On Monday, a pair of title hopefuls met inside the Bayou’s Smoothie King Center, when the New Orleans Pelicans welcomed the Milwaukee Bucks to town. There are still roughly four months remaining in the regular-season, but this duel quickly cemented itself as one of the most fascinating matchups of the young year. There will be juicier, more in-the-moment entertaining games, yet ones informing playoff perceptions will likely be much harder to unearth.
For the first time since Nov. 25, Zion Williamson failed to score at least 23 points. His Pelicans fell, 128-119, marking their fourth consecutive loss and first one at home since Nov. 10. The Bucks deviated from their scheme of siphoning off the arc and packed the paint against Williamson. They conceded 45 three-point attempts — more than 45 percent of New Orleans’ field goals came from deep, well above Milwaukee’s season-long defensive rate of 34 percent and New Orleans’ season-long offensive rate of 31 percent.
The Bucks were already embracing a new defensive scheme this year that deterred threes and amended it again to account for the opponent. Earlier this season, in a Dec. 2 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, their devotion to not helping off shooters cost them against a poor-shooting, paint-heavy team like Los Angeles. So, Monday, they came ready to remedy that problem.
Repeatedly, it was easy to spot some issues with the Pelicans’ roster construction, at least it pertains to immediate championship contention. Their three foremost wing-sized, point-of-attack defenders — Herbert Jones, Naji Marshall, and Dyson Daniels — are all shaky shooters. Milwaukee exploited that and often stashed Defensive Player of the Year candidates Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo on one of them to act as a roamer who muddied Williamson’s drives or face-ups.
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Offense, really, was not the troublesome side of the ball, though. The Pelicans generated a 113.5 offensive rating (52nd percentile this season, per Cleaning The Glass). The half-court was a bit stickier (94 offensive rating, 43rd percentile), but Brandon Ingram did not suit up. He would provide some stark, necessary diversity alongside Williamson, especially given his penchant for the midrange, a region the Bucks are content to let teams populate — they’re 27th in opposing midrange rate this year. He’s also a tremendous release valve. Sure, hitting 18 of their 45 attempts beyond the arc suggests regression if other teams employ this tactic, but the majority of those looks were wide open and New Orleans made 40 percent of them.
The more pressing matter, at least as I watched this game, was the defense. Milwaukee, with Khris Middleton sidelined, posted a 122.1 offensive rating (78th percentile), including 108.8 in the half-court (83rd percentile). It shot 92 percent (23-for-25) at the rim, 78 percent (32-for-41) on twos, and went to the charity stripe 31 times. New Orleans could hardly slow this group down inside the arc. There’s a glaring lack of size and rim protection in the rotation. While Larry Nance Jr. missed Monday’s game, he is more of a switch big than a looming interior deterrent.
The Pelicans allow the seventh-lowest rate of shots at the rim (31.4 percent), but are dead last in opposing rim field goal percentage at 71.9 percent. Milwaukee, piloted by Antetokounmpo, the league’s premier rim rattler outside of Williamson, are a distinct matchup. Lopez’s presence as a versatile off-ball scorer who doubles as a stout, unflinching defensive anchor furthers that atypical composition. Yet the Bucks are hardly the lone high-level club who employ double-big starting units or apply voluminous pressure at the rim.
The Memphis Grizzlies are first in points in the paint, 10th in rim frequency, and trot out a Jaren Jackson Jr.-Steven Adams frontline. The Denver Nuggets are fifth in rim frequency. The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers sport double-big starting fives. All these teams may not be designed specifically to hamstring New Orleans on both ends like Milwaukee, but the premise of the Bucks not being peerless in broad makeup rings true, although the blend of creation from Antetokounmpo and floor-spacing of a stretch 5 in Lopez is unrivaled by the other four teams.
New Orleans does not have a rim protector. Valanciunas is an impressively versatile scorer and hulking rebounder who can mix between drop and playing at the level to produce tenable ball-screen coverage. He is not, however, a defensive force at the rim. Opponents are shooting 2.3 points better within 6 feet of the hoop when he’s the primary defender, per NBA.com.
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The team’s glut of point-of-attack stoppers and penchant for takeaways (ninth in turnover rate) coalesce for rim prevention. The problem is that doesn’t always work. Milwaukee turned it over 17 times on Monday, yet was systematic and dominant on the other trips to counter those gaffes.
Throughout much of the game, it felt as though the Bucks’ offensive potency and defensive savvy forced the Pelicans to make substantial concessions in their lineups. Either that fifth dude was a defensive-minded wing aimed to slow Milwaukee’s attack or a floor-spacer to open up Williamson’s endeavors. Concessions occur with any rotational option, but the degree to which those concessions reshaped the process on either end is concerning for New Orleans.
As the trade deadline inches closer, two archetypes emerge as most beneficial to the Pelicans’ chances of solidifying themselves as a championship contender: a wing shooter and backline 4. Stocked with a trove of future draft picks and various young players, avenues to improvement are attainable. The trade market, of course, has to comply, and it’s impossible to predict if that will happen.
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Most of their effective, high-volume outside shooting/spacing stems from small-ish guards (CJ McCollum, Devonte’ Graham, Jose Alvarado). Trey Murphy III is the lone frontcourt player shooting at least league average from deep with a three-point rate above .400. Daniels (41.7 percent, .391) is close, but the rookie doesn’t really garner respect as a marksman right now. Adding one more forward (or even a bigger guard) with plus shooting credentials could elevate the offense to a level that trumps any defensive plights. Maybe Ingram (37.8 percent from three as a Pelican), who hasn’t played since Nov. 25 with a toe injury, is that dude and a notable move is unnecessary.
Names like Doug McDermott, Buddy Hield, Josh Richardson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Gary Harris, and Kyle Kuzma all intrigue me to one extent or another, although the finances are hazy with some of them. As for the sweeping, backline 4 for defensive purposes, Jarred Vanderbilt and Kenyon Martin Jr. are plausible and on movable contracts. Vanderbilt is owed $9 million over two seasons and Martin is owed $3.7 million the next two years. Martin also requested a trade this summer.
Neither alleviates the defense-spacing tradeoff enforced by Jones, Marshall, or Daniels, but they’re both bigger with more helpside rim protection chops. Martin’s a perceptive cutter and sprightly finisher (74 percent at the rim this year, 83rd percentile among forwards). Vanderbilt provides more on-ball aptitude defensively and is a nifty connective passer who’s elevated his three-point volume. At the very least, New Orleans would be prudent to broach their availability with each front office.
The Pelicans are excellent. They’re one of three teams among the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating. Only the Boston Celtics join them among the top seven in both categories. They are, nonetheless, a team with apparent flaws. But those can be temporary, if they so choose. This club has the flexibility to its shortcomings. The Bucks highlighted many of them Monday. As both teams progress and eye prosperous playoff ventures, that game should be earmarked and remembered.