Healthier Pelicans show signs of life, reasons for hope

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The New Orleans Pelicans won a third consecutive game after beating the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers 140-124 at the Smoothie King Center.

Anthony Davis played another phenomenal game, leading the way with game highs in points (38), rebounds (13), and blocks (4), while making 15-of-16 at the free throw line and handing out seven assists. He became just the eighth player (and third youngest) in NBA history to post that stat line.

On a tear as of late, Davis is averaging 31.3 points, 15.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.4 blocks, and 1.9 steals over a 10-game span, shooting 54.4 percent.

Often a point of great debate, Davis’ teammates have given him plenty of help as well. The Pelicans scored 115 points in the final three quarters against the Cavs after digging themselves an early 16-point hole.

New Orleans shot nearly 55 percent from the floor and made more than 40 percent of their three point attempts.

In total, the Pels had five players reach double figures in scoring. Frank Jackson set a new career-high with 19 points and Niko Mirotic returned from injury to add 17 (4-7 on threes).

Of course, offense has never been a problem for the Pelicans. They score plenty. Their problems have come on the defensive end.

After the victory over Cleveland, New Orleans still ranked 25th in the NBA defensively, even after opening 2019 with its best play of the season on that side of the court.

Month DRTG ORTG Record Win %
October 24th 4th 4-3 57.1
November 20th 6th 7-9 43.8
December 24th 4th 6-9 40.0
January 18th 1st 3-1 .750

 
Last season, the key to the Pelicans’ second half surge was the team’s dramatic improvement at stopping its opponents.

Over the first three months of the 2017-18 campaign, New Orleans was 18-18. With DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and E’Twaun Moore all at relatively full strength, the Pelicans’ offense ranked 8th in the NBA at that point.

Defensively, they were 22nd.

But from January on they didn’t finish a month ranked lower than 10th in defensive rating. During their closing kick to secure a playoff berth, The Pelicans were top five in both offense and defense.

Month DRTG ORTG Record Win %
January 10 15 9-5 64.2
February 9 16 8-3 72.2
March 10 22 8-7 53.3
April 3 5 5-1 83.3

 
The Pelicans’ 30-16 run to the playoffs simply doesn’t happen without them becoming a lock down defensive team, and a similar run cannot happen without lightning striking for a second time

Some things become cliches because they’re true. So it is with the saying “defense wins championships.”

Since Anthony Davis became a Pelican in 2012, only one Western Conference Champion has finished the regular season ranked lower than sixth in DRTG (Golden State ranked 11th last season).

Average Defensive Rankings of Western Conference Playoff Teams (2013-2018)

Year Qualifier 2nd Round Conf. Finalists Champion
2018 9.6 8.3 9.0 11
2017 9.4 6.0 1.5 2
2016 12.4 9.3 8.5 6
2015 9.8 6.5 4.0 1
2014 9.9 8.5 4.5 4
2013 10 5.5 2.5 3
Average 10.2 7.4 5.0 4.5

 
The Pelicans’ three-game winning streak came at the expense of the Cavs twice and the Memphis Grizzlies, two teams that had combined to lose 17 of their last 20 games. Nonetheless, the Pelicans have held up their end by posting a net rating of 24.3 in those games, with the defense checking in with a rating of 103.6; a nearly eight point improvement over their season average of 111.5.

In the postseason, the better defensive team has won 33 of 42 playoff series (78.5%).

Beating up on bottom feeders is one thing, but we still don’t know if this effort can or will last.

This upcoming five game road swing should provide a clearer picture as to whether or not the Pelicans are finally beginning to fly in formation.

New Orleans will face Minnesota, the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, Portland, and Memphis. All but the Grizzlies (26) rank 13th or better offensively.

Most observers and fans pointed to the losses of Niko Mirotic and Elfrid Payton as being problematic for the Pelicans offense. In reality, their loss had a much more impact on the defense.

The fact is, the mere presence of Mirotic and Payton means that lesser defenders play fewer minutes in bad combinations for New Orleans.

The Pelicans have 39 games left in the season (and 28 days to the trade deadline) to prove whether they are enough or have enough to return to the postseason.

That’s a lot to prove and not a lot of time. No one or no thing will have a bigger say than the the Pelicans defense.

It’s that simple.

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David Grubb

David Grubb

Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter

David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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