Running with Paul's trend from yesterday, allow me to quickly introduce myself as well; my name is Mason Ginsberg. I co-run HoopDat, a New Orleans sports blog which focuses on both the Saints and the Hornets, with Andrew Walker, the third new member recently added to this stellar At The Hive team. Feel free to send any sort of feedback through Twitter (@WhoDatHornet88) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thanks for reading!
As most Hornets fans know, "change" has been one of the words that best describes their team ever since the final game of the 2009-10 season. The roster turnover that has occurred between that game and now is unmistakable, with the only four mainstays being Chris Paul, David West, Emeka Okafor, and Aaron Gray. After New Orleans' most improbable win of the season over Dallas on Wednesday night without Chris Paul, it has never been more apparent how immensely improved the Hornets' roster has become. New Orleans Hornets' general manager Dell Demps and the rest of the team's front office have not received the credit they deserve for the total resurrection of the roster, and what better time to recognize them than after a win which was fueled largely by the team's new faces?
A good way to evaluate the improvement of the Hornets' roster is to break it down by each position in which the personel has changed from last season, so let's do just that. Since Paul, West, and Okafor are all carryovers from last season, those three positions (PG, PF, C) will be ignored, leaving us with shooting guard, small forward, and the bench. In the grades for each position, I not only look at how the players fared in their respective seasons, but I also take into account the likelihood of those players continuing to be successful going forward.
The shooting guard position is by far the toughest to grade. If only taking into account Thornton's 2009-10 season, it would probably get a grade in the B to B+ range. However, the fact is that Marcus never got a real extended opportunity under the new 2010-11 Hornets regime, and that knocks the position's grade down by no fault of his own. Evidence of this fact lies in Thornton's 14.1 PER during his 2010-11 Hornets tenure, compared with 18.5 in Sacramento thus far (very small sample size) and 17.4 in the prior season. Not only did Thornton struggle for minutes this season, he also couldn't sustain any real rhythm, two notions which are almost guaranteed to be correlated.
It's no secret that the shooting guard position has never been a strength for the team ever since it arrived in New Orleans; I loved David Wesley, but when he is arguably the Hornets' best SG in the past decade, that's a pretty substantial problem. By starting Belinelli at the 2-guard, the Bees weren't looking for a star; they simply wanted a player who could gel with the team's defensive identity and stretch the floor as a 3-point threat. Unfortunately, Marco has struggled with his consistency in both areas this season, most notably defensively. Though his shooting has once again come on strong as of late, there's no denying that shooting guard is still a position of weakness for the Hornets.
No matter how you feel about Ariza's deplorable offensive game, there is no denying the overall upgrade he brings to the position in virtually every aspect apart from shooting. Last season, Peja earned one of the NBA's worst rebound rates for small forwards at 6.8%. Ariza comes in significantly higher, at 9.5%. The difference in assist rate is similar, with Peja coming in at 7.2% compared to Ariza's 9.7%. These numbers tell us that despite the shooting percentage discrepancy between the two, Ariza is much more capable of making his teammates better than was Stojakovic.
The greatest skill that Ariza brings to the court is his on-ball defense. The Hornets regularly ask Trevor to match up with the opponent's best wing player, giving him the not so simple task of defending players such as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony on a nightly basis. Given the work he does and the pressure he takes off of the rest of the defense, below average shooting becomes more than excusable. Should he be smarter about the volume and location of the shots he takes? Absolutely. That being said, Coach Monty Williams has installed a defense-first philosophy on this year's Hornets team, and that wouldn't have been possible without the addition of Ariza.
Let's get one thing straight - last season's Hornets bench was downright horrible. The only reason that the unit did not receive an F is thanks to Darren Collison. Peterson was traded to Oklahoma City this past off-season purely to cut costs, then was subsequently dealt to Charlotte for the same reason and was released less than a week later. Oh, I almost forgot to mention - he was playing over 20 minutes per game as a Hornet! James Posey's PER of 8.7 was the worst on the team and one of the worst in the NBA for players receiving regular playing time. Songaila was average on defense but a liability offensively, generating a grand total of 0.0 in OWS (offensive win shares, the estimated number of wins added by a player's offense). Aaron Gray is, well, Aaron Gray - a big oaf who defends other big centers, gets rebounds, and fouls a ton. Overall, it is pretty clear that the Hornets' bench last season was quite abysmal.
This season, things are noticeably different. Though Jack may be a slight downgrade from Collison, both PGs are capable of starting in the NBA and would be considered top-tier backups at the position. Willie Green struggles mightily at times, but the improvement he brings to the backup SG position in comparison to Mo Pete is undeniable. Backup SF is basically a wash, but Q-Pon's athleticism and upside is a nice replacement over Posey's aging body, especially knowing that the only way he will play any substantial minutes come playoff time would be due to an Ariza injury. The recent acquisition of Carl Landry for Marcus Thornton has been scrutinized enough recently, but there is no doubt that Landry will bring much more to the team at backup PF than the amount that Thornton was contributing (regardless of who's choice it was). Additionally, Aaron Gray seems to be the perfect complement for Landry's game. Landry is a slightly undersized PF who's strengths come from his offensive post game and offensive rebounding, as he struggles on the defensive glass. Conversely, Gray is a wide-bodied 7 foot center who thrives on the defensive boards.
The Bottom Line
To most accurately grade the entire roster, however, it is going to come down to playoff rotations. I get most excited when thinking about the Hornets' 8-man rotation which we are beginning to see more and more - Paul, Jack, Belinelli, Green, Ariza, West, Landry, and Okafor. Paul will hold down the point for about 40 minutes each game, with Jack covering the rest in addition to a few minutes in the same backcourt as Paul. Belinelli, Ariza, and Green will handle virtually all of the playing time at the wings, and West, Okafor and Landry will be the three-man rotation in the frontcourt. Try to compare this rotation to last season - Paul, Collison, Thornton, Peja, Posey, West, Okafor, Songaila is probably the most comparable 8-man rotation. Is there really any debate? I would trust about five of those guys to play more than a dozen minutes; having to use Peja, Posey, and Songaila for more than 20 minutes per game would have been downright frightening in a playoff series. As a result, I want to send out my personal thanks to Dell Demps and the rest of the Hornets' staff, including Coach Monty Williams; they have assembled a roster that most of us would have never dreamed possible in April of last season. If the past nine months of management are any indication, it won't be too long before this Hornets team becomes a serious championship contender. Now, if they can just find a local owner!