NEW ORLEANS — If anything, excitement can be expected at Hornets games this season. The question is, how much of it will be the Hornets’ and how much of that will be its opponents’?
In previewing New Orleans’ upcoming NBA season, a roster of eight new, mostly young, inexperienced players can expect a difficult campaign in the Southwest Division, in which three of the five teams have proven veteran players and have experienced postseason success. It likely will be even more difficult in the strong Western Conference, where a team’s playoff seed can go from fourth to seventh in one late-season night.
That is certainly true if shooting guard Eric Gordon again is hampered by injury and the team continues to be disjointed offensively, as it was in preseason games without him.
Coach Monty Williams won’t even talk in terms of his team’s chances of landing a playoff berth, what with its struggles just learning the system and mastering his style of play.
“To put that kind of pressure on this young team, I just don’t think that’s right,” he said. “We’ve got to play out this process out, and we’ll know come Christmas time. You’ll have 20-plus games under your belt, gone through about half the league, and you can make some assessments about how you’re playing.”
However, he said he sees a lot of things the Hornets can be excited about going forward.
First, of course, is power forward Anthony Davis, who has made a number of “wow” plays this preseason to whet the appetite of Hornets officials, fans, Williams and teammates and provide a promise of much more to come.
Williams prefers an intense style of play based in defense and a fast-breaking, uptempo attack. Last season, the Hornets finished last in the league in fastbreak points per game and also last in the difference in fastbreak points scored compared with opponents.
Davis’ shot-blocking and rebounding alone is expected to rectify that by giving New Orleans more opportunities to run, and with Davis also getting in the fast-break mix, more chances to be successful at it.
And, of late, two acquisitions have shown they may be ready to contribute the way Williams hoped.
Center Robin Lopez has shown a willingness to be physical under the basket, which will be a much-needed element, particularly given Davis’ slight build. And Lopez’s rebounding also will help fuel the break and lower foes’ field-goal percentage.
The question is, will he avoid fouls enough to give the Hornets the production they need at the position, if only defending and rebounding? Lopez, who is in his fifth season, had a history of foul problems with the Phoenix Suns, which frustrated team officials, because it limited his effectiveness.
However, Williams said he likes what he’s seen in Lopez, and a bright spot for the Hornets in preseason were defense and that they outrebounded their opponents.
“I don’t want him thinking about fouls,” Williams said. “In the NBA, you get six fouls. I want him to play hard; the rest is on me.”
Forward Ryan Anderson, who led the league in 3-pointers made in being selected the NBA’s most improved player last season, seems to have found his stroke. That opens the court and can be expected to help the Hornets’ struggling offense. He will be a big part of an improvement for a team that last season shot just 33.3 percent on 3-point attempts.
However, Anderson’s outside shooting will not bolster the Hornets the way the return of Gordon, healthy, will. Gordon, for whom the team matched a four-year, $58 million offer sheet from the Phoenix Suns to retain, has missed the entire preseason with a sore right knee. It’s the same one on which he had arthroscopic surgery in February after playing just nine games last season.
However, in those nine games, Gordon averaged 20.6 points. His outside shooting, which has been consistent, can enable Davis to operate more freely in the low post. Gordon’s ability to drive to the basket can boost Davis’ scoring and make Lopez a scoring threat. Gordon’s ball-handling is expected to have a settling effect on the team and make rookie guard Austin Rivers more of a contributor.
Greivis Vasquez is the starting point guard for now but does not appear to be able to run the team without turning the ball over and is not a good shooter. Rivers is the point guard of the future but lacks the instincts to have the reins given to him just yet. In the preseason, with Gordon out, Rivers, a skilled ball-handler, played shooting guard, his more natural position because of his scoring mentality.
However, just as Gordon did while with the Los Angeles Clippers before coming to the Hornets in the Chris Paul trade, Gordon sometimes slides over to point guard. With New Orleans, he likely will do that sometimes, but especially at crunch time. In that way, the team will have the ball in the hands of its most experienced scorer and ball-handler with the game on the line, and allow Rivers to play off him.
However, Gordon, who has played four years in the NBA, has missed 103 games the past three seasons and has never played all 82 games in a season. Will he remain healthy this season? Will he be ready for start of the season?
“(Having Gordon) would be a very good opening-day present,” Williams said. “He’s a great scorer, and he’s also our best passer, and his presence his been tremendously missed.”
Williams also stated the obvious, that Gordon’s absence has affected the “chemistry and unity” of a team. Hornets players have been trying to build it since summer workouts, and it remains to be seen how long it will take for them to get on the same page when Gordon returns.
The Hornets’ Achilles’ heel, aside from turnovers, is at small forward, although two players are pushing to show they can change that.
Williams has not written off Al-Farouq Aminu, although the coach repeatedly has said his play has been lacking. Aminu, being converted from power forward, does not seem to have the instincts to play the spot. However, coaches like his athleticism, which they see as beneficial in a fastbreak style of play.
Darius Miller, a rookie from Kentucky has impressed Williams with his shooting and savvy and may end up the starter. That move, however, may weaken the bench.
Lance Thomas, who has made the leap from power forward, brings the intensity and competitiveness that is a must for Williams’ teams. However, Thomas is prone to turnovers, a problem the Hornets have to cut down if they are to sustain success this season.
“Sometimes, he tries to make things happen where I really want him to just allow, offensively, to happen for him,” Williams said. “But he has always been a solid contributor.”
Backup center also could be a concern, but Williams apparently doesn’t think so. Power forwad Jason Smith manned the position admirably last season, and his slender build belies his toughness, Williams has said, although exposing him to bigger, stronger centers for long periods would not be advisable, he said.
After briefly having a sore back, Smith has been nursing a shoulder injury of late but is expected back for the season opener against the Spurs.
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