[A little something I wrote for CBS and for a website called The Sports Headquarters. Obviously, thought I'd share it with my fellow Hornets fans here at ATH. Hope you all enjoy. - MWK.]
I called this past offseason for the Hornets one of, if not, the most important offseason in franchise history for the team. Coming off of a difficult collapse in 2009, injuries to Chris Paul forced the team to fall to 37 wins last season, resulting in the team's first appearance in the lottery in three years, signifying a dramatic fall from grace following the team's 2008 run to the Southwest Division Championship and to a game 7 in the Western Conference Semifinals with the defending NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs. Just a few years removed from that, the Hornets are at a crossroads, even after this offseason, that will determine where the team goes from this point forward. Gone from that 2008 season are former coach of the year Byron Scott, long time General Manager and former Executive of the Year Jeff Bower and soon to be gone is the only owner the Hornets have ever known in George Shinn. The impending sale of the team to Gary Chouest, which may not be finalized until the end of this season, will finally solidify this past offseason of change for the Hornets front office. When new head coach Monty Williams was hired, followed by the hiring of new General Manager Dell Demps, everyone of the assistant coaches, medical staff, scouting team, etc. were let go. Some of them had been with the team since its inception in Charlotte. But desperate to turn a new leaf, the Hornets made their moves with Williams and Demps, and the two are young, promising guys at their respective spots with the right people vouching for their abilities. That change was followed on the court, as the Hornets engaged in a number of trades that will result in at least eight new players making the roster for this season. It's still very much up in the air how all of these moves will translate on the court for the Hornets. The team has seemingly had one of the thinnest front courts in the league for years now, and that will be the same case this season. The team's ultimate success still depends almost entirely on Chris Paul, and Paul's' reported frustrations with the team are going to loom over the franchise until he's either traded or signs a new contract. But that's still two years from now, and the Hornets still moved along as a team dedicated to winning now. With pending cap relief coming up this offseason, how the team performs at the start of the year will depend largely on whether they're buyers or sellers at the trade deadline and will have a huge effect on how the team opperates from here on out. If this past offseason was one of the most important for the Hornets, this actual season will be no different. There are no guarantees it will be the most successful, but a lot is hinging on the performance of this team this season.
For the record, new additions will be italicized and rookies will have their college statistics, which will be denoted by an asterisk.
PG: #3 Chris Paul (45 Games, 18.7 PPG, 10.7 APG, 4.2 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 84.7 FT Pctg., 40.9 3PT FG Pctg., 49.3 FG Pctg.) – Coming off of his best season individually in 2009, the frustration Paul was showing at the beginning of last season was quite evident. He had gotten into on court altercations with Al Harrington, was frequently showing discomfort on the court and was very vocal in his displeasure with Byron Scott being fired going as far as to say the team should have consulted with him before the move. Two separate injuries followed, including one the day immediately following Scott’s departure, possibly creating the most frustrating season in Paul’s career. A sprained ankle and a torn meniscus kept Paul out of 37 games, and the Hornets’ win total dropped as a result.
A lot will be asked of CP3 again this season as he enters clearly as the number one player on the team. The fact that the team traded Darren Collison, last year’s first round draft pick and Paul’s primary back up, to make attempts in improving the roster brings further emphasis on the importance of a healthy Chris Paul. Before his injuries last season, he was displaying an improved three point shot and was correcting all of the holes in his offensive game. Seeing him play a healthy amount of games this season should help the team’s defense improve as well. Paul’s on court performance is crucial for the team, but he’s in a position where he shouldn’t be asked to do as much as he was in 2009. How quickly he gels with the new teammates, how well he’s recovered from the knee injury and how well he handles adversity this season all deserve close attention this season.
#33 Willie Green (73 Games, 8.7 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.8 RPG, 83.3 FT Pctg., 34.6 3PT FG Pctg., 45.7 FG Pctg.) – Whether Hornets fans like it or not, Green enters this season as the Hornets back-up point guard. Green, in the final year of his contract, was picked up in a trade with Philadelphia and immediately became the team’s most trustworthy option as a reserve point guard. Whether or not he’s a true point guard, whether or not he’s efficient enough to run an offense for an extended amount of time and whether or not the team hopes to deploy him in this role all season are questionable. Even with Green on the roster, the Hornets had Jannero Pargo, Mustafa Shakur, D.J. Strawberry and, eventually, Curtis Jerrells all in training camp to compete for the reserve point guard job. In my opinion, the team wants one of the young guards to step up and claim the back-up job, but is keeping Green as a safety net. Green is a capable back-up in this league. He shoots a decent percentage and he could, at the very least, provide veteran experience as a reserve to start the season. However, I’d imagine the team truthfully wants Jerrells to claim Green’s spot by December or January.
#0 Curtis Jerrells * (39 Games, 16.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 77.1 FT Pctg., 36.7 3PT FG Pctg., 42.7 FG Pctg.) – Although last year was Jerrell’s first year in the league, he spent the majority of the season in the NBA’s D-League and therefore retains rookie eligibility in this season, his first with the Hornets. Jerrells went undrafted in 2009 and spent last season for the D-League’s Austin Toros, which happened to be the team that Demps GMed while he was working for the Spurs organization. About a week ago, the Hornets acquired Jerrells for a second round draft pick from the Spurs and he figures to be in the team’s future plans. Former coach Greg Popovich has gone on record as saying Jerrells is a “real NBA point guard” and the team is high on him as well. Whether or not he reciprocates those expectations right away remains to be seen, but there are high hopes for Jerrells in terms of his future as a reserve for the team behind Chris Paul. His progression is something to keep an eye on.
SG: #8 Marco Belinelli (66 Games, 7.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 83.5 FT Pctg., 38.0 3PT FG Pctg., 40.6 FG Pctg.) – No member of the Hornets roster is having as productive a preseason campaign as Belinelli. Acquired from Toronto for the frustrating unproductive Julian Wright, Belinelli has also struggled with expectations throughout his career and really disappointed in Toronto last season. But the team planned for Thornton to come off of the bench all along, and Belinelli has gone through a lot of the sets with the first team. He’s shooting the ball really effectively from beyond the arc in the preseason and is showing capabilities as a ball handler that people expected of him when he was a lottery pick in 2007. He unquestionably now enters the season as the Hornets starting shooting guard and can develop into a real wild card for the team. If he builds off of his promise early, then the Hornets can have a surprisingly efficient starting five with an explosive Marcus Thornton as a change of pace reserve for the second unit. At worst, Belinelli figures to be a three point specialist for the team, but all hopes are for Belinelli to remain as the team’s starting shooting guard for the duration of the season.
#5 Marcus Thornton (73 Games, 14.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, 81.4 FT Pctg., 37.4 3PT FG Pctg., 45.1 FG Pctg.) – Contrary to Belinelli, Thornton is having one of the most disappointing preseason campaigns for the Hornets. Coming off of a surprising rookie season where the Hornets saw him emerge from second round draft pick to solid reserve to key contributor down the stretch, the team hopes to deploy him in a sixth man role similar to that of Manu Ginobili, Jason Terry or Jamaal Crawford’s. All hopes should, and most likely are, for Thornton to finish games for the Hornets but the team wants to use his playmaking and explosiveness to spearhead the second unit. Thornton has struggled with his shot all preseason, and questions are already rising about the shin injury that forced him to leave the Summer League early. But still, the team will take its chances with Thornton as the season approaches and his efficient shooting from last season will be expected and should truly benefit the team moving forward. At only 23, Thornton is still in the team’s future plans. He’s been vocal about his struggles with the team moving Collison to Indiana in an offseason trade, but I wouldn’t attribute that with his early season struggles. He seems erratic out there and may be struggling with the added expectations. I expect him to settle into his new role this season after a few games.
SF: #1 Trevor Ariza (72 Games, 14.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 64.9 FT Pctg., 33.4 3PT FG Pctg., 39.4 FG Pctg.) – Coming off of a season where he was a key member of a Lakers starting line-up that won the 2009 NBA Championship, Ariza was handsomely compensated by the Houston Rockets last season and, with the injuries to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, was quickly given the role of the go-to guy on the team. Ariza struggled in that role, however, as his efficiency and his shooting percentages decreased across the board. The Hornets still see his potential as a defensive specialist and fast break partner with Paul to trade All-Rookie First Teamer Darren Collison to acquire Ariza. In doing so, the Hornets assume the remaining four years on Ariza’s contract and are vocal about him being in the team’s future plans. In New Orleans, Ariza can return to being the third or fourth option on a team, a role he’s probably better suited for, and should be able to prepare for the shots to come to him as opposed to looking for them. He may never shoot at that consistent three point rate that he did in the 2009 postseason, but he’s still a capable player behind the arc who the team can feel comfortable enough with to help spread out a defense. Ariza is the big acquisition for the Hornets this past offseason and a lot is expected of him. He’s shown before that he’s capable of playing off of a great player, and if he does so at a more efficient rate than he did with Houston last year, the Hornets will benefit greatly because of it.
#16 Peja Stojakovic (62 Games, 12.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 89.7 FT Pctg., 37.5 3PT FG Pctg., 40.4 FG Pctg.) – Signed to a five year, 65 million dollar contract in 2005, Peja has seen his points per game average and a lot of his percentages decline every year of his contract with the team. The Hornets see his expiring 15 million dollar deal as a huge trading piece should the team find another franchise desperate for cap relief, but also see his importance as a three point specialist with the squad. Even with his declining numbers, the Hornets are a better team with Peja on the court. Last year’s 14-23 record without Chris Paul should be viewed with an asterisk. The team was 9-8 without Paul on the court while Peja was still in the lineup. When Peja missed the final 20 games of the season, the team went 5-15. He’s still a very important player for this team. Peja was tried as a reserve last year when the team unsuccessfully attempted to make Julian Wright the starting small forward. He was still efficient enough in his reserve role where the team should feel comfortable deploying him in that same spot this season, but his back still brings questions about how well he can come into a game and be effective after extended periods of rest. Whether or not he’s a key contributor or nothing more than an expiring contract to either be traded or absorbed internally this season depends largely on how well he starts the season. He’s played a sufficient amount of minutes this preseason and is still showing his range, but nothing is a guarantee in terms of his longevity of health.
#20 Quincy Pondexter * (36 Games, 19.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 82.7 FT Pctg., 35.3 3PT FG Pctg., 52.8 FG Pctg.) – Acquired in a draft night trade along with Craig Brackins for the draft rights to Cole Aldrich, Pondexter was supposed to enter this season with Brackins as two young, capable players in a new Hornets rotation. Brackins was traded in the Willie Green trade with Philadelphia, and the Hornets soon acquired Trevor Ariza, halting Pondexter’s quick ascension to an everyday status. Pondexter is still a capable player. He can run the floor really well, is a good enough playmaker at his position and is a capable jump shooter. The team also has high hopes in his defensive ability. He showed a lot of potential in the summer league, especially with his playmaking and defense, and will be brought along slowly for the Hornets. With Peja most likely gone either before the end of this season or by the end of this season, Pondexter figures into the Hornets future plans. Monty Williams has had success with SF projects before during his tenure in Portland, and Pondexter will be exactly that for most of this season.
PF: #30 David West (81 Games, 19.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 86.5 FT Pctg., 50.5 FG Pctg.) – The Hornets longest tenured player (he’s the only player on the team that was with the franchise before the temporary two year relocation to Oklahoma City and who was with the Hornets when they still played in the Eastern Conference), West returns this season still as the Hornets second option. For the past five seasons, Paul and West have been the go-to guys for setting the tone on offense and the same will be expected this season. Despite a second consecutive season in terms of a decrease in his points per game and rebounds per game averages, West assumed a bigger role in the offensive execution once Paul went down to injury last season. As a result, West saw a career high in assists. Whether or not his game is ready for a steep decline is up for debate, and this being basically a contract year for West (he has a 7 million dollar player option for next season), one could assume that West will be at his best for one last pay day for his career. West is still an efficient option in the offense. He shot at a 50 percent rate last season and still has plenty of range on his jump shot. His defense on the ball struggled big time last season and a lot of that probably had to do with Collison and Thornton’s inexperience on defense allowing so many easy drives to the basket last year. But if West can hold his ground defensively in the paint, it would set the tone for the rest of the team. A lot will be expected of West, again, this season. I wouldn’t be so concerned with his missing games this preseason (Monty is said to be caution with minutes to his starters in the preseason) and I wouldn’t say he’s ready for a decline in production just yet.
#14 Jason Smith (56 Games, 3.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 69.0 FT Pctg., 43.1 FG Pctg.) – Acquired in a trade that sent Craig Brackins and Darius Songaila to Philadelphia, Smith was seen as a disappointing first round project in Philadelphia but has been given new life in New Orleans. He’s surprised many fans with his strong play in the preseason, showing a very unexpected rebounding rate per minute and still showing a good enough mid range game that the team touted when he was acquired. Whether or not that carries over into the regular season is huge for the Hornets, as Smith is basically the only option as a reserve power forward. His position on the team is very creaky for the Hornets, as he’s not done a lot to calm worries about his consistency and reliability in his two years with the league. But the front office is praising Smith for his work this preseason and he’ll at least be given a clean slate in New Orleans this year. If he struggles, the team will be left without many options for the front court, and could be forced to move Stojakovic for another option. Whether or not Smith can prevent the team from having to go to those measures remains to be seen.
#44 Pops Mensah-Bonsu (20 Games, 1.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 54.2 FT Pctg., 39.4 FG Pctg.) – With the team on a non guaranteed contract, Mensah-Bonsu will probably be retained due to the team’s thin options at the power forward spot. Another D-League player for the Austin Toros, Pops has played well enough in the preseason to at least get a look in the regular season. He’s struggled to stick with any of the teams he’s played with for his career but has shown signs of being a viable reserve big man. Whether or not he can parlay that into a consistent run or even a consistent season with New Orleans is questionable at best and realistically unexpected. But because Jason Smith is the only other option as a reserve power forward, I’d expect Mensah-Bonsu to make the roster and at least get a chance to establish himself in the team’s rotation.
C: #50 Emeka Okafor (82 Games, 10.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 56.2 FT Pctg., 53.0 FG Pctg.) – Acquired last offseason from Charlotte, Okafor came into New Orleans with a lot of expectations and didn’t deliver on any of them. Whether it be because of injuries keeping him from training camp reps with the roster, him missing the entire preseason, him never developing a rapport with Paul, him being in and out of Jeff Bower’s rotations or any combination of those things, Okafor saw a career low 29 minutes per game last year and his production dropped as a result of it. This offseason, however, Monty has said to be committing to getting Okafor the ball at a more consistent rate. He’s still not going to blow anyone away as a low post option, but he’s durable and strong enough to where he can hold his own down in the paint and also be a viable defender around the rim. He’ll never live up to his paycheck, but he is still an efficient enough option at the center position in the league and is arguably a top ten player at his position. With Williams’ dedication to getting Okafor involved more with the team, we should see a more lively Okafor and, certainly, a more productive Okafor on the court for the Hornets. A big season from him could make all the difference from this team being a fringe playoff contender to a very good Western Conference squad.
#34 Aaron Gray (32 Games, 3.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 71.4 FT Pctg., 51.2 FG Pctg.) – Acquired from Chicago during last season for Devin Brown, the White Panther (as he’s affectionately known amongst Hornets fans), became the team’s best option as a reserve center immediately and did a fine enough job in that role to be given a new one year deal to keep the same position this year with the Hornets. Gray is, at the very least, a big body down in the paint, although his lack of speed still allows elite centers that extra burst to the basket more often than not. He lost a lot of weight this offseason (rumored around 30 pounds) and is still light on his feet and is good enough at holding his position around the basket, but Monty has been vocal in his desire for Gray to be quicker up and down the court. Whether or not he can really change something like his speed remains to be seen, but Gray is still a good, if not very good, back-up center for the team.
#28 D.J. Mbenga (49 Games, 2.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 47.4 FT Pctg., 46.6 FG Pctg.) – Recently signed to a one year contract for this season, Congo Cash (the name his former Lakers teammates gave him), steps in as competition for Gray for the reserve center job. Mbenga has had his cup of tea in the league. He’s mainly a hustle guy, has never been a consistent player in a rotation, but at least has two championships with the Lakers to show for his stay in the league. He’s 7 foot and he’s a decent rebounder, but I’m not sure how successful the team will be with Mbenga consistently getting heavy minutes. At the very least, he’s a body to push Gray and keep him staying in shape and keep him competitive. He’s another big body on the team, giving them three 7 footers on the bench. Only problem is, none of the three seven footers are all that incredibly talented.
Head Coach: Monty Williams (First Head Coaching Job) – Monty Williams is the youngest head coach in the league. While that’s pretty cool in terms of the potential stability he can bring to the team, realistically you have to expect some growing pains from a guy in his first year on the job. He’s got an impressive pedigree. After retiring as a player, Greg Popovich himself sought out Monty to be an assistant, and Monty won a ring as a member of the coaching staff for the 2005 Spurs team. He’s done fantastic in terms of player development and defense for the past couple of years in Portland, and he’s a very young, very hungry, very promising head coach. All things considered, he seems like a very good guy for the job. He’ll have to deal with Chris Paul’s ego, he’ll have to deal with a roster that’s fairly young and inexperienced, and he’ll have to do it in his first year. However, if everybody comes together really early, it’s nothing but a huge sign moving forward for the potential of this team. I have faith in Monty’s abilities as the head coach. But, being that it’s his first job, you still don’t really know what to expect. Here’s to a promising first season.
Overall: The Hornets are bringing in eight new players this season. Chemistry may be a very tough problem in the early stages of this season, but the team is young and talented enough to get past that. If they hit a prolonged rough patch, we’ll see if anyone starts pouting, if Williams becomes inconsistent with his rotations, etc. There are a lot of question marks with this team. But the potential is there. The way it’s assembled, this team isn’t a championship squad. They simply don’t have the length to compete with the best teams in the league. But they’re athletic enough to hustle on defense, talented enough to get the ball in the basket and, if healthy, they could really surprise teams this year. People always write the Hornets off as some kind of one year fluke. It should be noted that the only year the Hornets have not had any major injury problems in the past five years was that 2008 season. Maybe that does or doesn’t mean that the team competes for the division title again, but there’s no reason that can’t be a realistic goal. The Spurs, Rockets and Mavericks are obviously sexier choices for the division title, but the Hornets have the bodies to compete with any of them, and they have the best individual player out of any of those teams on their roster. Paul’s attitude and commitment are huge, as is Monty’s ability to handle all of the new players on the roster. But if this team gets off to a huge start, they could really do some damage. Probably no more than a 5 seed or so, but definitely a playoff team none the less. They’re most likely another year away from being serious threats, but that’s no reason that the team can’t be really good this year.