Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the New Orleans Hornets.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Dan will tell you, down below, that Eric Gordon will be worth your time; and he's correct in that regard. He will point to New Orleans' likely stout defense at the behest of coach Monty Williams, and the fact that the team, however dispirited, is full of earnest go-getters. This group will work, even if it lands them a dozen wins short of the playoffs bracket.
That probably won't be enough to cheer you up. In the wake of the Chris Paul deal that sent away an all-timer at point guard, it's going to be hard to.
But there is something there, with the Hornets. It's Dell Demps, who appears to have a head on his shoulders and a dignified touch. How do we know this? He didn't fax a picture of his middle finger to the NBA's offices earlier this month when they overruled a deal for Paul that would have landed the Hornets sound players and significant trade assets. He didn't quit, and sometimes overcoming that frustration says enough for me.
The NBA was wrong to put the kibosh on that particular deal, but moving forward it may have -- and don't hit me -- done the Hornets a favor.
Even if Paul truly wanted to remain with the Hornets, it was time to move on. He and his balky knee had taken this group as far as it was going to go, the parts were working as best they could but salary cap (not payroll, mind you) constraints relegated the Hornets to a middling (if often astonishingly exciting) team. Even Paul, in the best of spirits, was a man out of time. Trade and gather and start over, working calm and crisp and strong.
In a twisted way that was no fault of his own, this is what Demps did. He has a capable starting center and extremely valuable trade chip in Chris Kaman that teams will be falling over themselves to try and get to before February's trade deadline. He has a potential All-Star in Gordon, and a possible amnesty case in Emeka Okafor next summer. And if Demps doesn't let go of the two years and $28 million due to Okafor in 2013 and 2014, then he'll have a solid starting center in a league where very few exist, making about the going rate for such things. Perhaps a little higher. Perhaps.
He'll have the ability to match for Gordon's services, and if some team wants to throw the moon at him after failing to land a bigger name, then so long and say "howdy" to more cap space. Which means more deals, more deals, and more deals. If you can't sign 'em, trade for 'em. Gordon, even in his mid-20s, might not be the best thing to build around. This has to be a patient turnaround.
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Then the draft pick from Minnesota reveals itself. Are the Timberwolves no longer a lock for the league's worst record? Of course. But that hardly matters in a lottery. Minnesota could eke out 33 wins and the Hornets could still grab a top three talent. With David Stern's stickum-smeared hands running things, who knows what could happen?
Chris Paul was hurting last year, and he's no sure thing in Los Angeles this year. Of all the megastars to lurch to a different team in the last two years, New Orleans clearly got the best haul of the group. Amar'e Stoudemire, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh left for nothing but unused trade exceptions. The Nuggets got a package of players for Carmelo Anthony, but it was no great leap forward save for a feel-good story from March that nobody remembers right now. The Hornets? It was embarrassing, but it's a start.
Be cheerful, and don't buy tickets until the NBA sells the team. Then after any sale, follow your hopeful wunderkind in Demps. At some point, this all might be worth it.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: New Orleans Hornets
I'm so excited for you!
Look, this is going to be hard. But while I don't expect the Hornets to be a gifted offensive team or a playoff contender, I do expect New Orleans to field a determined, competitive squad that will endear itself to the Louisiana faithful. The Hornets had a top-10 defense in Monty Williams' first year at the helm and, while losing Chris Paul's help defense and gift for larceny certainly won't help matters, they should continue to force opposing offenses to grind things out. Emeka Okafor will continue to work really hard to live up to his contract (and likely fail, but not through a failure of effort).
Trevor Ariza took almost four fewer shots per game last year than he did in his first season as a Hornet; maybe that trend will continue, he will only take six shots a night this year, and the angels will rejoice. Carl Landry can score down low. Chris Kaman can score from mid-range and clear the defensive boards. I know Hornets fans are probably sick of hearing that Eric Gordon is really good, but honestly, Eric Gordon is really good. Quincy Pondexter seems like a fun dude. There will be people and things to support.
The package that Dell Demps got in exchange for Paul doesn't really do much for Hornets fans this year; it's certainly nowhere near the immediate return that Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic, the foursome slated to come to New Orleans in the original three-team CP3 deal with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, would have provided. It's a better look for the future, but for right now, I totally understand that it sucks for Hornets fans, especially after seeing Paul and his new Los Angeles Clippers teammates look pretty amazing in their preseason tilt against the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night.
What New Orleans has right now is an imperfect, not especially explosive roster that's largely a placeholder for Whatever Comes Next. The rebuilding project begins in earnest this summer, when Dell Demps will roughly $25.6 million in salary coming off the books (assuming he parts ways with Landry, Kaman and Marco Belinelli) and have two (likely high) lottery picks in a talent-laden draft. That could be the start of something legitimately exciting. Until then, the prospect of a tough, professional team that takes on the personality of its coach will have to tide Hornets fans over.
I'm so worried for you!
I'm kind of worried that any person who is not already deeply emotionally invested the Hornets and who is hoping to have fun watching them play offense will quickly become really, really sad.
As Rob Mahoney wrote at The New York Times' Off the Dribble blog, the Hornets as piloted by Jarrett Jack rather than Paul and featuring Landry rather than David West trying to pass out of the post will likely to struggle to effectively create good looks at the basket. New Orleans finished 19th out of 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency last year; even if Gordon both continues to progress as a scorer and blossoms into a more accomplished facilitator for his teammates than he was in Los Angeles, a drop-off that puts the Hornets solidly in the league's bottom-third offensively seems like a good bet.
Under defensive-minded coach Williams, the Hornets are likely to guard with precision and determination, which is admirable and honorable, but when combined with an offense unlikely to fire on all cylinders, it also means that New Orleans fans could be in for some rock fights this year. And, in the absence of a burner triggering the offense at the one spot, if coach Monty Williams elects to continue playing at the same escargot pace the Hornets favored with Paul -- bottom-third of the league in each of CP3's full seasons, each one slower than the last, culminating with the second-slowest tempo in the NBA last season -- then play might get real gross real fast in the Big Easy. If things aren't going to be joyous, it'd be nice if they were at least pretty, but that doesn't seem like it's in the cards for Hornets fans in 2011-12.
I have no idea what to make of you!
It's easy to look at Al-Farouq Aminu as something of a thrown-in, kinda-sorta half-asset in the Paul trade. He's 21 years old, people liked him enough to consider him a legitimate lottery pick in 2010 and he'll be under the Hornets' control through 2015, so his inclusion made sense. I'm sure no Hornets fan was really doing back flips at getting him, though -- Aminu hit less than 40 percent of his shots as a rookie and turned the ball over more than 18 percent of the time he handled it, and the Clippers were about five points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor than when he was on it, according to 82games.com.
Look a little closer, though, as Breene Murphy did this summer in writing about Aminu's rookie season at ClipperBlog, and you see that the story is a bit more complicated than that. Over the course of the season, while the strong 3-point stroke he showed early on tapered off, Aminu started to chip away at flaws like his turnover and foul rates. Given more minutes under Vinny Del Negro, as Murphy saw it, the rookie -- undoubtedly a project from the start -- might have been made even more strides in harnessing his raw athletic gifts.
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A 6-foot-9 wing with the length to guard multiple positions is an asset any team can use, especially one with a defensive-minded head coach like Williams running the show. If Ariza continues to struggle -- and I mean, at this point, why would we think that he wouldn't? -- Aminu should get ample opportunities to guard opposing perimeter players and see if he can bring anything to the table on offense. If Williams can coach him up and use him judiciously, Aminu might have more value to this year's Hornets team than most of us first anticipated; if Aminu can start to develop his offensive game, he might find himself being viewed as more than a "kinda-sorta" element in Demps' rebuilding plan.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
New Orleans Hornets: "Treme"
"Treme" is a show about New Orleans rebuilding itself in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which obviously makes this pick something of a copout. In some ways, it's the equivalent of giving "The Departed" to the Celtics or "C.H.U.D." to the Knicks. But there's a connection here, because "Treme" is fundamentally concerned with proud citizens doing the best they can after a period of trauma and doing their best to reclaim some of their former status. Things are never easy for them, but they believe in the culture they represent and persevere because it's the only option worth a damn.
Without Chris Paul, the Hornets are sure to become less of a notable NBA team for casual fans and pundits alike. But they're far from a lost cause, because the haul from the Chris Paul trade and a few remaining pieces give them hope for the future. The ex-Clippers who were traded probably feel like they're missing out on a big party in Los Angeles, and with good reason. Still, there's an opportunity for them in New Orleans. It's not a great situation, but it's absolutely worth salvaging.