New Orleans dropped its third consecutive game and sixth in the last seven, falling to Minnesota. With the loss, the Hornets remain in a tie with Phoenix for the league's third worst record. There's still a ways to go, but a finish in the region of 2011-2012 doesn't look out of question.
Tonight, the Hornets opened with yet another strong first quarter. The Anthony Davis-Eric Gordon connection was in full effect, with Gordon finding Davis on two pick and rolls, outletting to a fastbreak, and combining with Davis to come up with a volleyball-style steal on the defensive end. Robin Lopez absolutely dominated the interior on offense and on the offensive glass; when Minnesota had 13 points, New Orleans had already compiled 20 in the paint and 8 through Lopez.
The Hornets' fast starts, which haven't been uncommon of late, seem to give some credence to the idea that Monty Williams is still a good game-to-game strategist; the gameplan has generally been varied effectively based on the opponent. Tonight, Greivis Vasquez didn't handle as much in the first quarter, and instead, more free flowing possessions dominated in the halfcourt. Unfortunately, the second unit (Lou Amundson-Greivis Vasquez-Terrel Harris-Ryan Anderson-Roger Mason) ceded a 13-4 run to close the quarter to bring Minnesota back into the game.
And so in many ways, the planning vs. adjusting debate is brought right back to the forefront. Specifically, is Monty Williams above average at the first and below average at the second? Is that an unfair reading or one we don't have enough evidence to support yet? I'm not entirely sure, and obviously the issue of the team still fielding multiple D-Leaguers and fill-ins on the roster makes it easy to conflate real factors with artificial ones.
An aspect of this game that particularly stands out in the box score is the field goal attempt disparity between Gordon and Vasquez; the former took 6, while the latter took 25 (!). In a way, I'm not overly worried about it. Vasquez played 39 minutes to Gordon's 26. Because Vasquez played off the ball so much in the first half, he was able to get a number of looks that Gordon, often pinned with the ball well beyond the three point line on the wings, simply did not.
Perhaps most importantly, I've maintained for a while that Gordon's usage rate (crudely, "shots per minute") needs to drop for him to be at maximum effectiveness. Gordon's best season came in 2011 when he posted a +5 offensive efficiency (+5 more points produced than league average per 100 possessions) at a 26.5% usage. This year, he's been at 30% and a -5 efficiency. The number of players in the league that can sustain 30%+ usage and still be effective can be counted on one hand. We're seeing at this point that Gordon isn't one of those players, and that's not necessarily a huge strike against him.
A player can still be worth the mini-max (or the "first" max contract, since each successive max gains in value) without posting a usage rate in the 30s. The sooner the Hornets move away from that strategy for Gordon, the better off they'll be. Tonight, New Orleans ran a good deal of double motion with Gordon as the initial ball-handler. He'd make the first pass which led to a cleaner second pass. I'm a big fan of any system that allows Gordon to participate without having to isolate on every other play, and in that sense, we're moving in the right direction.
The ending, of course, was terrible. It's been a recurring theme; the Hornets led by two with two minutes left, by four with a minute left, and still managed to lose.
It's tough to overly blame Williams here; out of a timeout at 1:47, the playcall was absolutely brilliant, and the Hornets executed perfectly to get Ryan Anderson a wide open three from the corner with time on the clock. He missed. On the next possession, Al-Farouq Aminu stole Ricky Rubio's pass and was fouled on the ensuing dunk attempt. He missed both free throws. Vasquez hit a pair of free throws the next time down, the last time the Hornets would score.
The next possession is the first one I find fault with; Williams decided to replace Anthony Davis with Roger Mason. As we've talked about all season, replacing Davis on offense makes no sense whatsoever. To that point, he had 17 points on 13 shots, 3 offensive boards, a number of good screens. Removing him for defense might have actually made more sense since he'd been burned on the previous defensive trip. New Orleans ran an isolation for Gordon that ended with him fading away from 16 feet and missing. After the tremendous success he's had with Davis in the pick and roll, this is simply an inexcusable play call.
On their final possession, the Hornets ran another Gordon isolation, this time resulting in a Kirilenko block. Around Gordon, there were essentially zero options to dump or kick the ball to -- another massive failure of playcalling.
And so: some positives, a lot more negatives, another loss. That, at this stage and for the foreseeable future, is Hornets basketball.