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Panic At the Hive

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The Hornets have thrown our emotions around this season in ways that none of us could see coming.  During the offseason, much criticism surrounded Jeff Bower, the status of the team in relation to Chris Paul's future, and the long term viability of the franchise.  After multiple inspired moves by the front office, fan cynicism subsided. Realistic expectations ranged from 50 wins to 40 wins going into the season.  Most of us just wanted to see the team be competitive again. 

However, after an 11-1 start, expectations immediately improved to the point of analysts openly comparing our current success to the 2008 team.  What's followed since is s a 2-6 record, and suddenly, people are more vocal than ever in downplaying the team's long term prospects, going so far as to say the team will no longer make the postseason.  For once, that huge drop off has absolutely nothing to do with injuries to the Hornets team.  I don't know if that means we should be encouraged or discouraged.

There seem to be two common beliefs amongst Hornets fans in relation to the team's hot start to the season.  Some felt it was sustainable and that the Hornets were a legit team that would finish in the top half of the Western Conference.  The other half felt strongly that the team would slide and continue their downtrodden ways of the years past.  Basically it was split between "this team is good" and "this start is a fluke."  I know it's a cop out to say, but I'm really somewhere in the middle.  So with all that said, let's find a way to finally put our minds to ease and realistically evaluate what the prospects should be for the rest of this season.

First of all, I'm aware that there's plenty of talk on the website about the Hornets new ownership situation. There is, rightfully so, a lot of uneasiness surrounding the team.  I will refrain as much as possible from discussing that topic in this post, because there's plenty of conversation about this elsewhere, and my feelings about the roster really don't matter in terms of who owns the team. 

Let me get this out of the way: the team we've had since the Jerryd Bayless for Jarrett Jack trade will essentially be the team for the rest of the season.  We know the great start hasn't been followed by any encouraging play as of late, but any hope of the team getting better via trade is finished.  They're under the luxury tax, and there's no chance that David Stern or the league agrees to pay the tax to allow the Hornets to use trade exceptions or smaller expiring contracts on the team (Marcus Banks, etc.)  to imrpove.  The Hornets will basically remain as currently constructed or make minor moves that will keep them under the luxury tax.  There will be no moves made to improve; not this season, and not until a new owner comes in either.  I guess, in a sense, that makes my job of putting this current team into perspective a little bit easier.

I won't make any numerical observations in this post, mainly because any numbers regarding the team are skewed either by their hot start or their terrible stretch of late depending on how you want to look at the team.  But we don't need numbers to make certain evaluations.  I know there was a lot of hope for the offense heading into the season, but the decreased minutes for Marcus Thornton, the trade of Peja Stojakovic, and Monty William's decreased pace have all contributed to a very, very mediocre offensive team.  When you look at the larger picture, it's just not an efficient half court team.  Monty, also, has not shown any indication that he will sacrifice defensive effort in the name of scoring points, so we may just have to accept that this just isn't a very good offensive team. 

We all like Marco Belinelli, but his numbers show that the team really just can't rely on him in any kind of consistent offensive role.  There's a reason the Hornets are his third team during his four year career.  Likewise, Trevor Ariza shoots at a very low percentage, and Emeka Okafor has barely any offensive game to speak of. The starting five is basically a mess on the offensive side of the basketball outside of Chris Paul and David West.  Still, Paul's very low shot attempt totals and West's reliance on a mid range game make the offense very predictable, and therefore leave the team very prone to incredible dry spells.  And while Thornton is explosive, he, Willie Green, and Jason Smith may not have the ability to shoot at consistently efficient rates off the bench. Taking that into consideration, the team isn't going to break any offensive records this season.

It's also easy to see how the defense has struggled the past few games.  When the shots aren't falling, the team is pressed to make stop after stop. The team basically has to count on the other team simply failing to execute offensively, which isn't a good strategy over an 82 game stretch.  Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor are great on-ball defenders, and West and Belinelli are good enough to round out a solid defensive starting five.  The potential to revisit the early defensive effort and execution from early in the season remains very likely, especially as the team learns to gel in the long run.  Efforts from Willie Green, Jarrett Jack, Quincy Pondexter and, maybe, Aaron Gray could give the bench a solid defensive identity as well.  I know the Hornets have recently fallen victim to giving up a lot of open looks from three, but the rotations and the effort were there early on in the season.  I think it's just a matter of tweaking things at this point and seeing if that defensive execution returns.

Lastly, we have to consider the fact that Monty is still a very raw coach.  He's only 38 years old.  He was terrific to start the season and still has the potential to be a terrific coach as early as this season.  But Monty's new to the head coaching gig and, while all of his assistants have impressive pedigrees, none have been head coaches in the NBA and none have long track records to speak of.  His adjustments are going to take time and we, as fans, need to expect that going forward.  It's going to be a learning process as the season progresses.

The Hornets are still the 40 to 50 win team most of us thought they were.  The recent bad stretch doesn't give anyone much hope, but the overall record is fairly indicative of what to expect going forward.  Basically, the team can regain its early defensive form, but the offense could still cost the team games here and there. 

If you're able to swarm David West and put your best man defender on Chris Paul, where else is the offense coming from?  Do you kick it back out to Ariza?  Do you let Belinelli create?  Those are options that opposing teams should be comfortable with.  Don't expect a championship from the Hornets this season, but don't expect them to fall into the abyss and miss the playoffs either.  It's a solid team that's facing unreal expectations as a result of their start to the season. They still have one of the best players in the game in Chris Paul, and they're a solidly constructed team in terms of  talents and meshing skill sets.  While a few great shooters and stronger interior presence would help this team get over the hump, that doesn't make this a bad team.  They are not without flaws, but no team genuinely is. 

Next time we watch the Hornets win a basketball game, let's not talk about how the ship has been righted.  Next time the team loses a basketball game, let's not drive our vehicles into the Mississippi river.  Understand that this is a young team that has 10 new faces that didn't end last year on the roster. 

Everything from now until February is a learning process for the team and the coaching staff.  There's still enough talent to expect good things from this roster.