Following a frustrating season that saw him miss 57 games with a knee injury and an at-times dicey summer of restricted free agency that saw him very publicly state a preference for signing with the Phoenix Suns, Eric Gordon is preparing for his second season with a New Orleans Hornets team that gave him a four-year, $58 million contract during the offseason. As you might expect, the combination of a return to health, a $58 million contract and the arrival of No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis has Gordon feeling pretty good about the Hornets' chances this season.
Like, really good, apparently. From Rachel Whittaker of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
And Gordon can't wait to be a leader, though he acknowledged the journey will be a work in progress.
"We have a lot of young talented players who will be very good for us," Gordon said. "This is a long-term process; it's not a year or two where we're going to be a championship caliber of team. I'm just looking forward to being in the playoffs this year and many more years of possibly getting a championship."
On its face, you might think Gordon, who played nine games last year, penciling in a postseason run for the Hornets, who had the worst record in the Western Conference last year, sounds a little bit optimistic. But remember, this year will see the addition of an extra wild-card team on both sides of the playoff bracket, which is sure to create some wild late-season competition in which anything could happen.
Hmm? What's that? That's only in baseball, and we'll have the requisite eight playoff teams in each conference again? Then this "New Orleans in the playoffs" thing will probably come as something of a surprise to the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz and, as Kevin Love just informed the world, Minnesota Timberwolves.
Now, I know what you're saying: "What's he supposed to say — 'We're going to be bad, we have no chance of making the postseason this year and you should probably not watch us?'" No, of course not. Don't be ridiculous. That would be basically the worst marketing he could do, and I'm pretty sure it's in his contract to promote the endeavors of his employer in appropriate ways as needed. (In a completely unrelated story, Yahoo! Sports has the official fantasy basketball game of NBA.com.)
And yes, sure, the Hornets should be much improved this year, as a full season of a healthy Gordon would give them a legitimate scoring threat that New Orleans' bereft offense — which finished 28th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com — lacked last year. (It's worth noting, though, that Gordon also missed 46 games over his final two seasons in L.A.) Similarly, sign-and-trade acquisition Ryan Anderson's deft touch from long range should help stretch the floor and improve New Orleans' 22nd-in-the-league finish in 3-point shooting accuracy a season ago.
If Gordon and Austin Rivers can find a rhythm in what sounds like it'll be a no-real-point-guard backcourt in which they largely trade off playmaking duties, the Hornets' other lottery pick could find early success, too. If any of the other young pieces on the roster — third-year ex-lottery picks Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry, reserve third-year point guard Greivis Vasquez and second-round rookie forward Darius Miller — develop into useful second-unit role-players, gifted head coach Monty Williams could have an interesting combination of youth and depth that he can use to wear down opposing teams.
Still, though, an awful lot would have to go right for the Hornets to sniff a playoff berth. Suppose a healthy Gordon, an effective Anderson and added punch from the rookies combine to improve New Orleans' offensive efficiency by an average of, say, three points per 100 possessions — a huge jump, mind you. That still would've put them in the bottom third of the league in offensive rating last year; that's how ineffective they were. Now, you can have an average-or-below-average offense and still make the playoffs — the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks all did so last year. But you better have an elite or near-elite defense — those five teams ranked first, third, fifth, seventh and eighth, respectively, in points allowed per 100 possessions.
New Orleans fielding that type of defense isn't impossible — the Hornets finished 10th in defensive efficiency under Williams two seasons ago and 15th in 2011-12, and adding Davis' potentially game-changing talents on the defensive end (as well as Robin Lopez's often-overlooked sound low-post defense) to Williams' schemes could bump the Hornets from a middle-of-the-pack unit to an outfit that flirts with top-10 status. It's just a lot to ask of an exceptionally young roster — eight of 15 Hornets have less than three years of NBA experience — with relatively few proven commodities to make significant enough improvements on both ends of the floor to unseat at least a handful of more established teams, especially in what figures to be a meat-grinder of a Western Conference this year. We're looking forward to seeing New Orleans as a title contender, too, Eric ... but we're looking, like, way forward.