Lonzo Ball blocks a shot by Kemba Walker

Did You Know That… New Orleans was the NBA’s second-most improved defensive team after Christmas?

by Jim Eichenhofer

Fourth-year pro Brandon Ingram played like an All-Star from the start, scoring 20-plus points 43 times, while veteran guard Jrue Holiday accomplished the same feat in 27 games. Point guard Lonzo Ball kicked into gear in late December, handing out assists and dropping in threes. Rookie phenom Zion Williamson joined the party Jan. 22, providing another potent weapon above the rim and in the paint. Amid all of the offensive fireworks generated by New Orleans in 2019-20, however, it’s easy to forget that the other end of the floor was actually just as vital in the Pelicans turning around their season. Starting with what proved to be a pivotal road victory at Denver on Christmas, New Orleans transformed into a top-10 defensive squad, after the Pelicans had been one of the five worst clubs at that end of the floor through Dec. 24.

As eighth-place Memphis (32-33) and New Orleans (28-36) geared up for a potential fight to the finish of the regular season, most of the national conversation revolved around the star power of top draftees Ja Morant and Williamson. Much less discussed was the fact that neither the Grizzlies nor the Pelicans would’ve been in position to get their prized rookies to the postseason had it not been for dramatic leaps on defense, the grittier, more thankless end of the hardwood.

Memphis went from No. 24 in defensive rating prior to Christmas all the way up to fourth after that date, the NBA’s biggest jump in the category. The Grizzlies used that major upgrade in stinginess to go 21-13, after they were just 11-20 prior to that. New Orleans (20-13 after 8-23) zoomed from No. 26 in defense (112.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, via NBA.com) before Christmas, to 10th (110.4). After upsetting Denver on national TV, the Pelicans ranked fifth in the league in blocks per game (5.3), 12th in steals (7.8) and fifth in defensive rebounds (36.8).

A range of factors contributed to the Pelicans’ improvement, including defense-focused assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik making adjustments to simplify the plan of attack. Personnel-wise, after playing in just nine of the team’s first 25 games, defensive anchor and starting center Derrick Favors appeared in 36 of the next 39. As always, Holiday provided All-NBA-caliber defense against opposing guards and wings. New Orleans continued to make incremental progress every step of the way – although Williamson fills highlight shows with soaring slams, the Pelicans were also the eighth-best defensive team in the NBA following his Jan. 22 debut. Over the nine games New Orleans played after the All-Star break, it ranked seventh in defensive efficiency (108.0).

Here are the NBA’s most improved in-season defensive teams (as measured by rank in efficiency), using Dec. 25 as the cut-off date, which is roughly halfway through the 60-plus games each team has played:

Memphis No. 24 pre-Christmas, No. 4 post-Christmas, +20

It’s very rare to see the NBA’s youngest team excel defensively, but after Christmas, the only defenses better than the Grizzlies (average age: 24) were league-best Milwaukee, defending NBA champion Toronto and the Lakers.

New Orleans No. 26 pre-Christmas, No. 10 post-Christmas, +16

The Pelicans were particularly locked in on the road, ranking fifth in the league in away-game defensive efficiency after Dec. 25, a big factor behind their 11-5 record in those contests (4-12 on road before then).

New York No. 27 pre-Christmas, No. 14 post-Christmas, +13

The Knicks’ notable improvement on defense coincided somewhat with a change at head coach – Mike Miller took over in early December after 22 games.

Brooklyn No. 14 pre-Christmas, No. 6 post-Christmas, +8

Hard hit by injuries, the Nets’ progress on defense was negated by a simultaneous drop-off on offense. Brooklyn went 16-13 overall before Christmas, but 14-21 after the holiday.

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