The 2008 New Orleans Hornets won 56 games, boasted one of the strongest young cores in the NBA, and came within a game of the Western Conference Finals. They won often, fortified the presence of professional basketball in New Orleans, and, given the right moves, were on the verge of vaulting into a multi-year championship window.
Two years on, not a single member of that team is still a Hornet. In fact, only one member of the 2010 side (Emeka Okafor) is still on the team in December 2011. Rebuilding efforts are obviously common around the league, but 100% turnover in a two season span? 93% turnover over a one year stretch? Not so much. The Hornets tossed away their future core (Darren Collison, Marcus Thornton) in an effort to keep their then current core (Chris Paul, David West), a move, which despite its ultimate failure due to a number of reasons, is still vaguely defensible. In between, the team also happened to pick up a new "owner", a new coach, and a new GM (and arguably two new GMs).
And now, two days from the start of this, the 24th season in the history of the franchise, we're face to face with a roster about as unfamiliar as the one that represented Charlotte on November 4th, 1988. What does it all mean? What will this team look like this year? In 3 years? In 5 years?
The goal is to win an NBA championship.
Its obviousness might make it a rather inane point. But the circus that was New Orleans' offseason, the uncertainty that surrounds the purchase 10,000 fans made in the last five months, and the prospect of the first superstar-less season for the Hornets in seven years, makes it easy, and even justifiable, to forget this. Do we desperately need team ownership resolved? Absolutely. We need a real owner, we need a new lease on the New Orleans Arena, and we need the NBA-generated fan and corporate momentum to endure. On the court though, the goal, as ridiculous or as remote as it may now look, remains the same - the eventual goal is to win an NBA championship.
Let's go a step further and quantify that - how close did we actually get with Chris Paul, and how far do we now have to go without him?
NBA Finalists 2002-2011 (Efficiency Differential*)
Dallas Mavericks (+4.7)
Miami Heat (+8.2)
Los Angeles Lakers (+5.1)
Boston Celtics (+3.9)
Los Angeles Lakers (+8.1)
Orlando Magic (+7.3)
Boston Celtics (+11.3)
Los Angeles Lakers (+7.5)
San Antonio Spurs (+9.3)
Cleveland Cavaliers (+4.2)
Miami Heat (+4.2)
Dallas Mavericks (+6.8)
San Antonio Spurs (+8.7)
Detroit Pistons (+4.4)
Detroit Pistons (+6.6)
Los Angeles Lakers (+4.2)
San Antonio Spurs (+5.9)
New Jersey Nets (+5.7)
Los Angeles Lakers (+7.7)
New Jersey Nets (+4.5)
Here, "efficiency differential" refers to the difference between a team's offensive points/100 possessions and defensive points/100 possessions. It's semantics, but this is also the same thing as the sum of how far from league average a team's offense is and how far from league average the same team's defense is.
Over the last decade, the above list shakes out to an average around +6 offensive points per 100 possessions minus defensive points per 100 possessions. Efficiency differential varies from point differential by removing team pace from the equation. Between two teams with identical efficiency differentials, the team with the faster pace will artificially have the higher point differential.
There's yearly variation based on conference strength, "weaker" teams breaking through, etc. But ultimately, if you get to the +6 differential plateau, you're championship material. You obviously don't have to get there; things like tons of prior playoff experience (2011 Dallas, 2009 Boston) play a role. How you get there doesn't really matter either - you can play exceptional defense and mediocre offense (2004 Detroit), exceptional offense and bad defense (2001 Los Angeles), or mix and match between the two (2006 Miami). But ultimately, +6 is a sign of a contending team. It doesn't guarantee a title or even a Finals appearance. But it guarantees a team that has a damn good chance.
+6 is the goal we now build towards. For the next few years, +6 needs to become our mantra.
WHERE WERE WE WITH CP3?
In hindsight, the Chris Paul years were amazing; as Hornets fans we were phenomenally lucky to have him, and he'll forever be a part of our history. Due to injuries, poor roster construction, bad luck, and poor foresight, the Chris Paul years are now over. But, based on the +6 paradigm, how close did we actually get?
Chris Paul Era, Sorted by Efficiency Differential
The efficiency differential of 2007-2008 gives credence to the idea that that particular team was a piece or two away from greatness (<insert James Posey joke>). It's also very clear from the rest of those numbers that in Chris Paul's six year stay, the Hornets had just one team that even remotely looked like it could do much. For all of Paul's greatness, his supporting casts were just never that good.
By definition, league average efficiency differential is 0. With Chris Paul, we finished below league average three times, and above it three times; yes, +6 was nearly achieved once, and yes, with a new owner and new management, the future perhaps looked like brightening. But looking at it from Chris Paul's perspective, I think it's completely reasonable he decided he wanted out and, specifically, wanted out to a championship contender. Are the Clippers that? It remains to be seen, but their current setup would certainly appear to be better than the Hornets' 2005-2011.
We can break down Chris Paul's own individual numbers here too (and this will provide a good reference point for the Eric Gordon discussion, next).
During the 2007-2008 regular season, Paul used approximately 1450 offensive possessions, producing 1.25 points per possession (derived from his offensive efficiency (ORtg) of 125, including points and created shots for teammates). The average points per possession value in the NBA was 1.075 that year and generally hovers around that mark. So Paul produced, offensively, 0.175 more points per possession than the average NBA player.
Let's transfer that over to the original scale we were discussing - the one in which the concept of "+6" exists. Over 100 possessions, that's a +17.5 differential above league average. To make another very obvious statement - Chris Paul was amazingly, amazingly good at basketball in 2007-2008.
Some more simple math at this juncture:
The Hornets had about 7372 offensive possessions in 2007-2008. 20% of those ended with a Chris Paul shot, free throw, turnover, or assist, and of those 20%, the Hornets had the aforementioned +17.5 differential. Keep in mind that we're talking only offense here. +6 can be achieved through any combination of offense and defense; it could be +3 offense above the league average offense and +3 defense above the league average defense, +7 offense and -1 defense, or +0 offense and +6 defense, and so forth.
By using 20% of possessions at a +17.5 clip, Paul contributed a net +3.5 differential to the team; in other words, Paul's offense alone in 2007-2008 took the team more than halfway to championship contention status.
Now let's say we know we have a +3 defense (or +3 above the league average defense), and we needed the team to be +3 on offense (or +3 above the league average offense) to reach +6. We know Paul used 20% of possessions at +17.5; we can then find out what the remaining 80% of possessions need to be, efficiency wise, to reach the mark. In this case, with 20% of possessions at +17.5, the remaining 80% would need to be converted at a -0.625 differential (or close to league average of 0) in order to have a highly functional +3 offense.
In reality, the 2007-2008 Hornets actually finished at a +4 on offense, buoyed by strong contributions from David West and Tyson Chandler. The Byron Scott-led defense finished at a +1.8 differential, the 7th best mark in the league.
Chris Paul's offensive involvement declined tremendously in 2010-2011, post-surgery. However, the main drop-off in his offense came not in his points/possession (which dropped from 1.25 in 2008 to 1.22), but rather, the total number of possessions used. He used approximately 1450 in 2008, 1500 in 2009, but only about 1100 last year.
1100 possession was only 15% of the team's total, as opposed to the 20% figure of 2007-2008. As a result, the burden of achieving a higher positive offensive differential shifted to other players on the roster. By eschewing the ball as much as he did, Paul forced unfathomably worse offensive players (Willie Green and Trevor Ariza come to mind) into using more possessions at terrible differentials. The passive Chris Paul disappeared in the playoffs of course, replaced by the amazing Chris Paul of old. But his possession drop-off in 2011 is still worth remembering nonetheless.
In 2007-2008, the rest of the roster required just that -0.625 offensive differential amongst themselves to get halfway to the +6 mark. In 2010-2011, that number jumped all the way to 1.6 due to Paul's passivity.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Most statistical projections will have the Hornets floundering around the bottom of the Conference this year, in line to pick up an excellent lottery choice in the 2012 draft. To the "eye test," that may or may not be a reasonable assessment; because nobody's seen this team really play together, the "eye test" is a tough one to refute, whatever its conclusions. So let's dig a little deeper than that.
The Eric Gordon Effect
Of the current roster, Eric Gordon is far and away the most likely player to still be present on the next contender that New Orleans puts together. Rosters don't remain static, especially when they're headed by a GM as active as Dell Demps; Gordon, barring complications with his rookie contract extension, is far too talented to be moved before the team has a chance to build around him.
Gordon has a chance to develop into a superstar player, though for now, his impact is obviously significantly less than that of Paul's.
Last year, Gordon produced 1.12 points per possession, using 1082 possessions. That's an offensive differential of 4.7 above league average, obviously a far, far cry from Chris Paul's 17.5 of 2007-2008. That's the difference between a sure-fire Hall of Famer and a player gunning for a future All-Star berth.
Gordon only played 56 games last year, so if we propagate Gordon's usage through a full year (an exercise which obviously raises questions of its own, namely can Gordon be this good over an entire season?), Gordon would have used about 20% of the Clippers' total possessions last year. Bringing back the +3 offensive differential above average goal once more, that would require the rest of his teammates to be +2.6 above average on offense through the rest of their possessions - obviously a huge ask. Where Paul's 2007-2008 season saw him add +3.5 to the +6 goal by himself offensively, Gordon's 2010-2011, if we projected it out to 82 games, would add about +1.0.
The fact is, the next iteration of the Hornets will need to be a far more balanced offensive side than the teams we saw during the Chris Paul era in order to have success.
The Monty Williams Effect
You'll notice that to this point, any discussion of defense has been completely excluded. Paul was a great defender; so is Eric Gordon. There's probably an interesting debate to be had about the relative merits of each as a team's primary perimeter defender. But the more instructive discussion here is probably a more overarching one - a look at how the Hornets played defense as a team in 2010-2011 and what that means going forward.
In Year 1, Monty Williams had his team playing top-5 level defense for large stretches of the season. Various injuries to Paul, Emeka Okafor, and others eventually pushed the Hornets down to the 10th best defensive team in the league. But Williams clearly has an exceptional understanding of how to funneling playmakers towards defensive help; that, perhaps more than anything, was his biggest strength as a coach in 2011. We saw Emeka Okafor become a strong defensive anchor in the paint as Ariza and Paul systematically fed him offensive players on their own terms, and Williams' frequent use of zone defense was another component of this defensive style.
The Hornets finished last year with a +2.1 defensive differential above league average (using "positive" as a plus here, and "negative" as a bad sign, though that's obviously flipped in terms of the scoreboard) despite a tremendous amount of roster shuffling, a season ending injury to a critical big, and the presence of a very poor defender (Belinelli) in the starting five.
The big questions for the Hornets defensively in 2011-2012 will come at point guard (Jack) and power forward (Landry). However, the team makes a huge defensive upgrade at the 2-guard. The Chris Paul-Jarrett Jack combination was the Hornets' most successful backcourt last year (by point differential) in part due to Belinelli's shortcomings at the position. Obviously, Ariza and Okafor return to the roster. It's not inconceivable at all for the Hornets to finish in the top 15 of defensive efficiency this season. Even if the offensive talent isn't there, Monty Williams will have his players defending on every possession.
A defensive differential ranging between 0 and +1 to +1.5 isn't at all unreasonable to expect this year.
More importantly, Monty Williams' defensive abilities are very important going forward, especially in light of the +6 goal. The 2012 draft is absolutely loaded with defensive talent. Our plus defense will ostensibly allow us to inch further up the positive point differential without requiring as much offensive talent. So in that sense, even the most die-hard "tank" advocate should be rooting as hard as possible for the Hornets' defense this season. Sure, we may be getting new players in the near future, but the value of the fundamental defensive base everything is built around will become more clear over the next 66 games regardless.
I won't go too heavily into analyzing each individual player - just my quick notes on them and my projection, based on past value and current role.
Additionally, this is an offensive look at the roster; as noted above, I expect the defensive side of the ball to shake out somewhere between a +1 and 0 differential.
Jack struggled tremendously in his first month as a Hornets, but eventually began to rebound. It's key to note that Jack has been an NBA starter in the past, notably starting 43 and 53 games for Toronto and Indiana in 2010 and 2009. In those seasons, Jack posted offensive efficiencies (points per 100 possessions) of 116 and 107. With the Hornets, that figure fell to 104 in a backup role.
This year, I see him rebounding at least to league average (~107.5) again.
Projected Possessions Used: 12% (of team)
Projected Differential : 0
Gordon's health will be tracked closely; over the last three seasons, Gordon has actually played fewer games than Chris Paul. The main difference we'll see from 2010 Gordon and 2011 Gordon figures to be overall usage. Gordon's defense is excellent, and Monty Williams won't have the "Marcus Thornton" problem with him; on the other side of the ball, Monty will have very few creative options - Carl Landry (and Jarrett Jack on a good day) figure to be chief among those.
I conservatively don't see Gordon's overall offensive efficiency increasing too much - he'll be taking on a much bigger possession load, and defensively, opponents can focus in on him every single night without too many repercussions. Gordon's ORtg was 112 a year ago (a differential of +4.7). If he'd stayed healthy, he was on pace to use 20% of the Clippers' total offensive possessions.
Projected Possessions Used: 23%
Projected Differential: +5
Oh, Trevor Ariza. Long one of the league's most underrated players, then perhaps its most overrated, and now, just a depressing one, at least offensively.
Last year, Ariza produced a hilarious -10.3 differential (yes, that is NEGATIVE 10.3). I don't see it being quite that bad this year, simply because his 2010-2011 was one of the worst offensive showings in the history of the NBA and, happily, doesn't seem that repeatable. He used just 12% of Hornets' possessions though, a figure which looks to increase without Chris Paul.
Projected Possessions Used: 15%
Projected Differential: -8
Tooth returns this year, for another year of great PaintShops and, hopefully, a year of shot attempts a bit closer to the hoop. Landry is easily one of the NBA's best finishers with his array of hesitations and shot fakes so hopefully he'll eschew the midrange game for a more drive-heavy one this year.
In the last three years, his ORtgs have been 110, 117, and 123, with an obvious decline; I think he should be right in the 110 range (+2.5 differential) once more.
Projected Possessions Used: 17%
There's been some discussion about who the starter will be at the 5; I think Okafor will almost definitely take it due to his defensive impact. Despite the presence of two elite defenders last year in Paul and Ariza, Okafor was still the centerpiece of Monty's D. Now that he's been stripped of his superstar (and, depending on who you believe, a much better offensive complement of players in Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Lamar Odom), Monty will almost assuredly hang on to the one thing he still has - his defense. And that still starts and ends with Okafor, no matter his offensive shortcomings.
From a casual observer's perspective, Okafor really did seem to gel with Chris Paul last year on the offensive end; in actuality, his offensive efficiency stayed about the same. Over the past three years, his ORtgs have gone 112, 110, and 111. I do see it dropping a bit this year without a real creator at the point guard (Jack will be calling his own number quite frequently one would assume). Even in 2010, Okafor had Darren Collison setting up shots for him; this year, he won't even have that. So I'd estimate his ORtg dropping more in line with his career ORtg (107). Let's call it 108 (+0.5).
Okafor also used 9% of possessions last year, a figure that may slightly drop without Paul and with the addition of Kaman; however, it's already a low total and can't drop much further.
Projected Possessions Used: 8%
Projected Differential: +0.5
Between the starters, 75% of the team's offensive possessions figure to be used. This assumes relatively robust use of the starting five, perhaps a safe bet given the composition of the team's second and third units.
Kaman's an interesting player in that his offensive game looks relatively polished in a stylistic sense (his jumper and post jukes are all clean). But he's never been an efficient offensive player in his career. His career ORtg is a woeful 98, and he hasn't crossed the 100 threshold since 2008. I simply don't see that changing in New Orleans; he'll be in that 99-100 range again, in addition to some very solid defensive rebounding.
Alongside Aminu and Belinelli, Kaman also figures to be one of the biggest offensive options for the bench. His possession percentage assumes that he uses more than a quarter of the bench's possessions offensively.
Projected Possessions Used: 6.5%
Projected Differential: -7.5
Aminu's far and away the most difficult player on the team to project. Everyone else has either been in the league a while or has given us a reasonable expectation level for their future (ie, Pondexter). Aminu, on the other hand, is still very young (21) and has components to his game that could improve significantly through coaching.
I'll actually go ahead and project Aminu optimistically; he had an awful 94 ORtg last year, but it's quite possible he creeps into the high 90's range, so around a -9 or 10 differential).
Projected Possessions Used: 4.5%
Projected Differential: -9.5
As I've noted multiple times, I'm really quite glad the Hornets brought back Belinelli; however, his role is definitely a bench one. Hopefully we'll get much more flag waving this season regardless.
His ORtg the past three years has been 104, 106, and 107. Less Chris Paul and less even Jarrett Jack as a "creator" from the bench, a mild decline seems reasonable.
Projected Possessions Used: 4.5%
Mason noted many times through Wednesday's game that Jason Smith looks like a much improved player and athlete. Without Paul running the pick and pop with him, Smith's offensive opportunities may be a bit limited, but his value as both a defender and a rebounder looks to be in line to increase.
Smith's career ORtgs have been 101, 101, and 100 (-7.5) and that's not likely to change. I also don't see him using more than 15% of bench offensive possessions, or about 4% of the team total.
Projected Possessions Used: 4%
All in all, that accounts for about 95% of team possessions so far. The rest will be taken by guys like new signing Gustavo Ayon, Quincy Pondexter (whose role and possible injury look unclear at this point), as well as the DLeague guys, like Squeaky Johnson, who may make the final roster. Let's go ahead and toss that percentage in as well:
Projected Possessions Used: 6%
Projected Differential: -10
It's obviously tough to get a great estimate of their offensive differential; -10 may indeed be a little bit harsh, but it's a small percentage of the overall impact.
And that now leaves us at 100% of offensive possessions accounted for.
Multiplying and adding it altogether give us a grand total of -1.52 points/100 possessions below league average on offense. Gordon, Landry, and Okafor play their roles in buoying the figure a little bit, but ultimately, there's one too many minus offensive player on this current roster.
For some perspective, a -1.5 offensive team last year would have been the Toronto Raptors, or Eric Gordon's former the team, the Clippers. Interestingly, last year's Chris Paul led New Orleans Hornets finished about -1 below league average.
That last one is actually pleasantly surprising to me. Based on my initial eye test of the new roster, one of my first claims on Twitter (and here, I think) was that the dropoff from Paul to Jack wouldn't be that much different than the upgrade from Belinelli to Gordon, offensively. And that's borne out by the numbers.
Next, we can take those offensive and defensive projections and take a stab at a record. Let's go with a defensive differential of +0.5 (again, positive being a good thing).
If the Hornets play at a typical Monty Williams pace (89 possessions/game), they should score 89/100 x (107.5 - 1.52) points per game, or 94.3 and they should allow 89/100 x (107.5 - 0.5) point per game or 95.2. Using a Pythagorean wins formula (see Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver), over a 66 game schedule, this should come out to 30.8 wins, which we can round up to 31 wins for a projection - so a record of 31-35.
The Western Conference's 8th place team posted a 56% winning percentage last year, which would be equivalent to a 37-29 record this season. Overall, the Hornets may well be bit better than many project (John Hollinger has us last in the conference) but will likely fall short of a playoff spot by some distance.
As it stands now, this is a -1 to -2 efficiency differential team. The goal is +6, and we've got quite a gap to make up over the next two to four years. In the interim, we'll have multiple (lottery) draft picks, the development of Eric Gordon into a possible All-Star, and the evolution of Monty Williams' defensive scheme.
Will it be enough? We shall see. But we know quantitatively what our eventual goal is, and we know, quantitatively, some of the steps on the way to getting there. Can Gordon, currently a +1 kind of player, grow into a +2? Can Monty Williams' defense sustain a +1 efficiency despite the loss of so many components? If both those things come to fruition, an elite 2012 draft could be what puts the team over the top.
As a fan, it's your right to root for a season of tanking (abject failure is, idiotically, what leads to small market success in the NBA) but there's a lot to look forward to from the 2011-2012 New Orleans Hornets from a basketball perspective as well.
+6, y'all. +6.