Pelicans won’t get better unless their defense improves significantly

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Lonzo Ball, Eric Gordon
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

Stan Van Gundy is an honest man.

He hasn’t been reluctant to acknowledge his team’s short-comings during the New Orleans Pelicans’ 11-14 start in his first season with the franchise.

Van Gundy has lamented his team’s recurring defensive issues and at one point even publicly but respectfully challenged his two best players – forwards Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson – to step up their play.

Ingram and especially Williamson have stepped up their play in recent games and were catalysts for a recent four-game winning streak.

But as has been this team’s habit, the season-best winning streak was followed by two poor performances in losses at Chicago on Wednesday and at Dallas on Friday.

“We’ve got to find something and get good at it,” Van Gundy said.

That’s spot on.

They’re not yet good enough at anything.

Issue number one is the defense. Van Gundy emphasized defense in training camp and the Pelicans got off to a pretty good start because of their defense. They won four of their first six games and in three of those wins allowed just 99, 95 and 80 points.

But they have not sustained any defensive success.

In their 11 victories they have allowed an average of 106 points; in their 14 losses they have allowed an average of 125 points. The fewest points they have allowed in a defeat is 111, which they have done four times.

In the Pelicans’ recent four-game winning streak they allowed 101, 113, 109 and 101 points.

Then they left for a four-game trip that continues at Detroit on Sunday and Memphis on Tuesday.

Chicago made a franchise-record 25 3-pointers (in 47 attempts) in a 129-116 victory. Dallas made 25 of 45 in a 143-130 victory.

The 50 3-pointers allowed in consecutive games is the most in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Chicago scored 44 points in the first quarter and 40 points in the third quarter. The Mavericks scored 116 points in the final three quarters.

“It’s frustrating,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not sitting here pointing fingers. A large part of it’s on me. But a large part of it is on (players) too.”

Right again.

The Pelicans’ poor defensive performances have been a team effort from the players and the coaches.

Chicago’s Zach LaVine scored 46 points against the Pelicans, making five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and hitting nine of 14 for the game.

“It was everything,” Van Gundy said of his team’s ability to slow down LaVine. “Game plan could’ve been different. Schemes could’ve been different. We could’ve gotten into him more. Could’ve been harder on the closeouts. There is no one to single out here. I’ll take as big as part of the blame as anyone. Obviously, what we had as a game plan didn’t work.”

After the loss to Dallas, in which Luka Doncic matched LaVine’s 46 points from 48 hours earlier, Pelicans guard Eric Bledsoe, an NBA All-Defense selection each of the last two seasons with Milwaukee, offered some truth of his own.

“I just think we need to compete a little bit harder,” he said.

Van Gundy and Bledsoe have questioned the team’s effort previously.

The coach can push all the buttons he can find, but ultimately effort comes down to the collective pride and professionalism of those that he coaches.

The Pelicans seem to have plenty of pride and professionalism regarding their offense.

Williamson has been outstanding.

He had a career-high 36 points as he made 14 of 15 field-goal attempts in Dallas. In his last 19 games, Williamson has averaged 25.6 points and made 63 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Ingram has done a better job of allowing the game to come to him and has been more consistent of late.

Lonzo Ball’s outside shooting has been dramatically improved, Bledsoe seems more comfortable in his new surroundings,

Willy Hernangomez has been a revelation off the bench, which has been better thanks also to Josh Hart’s steadiness and JJ Redick’s improvement after a poor start. Rookie No. 1 draft choice Kira Lewis Jr. has thrived with expanded minutes and deserves more.

The offense is extremely efficient and has more than enough dependable options to be able to withstand sub-par nights from multiple players and still score at a high rate. The one thing this offense can’t do is score enough points night in and night out to overcome the recurring defensive collapses.

It’s too early to tell whether this team can make the playoffs. It’s too early to tell whether this roster requires significant changes at the trading deadline or during the off-season. It’s too early to determine whether David Griffin’s decision to entrust this supposedly emerging collection of young talent to Van Gundy was wise and unwise.

But this much we can tell after 25 games in a 72-game season: Until the Pelicans start playing significantly better defense on a consistent basis, they will not make the playoffs, the roster will require significant changes and the hiring of Van Gundy will remain dubious.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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