Injuries, specifically to shooting guard Eric Gordon, hampered the Hornets last season. Gordon played in just 40 of the team’s 82 games last season after having arthroscopic knee surgery the previous season and having problems with it just before last season’s training camp began. He did not play in back-to-back games last season, which affected the team’s chemistry. The possible trade of Gordon this season also bears watching, although it seems unlikely it will happen until potential suitors see he is healthy. Also, backup power forward/center Jason Smith missed the last 23 games of last season after tearing his right labrum, and Anthony Davis, the top pick in the 2012 draft, also missed about a quarter of the season because of various injuries. Plus, guard Austin Rivers was shut down in March after breaking his hand, hampering his development.
Center of attention
Greg Stiemsma, who is entering his third NBA season, and Jeff Withey, a rookie from Kansas, will square off to see who will be the main man in the middle. The competition will determine if one gets much more playing time than the other or if they will share the position equally, and perhaps how much of a role Smith, the Pelicans’ longest-tenured player, will play there. In the Southwest Division, which includes Houston’s Dwight Howard, Memphis Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and San Antonio post player Tim Duncan, as well as athletic Western Conference front lines with the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, solid play there is a must.
Make a good point
The play of point guard Jrue Holiday. Holiday, an All-Star last season, has shown to be a difference-maker offensively (17.7 points per game, 8.0 assists), but he also is more of a shooting guard than a pure point who creates for others and orchestrates an offense. And, his outside shooting reportedly tailed off as the season wore on. How effective he is as a point guard/orchestrator and the leader of a team whose average age is just 24.7 years old certainly will be one of the keys to the season. Teammates, however, appear stoked at the chance to play with him.
The continued development of 2012 first-round draft picks Davis and Rivers will play a factor in just how far the Pelicans can themselves develop. Davis made big strides in his first season, showing an ability to effectively adjust to the competition he faced in each game. It appeared he only needs to get stronger, understandable for a slender 6-foot-11 power forward who turned 20 at the end of last season. He worked this summer in the weight room. Now his challenge is to develop offensively on his way to perhaps becoming the team’s No. 1 option. A big step would be to develop a go-to move that forces teams to account for and adjust to him more. What’s encouraging is that Davis was outstanding in the summer working with Team USA, particularly his shooting. This could be a season in which he breaks loose. Rivers struggled through most of his rookie season, raising questions as to whether coming out of Duke after his freshman season was a good decision and whether it was wise for New Orleans to draft him 10th overall. He didn’t seem comfortable at either guard spot. However, he played better in the second part of the season, after he appeared to adjust to the speed of the game. Although a high pick, this is the last season on his contract, so he has to show much more improvement.
Do the Pelicans have the look of a playoff team as they go through training camp and the preseason? It’s real early to make any definitive statement. Plus, teams usually play veterans sparingly in preseason, so just where the Pelicans are before the season starts may be hard to gauge. However, it will be fun to watch and speculate. Coach Monty Williams knows there are a lot of expectations for this season. “That’s what you want,” he said. “We’ve got to manage that, but we feel this group is ready for that.” Last season’s Hornets won 27 games — 18 behind the two teams who grabbed the final playoff spots, the Lakers and the Rockets. A leap into 45-win territory will be a hefty one.