NEW ORLEANS -- WITH the trio of Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans were thought to have one of the best offenses in the league entering 2022-23.
Ingram averaged nearly 24 points per game during his first two seasons in New Orleans and was at 22.7 points per game last season. McCollum has averaged at least 20 points per game in seven consecutive seasons and averaged 24.3 points in 26 games with the Pelicans after being acquired before the trade deadline. And Williamson, when healthy, has been one of the league's best offensive players.
But for New Orleans to make the leap from play-in tournament team to one of the league's elite, there had to be improvement on the defensive end.
The Pelicans were 18th in the league last year in defensive rating, allowing 112.0 points per 100 possessions -- but that was without Williamson, who missed all of the 2021-22 season because of a broken bone in his right foot.
For all his dominance on offense, Williamson had been seen as a liability at the other end during his career. In 2020-21, the Pelicans were 23rd in defensive rating (113.3) and had a 111.7 defensive rating when Williamson was on the court.
But coming into this season, there was a different vibe around Williamson and his defense, and a hope that the Pelicans could be legitimately good at that end.
"You know what I've seen differently, especially on ball, is his defensive awareness," Ingram told ESPN prior to a preseason game against the Miami Heat. "It looks like he has it in the back of his mind to have the effort on that end. That's going to be something big for our team.
"We know we can score the basketball. But if everybody is defending and setting examples for everybody to go out there and defend, then that's going to be much more difficult to beat us."
Ingram's words have proven prophetic. The Pelicans have the third-best defensive rating in the league, helping them rise to first place in the Western Conference. And Williamson has been a big reason for the improvement.
ASK PELICANS COACH Willie Green about Williamson's defense, and he chooses to talk about the team's defensive schemes instead of individuals. When Williamson is asked directly about his defense, he chooses to turn the question back on the reporter.
When Williamson came up with multiple big defensive plays against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 30, both continued their deflections.
Williamson, who tied a career high with six "stocks" (four steals, two blocks), said he was in position at times only because of his teammates. Green said Williamson is a big part of the defense but that it was still all about the team.
Zion Williamson towers over Patrick Williams for the big block.
But at least one Pelican was willing to give Williamson the credit he'd earned.
"Obviously I haven't seen every game he's played as a pro, but since I've gotten here, that was the best I've seen of him," Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. told ESPN a day after the win against the Raptors. "Offensively speaks for itself, but to me defensively, four steals, two blocks, just timely, timely plays from a player that we needed it from."
Nance was acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers in the trade that brought McCollum to New Orleans in February. He played just nine regular-season games last season after knee surgery but has been a big part of the Pelicans' defense this season.
Nance has played 91% of his minutes at center in 2022-23, according to Cleaning the Glass, including 234 minutes next to Williamson in a switching scheme where the former No. 1 overall pick has thrived.
Williamson has allowed 0.85 points per direct pick this season when he has been the screener defender, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That ranks sixth among 68 players to defend 200 or more picks as the screener defender this season.
In 2020-21, Williamson allowed 0.96 points per direct pick as the screener defender, which was closer to the league average of 0.99.
Williamson has also held opponents to 37.4% shooting as the contesting defender, a mark that ranks fifth among players contesting 10 shots per game this season.
"More times than not, he's going to be the guy that they bring up and try to pick on because they want to tire him out so he can't do what he can do on the offensive end," Nance said. "So if we can get him to get some film out there that says like, 'Hey, look, I'm not the one. Try anybody else but me. I'm not the one.' That's just going to free him up to do more on offense down the road."
Nance has provided the Pelicans with a switchable center option, and they've taken advantage of that. Overall, the Pelicans switch on 29.6% of on-ball screens (10th in the league) compared to just 19.5% last season (22nd in the league).
When starting center Jonas Valanciunas is on the court, the Pelicans are switching 18.4% of the time. When Nance is on the floor, that number jumps to 39.5%.
"[Switching] provides a whole new layer of the game that their coaching staff and their players have to consider," Nance said. "Some of the best switching defenses have been some of the top overall defenses in the past few years -- Boston, Golden State.
"They've all really got players that can guard 1 through 5. And so we've got our lineup out there of me, Z and any number of the guards that are in, cause that's who we'll switch with."
THROUGH THE QUARTER mark of the season, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers have a better defensive rating than New Orleans (107.6 points per 100 possessions).
The West-leading Pelicans and their defense will be tested this weekend when the Phoenix Suns visit for a pair of games. Phoenix had the league's second-best offensive rating and had scored at least 120 points four times in five games prior to Wednesday's blowout loss to the Celtics.
The Suns also ended the Pelicans' fun-filled playoff run a season ago. New Orleans snuck into the play-in tournament after finishing ninth in the West, then defeated the San Antonio Spurs and LA Clippers to gain the 8-seed. They took the Suns to six games in the first round before bowing out.
Now, as the Pelicans are ascending, the games against Phoenix will be a great measuring stick of the progress they've made, particularly on defense.
Second-year forward Herbert Jones picks up the opposing team's best perimeter player night in and night out. Jones, who narrowly missed out on being named to the NBA's All-Defensive team last season as a rookie, leads the team in deflections per game, charges drawn and contested shots per game.
Nance and Jose Alvarado have led the charge for the Pelicans' bench units. Both players feature in the Pelicans' top two five-man lineups this season in net rating (min. 20 minutes played). Either one or the other is part of the Pelicans' top eight two-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together including the pairing of themselves at No. 3 on that list (21.1 net rating).
The versatility of lineups -- being able to finish small or big, switch or not -- has been a key element of what the Pelicans have wanted to do this year.
"I think it's a credit to our coaching staff for development, understanding our principles and really focusing on the small things," McCollum said. "And then us just going out there and applying what we've learned to the game, putting in the effort, helping each other out, communicating it effectively."
But there has also been some luck involved. The Pelicans are allowing the sixth-most 3-point attempts in the league, but teams are shooting a league-worst 32.7%.
According to Second Spectrum's shot probability metric (gSP), the Pelicans' expected 3-point field goal percentage allowed is 35.5%, nearly three percentage points higher than their actual allowed percentage. That's the second-largest difference for any team this season.
Still, the Pelicans remain optimistic that their gains on the defensive end aren't a mirage.
"I think we all are excited about where the team is right now," Green said. "We're doing a lot of things good on the defensive end. There's a few areas that we can continue to improve on, but for the most part, I think we're doing a solid job."
It will continue to be a team effort. Offensively, the Pelicans have used a balanced approach. They have six players averaging double figures and two more -- Alvarado (9.6) and Nance (8.9) -- who are close.
But the big three of Williamson, Ingram and McCollum are all scoring below their career averages, and Nance said it's because of what's happening on the other end of the floor.
"Sacrifice comes in a lot of forms," he said. "There are guys that aren't playing. There are guys that are playing different roles. The way it looks right now for CJ and B and even Z, the sacrifice is taking maybe half a step back offensively and increasing your focus defensively. And they've done an awesome job of that.
"But the more we get to put it together and see it as a whole, I think it's going to be really scary down the road."
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story.