Hornets don’t quit, through ups and downs

Associated Press photo -- Hugo, the New Orleans Hornets mascot, thanks fans after the team's home finale last Sunday. The franchise officially became the Pelicans on Thursday, the day after the regular season ended.
Associated Press photo -- Hugo, the New Orleans Hornets mascot, thanks fans after the team's home finale last Sunday. The franchise officially became the Pelicans on Thursday, the day after the regular season ended.

Davis learns, Vasquez improves and team finds new identity

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans’ NBA team will enter next season as the Pelicans. After this season, that could be a welcomed change.

“I think it will be exciting,” said coach Monty Williams. “I get what (owner Tom) Benson is doing with that and what it means to this region.”

Said power forward Ryan Anderson: “I love the logo, and it will be good to have a fresh start.”

Williams knew this season would be one of growing pains for the Hornets.

General manager Dell Demps could have had roster of veterans that could compete from game to game but ultimately would have made the Hornets a middle-of-the road team for the foreseeable future. So Demps and Williams decided to assemble young, inexpensive talent — pieces for the future — develop and take their lumps.

And, it was a team with rookies Anthony Davis, the overall No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft and who started the season at age 19, and Austin Rivers, the 10th overall pick and who began the season at age 20, playing prominent roles.

However, take their lumps they did, as the Hornets finished 27-55, the league’s fifth-worst record. Certainly, it was a season of inconsistency, although it brought some hope for next season.

“We had a lot to learn from the beginning, and that was tough,” said power Anderson, one of the Hornets’ bright spots with his scoring (16.2 ppg), 3-point shooting (213 made), rebounding (6.4), experience and toughness. “There were a lot of new guys, and we were introduced to a totally new system. We had to learn that, and we had to learn each other.”

To Williams, the most disappointing aspect seemed to be repeated mistakes.

“If I would change anything, it would go back and start from scratch with our veteran players,” he said.

“I assumed that as veterans, there were certain things they knew, and that wasn’t the case.”

The Hornets got off to an encouraging start, going 3-2. However, they lost their next seven and nine of 10. Then followed an 11-game losing skid, giving them a 5-22 record.

For the most part, that’s how the season went, even when guard Eric Gordon returned from missing the first 29 games with a right patella disorder and bone bruise. The Hornets would go 6-1, only to follow with a 2-7 stretch. They went 4-1, followed by 3-12. Then, it was 3-0, after which they went 2-9 to finish the season.

“It was very frustrating,” said veteran guard Roger Mason Jr. “We’d have these swings, and there often didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. I’d played on teams that went to the playoffs before, so it was tough.”

Injuries played a part from the start, but certainly in the second half of the season when the team appeared to gain some consistency. The Hornets were 6-23 when Gordon returned from injury. They went 21-32 after he returned, despite injuries to others.

Yet his return also brought inconsistency. He did not play in the second of back-to-back games. His lack of playing time showed in his conditioning, and he often struggled in the second half of games. Also, he sometimes did not play well from game to game.

Those factors seemed to have the Hornets playing two different ways at times, which Gordon noted.

“In the games I played, I drove to the basket a lot, putting pressure on the defense,” he said. “We didn’t have that as much when I sat out.”

Defenses took note and focused on point guard Greivis Vasquez.

“When Eric doesn’t play,” Williams said, “we lose a ball-handler, and teams trap Greivis to get the ball out of his hands.”

That often disrupted the offense.

Another point of frustration for Williams was a tendency for his team to have a low-scoring quarter — fewer than 20 points — that circumvented the hard work it usually did in three other quarters.

“Sometimes, it took the guys time to adjust (to an opponent’s change in strategy), more than it would a veteran team,” Mason said.

The injury to Gordon wasn’t the only significant one. Davis missed 13 games early on — 18 total — that seemed to stunt his early development, judging by how he continued to come on as the season progressed. And he missed the last seven of the season, taking what was left out of the team’s sails.

The injury that took the biggest toll, though, was that of Jason Smith’s torn labrum. He missed seven games with what the team called a sprained shoulder from Dec. 14 to Dec. 26, and the Hornets went 1-6. Then on Feb. 27, with Smith grimacing in pain before a game at Oklahoma City, Williams shut him down for the season. The rest of the way, the Hornets went 6-16.

Smith brought a pick-and-pop game off the bench that provided an option to starting center Robin Lopez. As the longest-tenured veteran in Williams’ system, Smith enabled Lopez to gain rest on the bench during games.

However, what Smith brought most was grit, and the team fed off it. Plus, he made for a good body guard for Davis.

And Rivers’ hand was broken, ending his season with 20 games to play. Struggling badly most of the season, he was beaten up in the national press, and the local press questioned why he came out for the draft after his freshman season at Duke. But he began playing with more confidence, poise and effectiveness after a Jan. 16 game at Boston, coached by his father, Doc Rivers. He’d begun bringing some of the grit and fearlessness that was missing after Smith was lost for the rest of the season.

And part of the Hornets’ growing pain was finding its identity. Built on the principles of defense, the team at times appeared frustrated with that concept. With few veterans or long, athletic players, defending against more athletic teams adept at scoring sometimes proved futile.

So the Hornets reverted to what came natural: scoring. In late January/early February, an identity crisis developed as the team tried to continue what Williams wanted while also forging its own style. The NBA made them pay a price for the disconnect.

The Hornets went through a tough 3-8 stretch before buying into the coach’s way, and went 4-1 heading into the All-Star break. Inexplicably, they came out of it reverting to bad habits. And worn down physically by the depleted lineup and mentally by the losses, the Hornets stumbled home losing nine of their last 11 games.

There were positive aspects of the season, however.

“I like that we didn’t quit, and some of our players really got better,” Williams said. “Robin had some games where he scored in the low post and gave us effective rebounding. (Backup point guard) Brian (Roberts) really came on. Greivis had a good season, and Anthony and Austin improved a lot before they were injured.

“Ryan showed me he was more than I thought before we signed him (four years, $32 million) in the offseason. I’d seen he was a good rebounder, but I didn’t know he could put the ball on the floor the way he can and drive to the basket.

“We’re going to work with him this summer so he can be more of a complete player and not a 3-point shooter.”

The other positive is, the Pelicans, as they are now known, head into the offseason nearly $30 million under the cap with the expiring contracts of Mason, swing man Xavier Henry and starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, along with late additions Terrel Harris and Lou Amundson, although one or more may be brought back.

The Pelicans are in good shape to find players to offset that which bedeviled them. They struggled against opposing guards’ penetration and at times teams’ pick- and-rolls. And better play at small forward and shooting guard, historically two positions with marquee players, would help.

It remains to be seen what will be done with Gordon, although his $14 million salary and history of injuries may prove to be an impediment to making a deal.

Williams said he just wants a deeper, more talented team that could thrive in his system. That’s why this summer’s workouts, in which players from around the league are invited, could be an important occurrence.