Darren Erman emphasizing defensive drills to Anthony Davis, Pelicans

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

While working for the Boston Celtics from 2007-11, Darren Erman once heard Danny Ainge wonder aloud why one end of the basketball court always takes precedence over the other during the summer months.

“If 50 percent of the game is defense, why doesn’t anyone work on individual defensive drills in workouts?” asked Boston’s president of basketball operations.

Partly with that in mind, Erman began making defense a larger part of his players’ year-round focus, including when he was hired as a Golden State assistant coach. Working closely with Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson – whom Erman calls his “guinea pig” – the coach drew up daily, 45-minute defensive sessions, following Thompson’s rookie year.

“He already could shoot; that wasn’t what he needed to work on,” Erman said of the prolific three-point gunner. “But now he’s one of the best two-way players in the NBA.”

In his first year as the New Orleans Pelicans’ associate head coach under Alvin Gentry, Erman is bringing that same emphasis on stopping opponents. New Orleans is coming off a 45-37 regular season that was capped by its first playoff appearance since 2011, but the Pelicans had to overcome a defense that ranked just 22nd in efficiency (107.3 points allowed per 100 possessions). Despite the presence of the NBA’s premier shot-blocker in Anthony Davis, New Orleans has finished 28th, 27th and 22nd during his three seasons, respectively, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Per Erman’s advice, Davis, along with several other Pelicans players, are spending a chunk of their offseason workouts going through game-like defensive drills. For example, Davis has been working on a range of defensive situations, including reacting to pick-and-rolls, maintaining a proper defensive stance and closing out to live dribbles, which for Davis often means containing smaller, sometimes quicker players on the perimeter.

“Closing out to a live dribble is probably the hardest thing to contain in the NBA, but the more you do it, the better you’re going to be,” Erman explained, before using an analogy from the offensive end. “If you shoot 400 threes a day, you become a better three-point shooter. If you don’t work on close-outs or guarding the ball, you’re not going to be good defensively. So (as a coach) you have to come up with drills that are game-like, that they can use in the summer to make themselves better.”

“I think Coach Erman is one of the best in the league if not the best at defense,” Davis said. “Every day when I’m on the floor I work on 15 or 20 minutes of defense. I’m working on everything and I think it’s going to help us when we have team practices.”

Not long ago, Golden State earned a reputation as one the NBA’s most porous, lax defensive teams, consistently ranking near the bottom of the league in every category, but the Warriors began progressing in 2012-13, rising to 14th in efficiency. Behind the drastically improved Thompson and defensive-minded players such as Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and reserves Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, Golden State was No. 1 in 2014-15 and won the NBA championship. For the Pelicans to move up the ladder next season in the Western Conference – most preseason pundits are picking them seventh – they’ll need to at least become a middle-of-the-pack defensive club. It’s possible that maintaining similar personnel will be beneficial, as New Orleans players continue to become more familiar with each other on the court.

“We have continuity, which will definitely help,” Erman said. “Being on the same page is probably the No. 1 thing defensively. If you eliminate confusion and everyone knows what they’re supposed to do, it’s really simple. If everyone is on the same page, you’ll be a top-14 defensive team at least, and obviously you can get much higher. As a general rule in the NBA, if you overcomplicate things and players are thinking instead of reacting, it’s hard. But if you can keep it simple, you know exactly where you’re going to be every single time. You want to eliminate confusion and them thinking about ‘Should I be here or there?’ Just really try to keep it simple and play to their strengths.”

Some of the Pelicans’ defensive problems have been a result of an inability to keep opposing guards from penetrating. That’s an even bigger concern in the Southwest Division, which features a handful of elite backcourt players, including MVP runner-up James Harden and San Antonio’s longtime guard duo.

“You have to keep guys out of the lane, make (dribblers) see a crowd of defenders and take away driving gaps,” Erman said. “You have Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in San Antonio. Ty Lawson and James Harden are now on the same team in Houston, and they live in the lane. NBA guys are so skilled and so good, if a player has a wing isolation (with space to operate) and has a live dribble for five or six dribbles, it’s hard to stop that. I mean, it’s hard to guard a LeBron James in that situation. It might be impossible.”

Erman’s first of two stints with Boston coincided with the Celtics’ recent glory era, highlighted by a 2008 NBA title and a trip to the 2010 NBA Finals. Those teams were backboned defensively by future Hall of Fame forward Kevin Garnett and watchdog center Kendrick Perkins, who signed with the Pelicans on July 28.

“Comfort level was very important for them,” Erman said of the Garnett-Perkins tandem. “When they played together in Boston, they didn’t need to communicate – they just knew where each other would be. When Perk got traded (to Oklahoma City in 2011), it was different. They knew they had each other’s backs. To play together and have a feel for each other is important.”

As of Sept. 1, New Orleans’ top nine producers in total points from 2014-15 are all under contract for next season, giving it a potential head-start in chemistry. Some gelling appeared to take place during the second half of 2014-15, when the Pelicans were 17-5 while holding opponents under 100 points.

“We have length and size to impact other teams,” Erman said of a roster that includes Davis, two 7-footers in Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik, as well as 6-10 Perkins and Ryan Anderson. “But defensively you have to make the other team uncomfortable. If teams are comfortable passing the ball around and doing whatever they want, they’re going to be better offensively. You have to make them feel you.”

The Pelicans also want to be a more consistent defensive unit, particularly after early-season ups and downs helped lead to losses against several out-of-contention opponents. New Orleans went just 16-14 against the lesser Eastern Conference last season, including one defeat vs. each of the East’s three worst teams (New York, Philadelphia, Orlando). Puzzlingly, the Pelicans were actually better vs. the West, at 29-23. Although shooting accuracy often fluctuates, every-game effort defensively could make New Orleans less vulnerable to those types of performances.

“There are things you can always control,” Erman said of what he emphasizes most to teams. “You can be the hardest-playing team. You can be first on the floor (for loose balls). You can contest shots. If you fly around and do that, you’ll be good defensively. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be good defensively. It’s not some magic formula. Be simple, eliminate confusion and play hard.

“We gave up too many shots at the rim last year, so we have to contain the ball better. Some of that was in pick-and-roll coverage. We have to trust better. The trust will get better with continuity.”