For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the starting-over New Orleans Hornets.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
It's typically common practice for NBA teams to attempt to stack the deck once they've selected a stud with the first overall pick. Though the stud is usually added to a terrible team in the throes of a rebuild, giddiness takes over and the rebuilding team will often go out and grab a few veterans and depth-creating moves that wouldn't be strange coming from a 50-win club. The high-priced vets could use the "veteran influence" tag when things don't go well, but that's not really why teams treat these offseasons as all-in-one rebuilds; they really think they're that good.
The problem is that these first overall picks are usually 19, and no matter how good they are a series of older helpers just ain't helping. Really, it's just an excuse for an NBA GM to take advantage of the goodwill created from the top overall selection and squeeze some cash out of his owner. Forgetting, usually, that it was that same GM that put the team in a position to grab the first overall pick.
Hornets GM Dell Demps, technically, put his team in the position to grab Anthony Davis last June; but it was Chris Paul that was the real driving force behind the unwanted rebuild. Instead of hoping to make a massive jump behind the play of the all-world rookie big man, Demps dealt the sort of players that giddy lottery winners usually attempt to acquire — Paul's mates Emeka Okafor, and Trevor Ariza. The payoff was nothing but salary cap and payroll relief. Veteran Robin Lopez was acquired, but mainly because rookie big men usually have five fouls before halftime and the Hornets had to have someone to take over the rest of the way.
As a result, there's a good chance the Hornets could actually win fewer than the 26 games their 2011-12 season's winning percentage pro-rated to. Jarrett Jack is no game-changer as a point man, but he is off to Golden State, while Okafor and Ariza's ability to hound and protect led to a mediocre defense atypical of (again, pro-rated) 56-game losers.
Then again, there's the sound chance that Anthony Davis — 19-years old, no offense, super-skinny, unloved by referees Anthony Davis — could total 2400 minutes of court action this year. This will, in turn, change things. This isn't Tim Duncan, coming into the NBA with the legal ability to buy a round of brewskis for the boys (Jaren Jackson really did call them "brewskis," it was embarrassing) and stay on the court for veteran-level minutes. Davis is good, though. Game-swinging, good; and he'll certainly have his chances.
Because Ryan Anderson is the anti-Trevor Ariza. Nails his three-pointers at an almost ridiculous rate, cannot defend a lick (and, erm, plays a different position; but work with us here), and players are going to get by him. Opposing point guards are going to get past Greivis Vazquez — a fine player to be sure, but one that has issues keeping up at times. Players are, I believe, already at the front of the rim as Hakim Warrick looks away — and I'm aware you're reading this mid-afternoon.
This will, as cheeked-toward before, put Davis in danger of piling up the fouls. He'll also be asked to anchor the frontcourt for an NBA team for 82 games between October and April after playing all the way until April with Kentucky and hitting practice after practice with Team USA. As rookie seasons go, this will be as rough as they come.
The Hornets are pulling out of the post-Paul years slowly (unlike the Beatles, who just rushed right ahead with a replacement) and smartly, understanding that Davis' best years are nearly a decade away, and that there's no point in cashing in too severely for helpers to surround him with.
Save for Eric Gordon. That's a complaint for another day, though.
Projected record: 30-52
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: One of the league's best young coaches having weapons to deploy. Heading into what promised to be a dire 2011-12 season, the best reason for excitement I could offer New Orleans fans was the likelihood that the Hornets would be a "determined, competitive squad that will endear itself to the Louisiana faithful," due largely to coach Monty Williams' gift for grinding. And while it was a dire season that saw New Orleans finish dead last in the Western Conference, there remained reason for optimism -- not unlike Lawrence Frank's Detroit Pistons, Williams' Hornets improved over the course of the year, giving fans something to look forward to in the season ahead.
The Hornets had a disastrous start to the season following the gut-punch of losing shooting guard Eric Gordon to a right knee injury, staggering to a 4-23 record and averaging just 96.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool. But as injuries sidelined Gordon, center Emeka Okafor and forward Carl Landry, New Orleans continued to fight, scrapping their way to a 17-22 record over the final 39 games. They still struggled to score, but improved their offensive efficiency (99.8-per-100) while further tightening their already sound defense. It was rarely pretty, but they never stopped working, even in the second half of a dead-end season, thanks in large part to Williams.
Now, thanks to some ping-pong ball luck and a shrewd sign-and-trade, Monty has some pieces. The revival begins with No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, one of the best defensive prospects to enter the league in a decade.
Without him (and, frankly, without much of anybody), Williams had the Hornets working as a roughly middle-of-the-pack defense, finishing 16th in points allowed per 100 possessions and holding opponents to 44.4 percent shooting from the field (tied for 11th-best in the NBA). They weren't especially good at taking the ball away, though, ranking 21st in the league in both blocks and steals, and finishing 19th in opponents' turnover percentage. You can have a very good defense without forcing a ton of turnovers -- the Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors did last year -- but with Davis' 7-foot-5-1/2-inch wingspan to clog passing lanes and block shots (he swatted a ludicrous 13.7 percent of opponents' field-goal attempts at Kentucky), the Hornets shouldn't have to.
Comparatively slight at just 220 pounds, Davis figures to have trouble guarding opposing bigs down low, which is why the Hornets signed free-agent center Robin Lopez (0.76 points allowed per possessions on post-ups, 79th best among 400-plus NBA players, according to Synergy Sports Technology) to help man the middle. The end result should be a move up near the league's top 10 in defensive efficiency, where Williams had the Hornets in 2010-11. An even bigger leap, though, could come on the offensive end, where the Hornets were pretty heinous last year.
With little shooting on the roster -- only Marco Belinelli shot better than league average from 3-point range -- the Hornets scarcely used the long ball last year. Nearly 85 percent of their field-goal attempts and 69 percent of their points came inside the arc, both league-highs, and they did well there, finishing 13th in the NBA in field-goal percentage. On the flip side, though, they took and made the league's fewest 3-pointers, finishing 22nd in the league in 3-point accuracy and generating just 13.1 percent of their points from beyond the arc.
Enter stretch four Ryan Anderson, who led the NBA in 3-point tries and makes last year and hit 39.3 percent of his triples in each of his last two seasons with the Orlando Magic. The defensive matchups when he shares the floor with Davis could be problematic -- neither figures to be able to hold up to the pounding from strong post players and Anderson isn't quick enough to check most small forwards -- but the floor-spacing he'll offer should help New Orleans' offense operate much more smoothly. A return to form from Gordon -- a 37.5 percent career distance shooter before coming to New Orleans who hit just a quarter of his long balls in his injury-shortened season -- and a strong transition from No. 10 overall pick Austin Rivers, who connected at a 36.5 percent clip from 3 at Duke, would certainly help, too.
The Hornets should also be better on the boards, where -- despite missing Okafor for most of the season, leaving only Gustavo Ayon and Al-Farouq Aminu as above-average-for-their-position rebounders -- New Orleans performed well (14th in offensive rebounding rate, 15th in defensive rebounding rate, 12th overall). Adding Davis (who led the SEC in rebounding), Anderson (last year's 12th-highest offensive rebounding rate among players who saw more than 1,000 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com) and Lopez (a poor defensive rebounding center who's above-average on the offensive glass) should put the Hornets near the league's top-10 rebounding teams. Better offensive rebounding would be especially huge if it leads to more second-chance points, a category in which the Hornets finished 24th last season -- when you're trying to fix a bottom-five offense, every extra possession and easy bucket helps.
After a year spent scrounging for scraps, Williams now has some really interesting ingredients at his disposal. Whether he'll turn in a postseason-worthy recipe remains to be seen, but opponents have legitimate reasons to worry about what he might cook up.
What Should Make You Scared: The guard play might not be good yet. While it didn't blow the buzz they felt after drafting Davis, some Hornets fans might have been left scratching their heads when New Orleans chose combo guard Rivers at No. 10 rather than, say, former North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, who went to the Phoenix Suns at No. 13. Some confusion would be understandable -- considering the bulk of last year's minutes at point guard went to Greivis Vasquez and Jack, two hardworking pros who seem best-suited as backups, finding a point guard to grow up with Davis seemed like a good idea. And while Marshall averaged nearly 11 assists per 36 minutes and posted a 3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in his sophomore year at UNC, Rivers clearly looked to shoot first at Duke and notched more turnovers than assists in his lone year in Krzyzewskiville.
The Hornets, though, apparently both liked Rivers' upside more than Marshall's -- it would've been interesting to see what would have happened if Weber State's Damian Lillard was still available at No. 10 -- and felt that Rivers' offensive game would work well alongside Gordon, who figures to have the ball in his hands a lot in the half-court. The thinking, it seems, is that both Rivers and Gordon (who assisted on nearly 21 percent of teammates' field goals during his final season in L.A.) can orchestrate well enough to trade facilitating responsibilities when they share the floor, and could both excel playing off the ball. The approach makes sense -- when rebuilding a 21-45 team, you're probably better off drafting for talent and role-fit than positional definition.
Still, establishing that role-fit takes shared floor time. The Hornets' top guards haven't had much of that, thanks to Gordon missing most of the preseason with soreness in that right knee; now, with Rivers likely to miss the remainder of the preseason after spraining his right ankle on Monday night and Gordon likely to stay out as well, they'll probably have to figure it out on the fly during the regular season. That's certainly possible and was, to some degree, going to have to happen anyway, but still, it could mean prospective offensive gains are slow in coming.
Early on, then, much of the responsibility for knocking Gordon's rust off, getting Rivers acclimated to the NBA and getting the Hornets moving will fall to third-year man Vasquez. This might not be quite as scary as you'd think -- given more minutes and a larger role in running New Orleans' offense than he had as a rookie in Memphis, Greivis improved in just about every statistical category, assisting on nearly 36 percent of his teammates' field goals while turning it over less often. Still, relying on Vasquez for even league-average play in starter's minutes seems a shaky bet. And if the injuries keep either Gordon or Rivers sidelined at the start of the season, Hornets fans will see way more Xavier Henry and Roger Mason Jr. than they'd like, which could keep that offense from getting into gear for a while.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Last week, I noted that one of the challenges for Bobcats rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be developing an NBA identity on a team that needs him to go well beyond his current strengths to help his terrible team become competitive, or even functional. At first glance, top pick and hopeful Hornets star Anthony Davis has a similar struggle ahead of him. While Davis has a nice touch on his jumper and nascent post moves, his strengths are clearly at the defensive end, whether locking down the paint or heading to the perimeter to deal with versatile forwards. On offense, he's a player who does his best work in the flow of the offense. If the Hornets relied on him to take the ball and score with his considerable natural talent, he'd have a long season ahead of him.
Davis should thank head coach Monty Williams and general manager Dell Demps, then, for surrounding Davis with players who either already know how or desperately want to score. Eric Gordon, though potentially overpaid with a max-level contract after an injury-filled season, is among the best scoring two-guards in the NBA. Next to Gordon, fellow rookie Austin Rivers arguably focuses too intently on the scoring, to the detriment of the rest of the team and his own continued status as a major part of New Orleans' future. Forward Ryan Anderson, brought in from the Orlando Magic, has shown the ability to hit outside shots consistently and open up the paint for his frontcourt teammates. And although Robin Lopez doesn't score much, his strengths as a post defender should allow Davis to grow into his role as a defensive linchpin without having too much forced on him in his first season.
The Hornets figure to be a lottery team this season, which isn't the worst thing considering they're a young team who could use a few more rotation players. But even if they finish with a record near the bottom of the league, it's impressive how they seem to be adding players that make some amount of sense together, not just a group of youngsters who might or might not end up being pretty good. (Even Rivers and Gordon, both solid ballhandlers, could end up being a decent, if unorthodox, backcourt combo.) New Orleans knows that Davis is their future, and they're putting him in a position to succeed. Whether or not it happens immediately, that plan should pay dividends down the road.
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