a great defensive line, then your linebackers don’t have to be great players and your safeties don’t have to be great players to contain the run. In order for us to be good at what we’re trying to do, we’ve got to be able to contain the ball. If we contain the ball, then it makes it a little easier on your backline guys coming at them on drives where they can get in foul trouble.”
The backline used to be the least of the Pelicans’ problems. But Asik, rated the seventh-best defensive center just two seasons ago with Houston, struggled across the board last season, receiving the dreaded “DNP-CD” in a March game at Golden State. Davis, a defensive player of the year candidate coming into the season, slumped to the 16th-best DRPM among power forwards amid criticism about his effort, which he doesn’t shy away from.
“I looked at it a little bit,” he said. “I think I could have played harder. But that was last year.
“People say I could have did this, that and the other thing. Do I agree? Sometimes. Maybe. I’m just focused on what I can do this year to make us better.”
When it comes to defense, every player agrees on the first step:
“Communication,” said Hill, who played on two top-10 defenses with the Indiana Pacers, including 2013-14’s top-ranked unit.
“Defense is about communication and trust,” said Moore, a reserve on the Boston Celtics’ second-ranked defense in 2011-12.
“Communication,” said Lance Stephenson, also a former Pacer. “To be a good defensive team, you’ve got to talk.”
After two preseason games, the Pelicans, who rank 24th in the league in defensive rating, have seen why.
“Somebody would beat us, one pass to the corner, open shot,” Hill said. “It’s got to be somebody else making that run, another guy making a run to his man. And that’s where communication goes. If you get beat, you talk to somebody, they step up, you call the next man out. And that’s what we need to start doing.”
Communicating figures to be a lot easier among this year’s core group, composed primarily of self-made hard workers and players with incentive to work hard. Davis, mild-mannered by nature, has stepped into a more vocal leadership role, while the fiery Tim Frazier and always jovial Buddy Hield arrive as galvanizing forces.
Davis and others have noted throughout the postseason how well this rendition of the Pelicans gets along, and while no one will say so outright, the implication is that’s a product of the heavy turnover as well. It was no secret amid the dog days of last season that the likes of Anderson -- a beloved figure among the fan base and some staffers for his gregariousness and deep history with the city that includes personal tragedy and a scary injury -- and Norris Cole had worn out their welcomes in New Orleans.
“The biggest thing for us is we all like each other,” Davis said. “It shows on and off the floor. If somebody sees something, they tell everybody. Or if they don’t like something, they’ll come to me or our point guard and say, ‘Well, I think we should do this.’ Everybody is really mentally locked in about winning. When we have a team like that, it’s easy for us to play with each other.”
While it hasn’t yet shown in live action, Davis and others agree: In this case, new is better.
“Everybody is talking, everybody is playing hard,” Davis said about this year’s team. “Coach hasn’t had to stop practice yet for effort or working hard or playing hard. That was the big issue for us last year. He probably stopped us two minutes and was like, ‘All right, let’s pick it up a little bit.’ And that was it. And that all leads to defense. You’re just playing hard. You’re going to make mistakes. Just by playing hard you’re able to cut down some of those mistakes.”