This won't be easy, Hornets fans.
I'll be the first to tell you that in trading Chris Paul, the face of the franchise for the past six years, I am happy with what the team received in return. In fact, I said so the very night the trade went down. However, that doesn't change the harsh reality of life after CP3 - the next couple years won't exactly make us feel like he never left. This team is going to struggle mightily. If you remember the year before the Hornets drafted Chris Paul - when the team went 18-64, landing the 4th overall pick in the draft - that's basically the kind of winning percentage we could end up achieving this season. Despite the strong likelihood of a poor record, this 2011-12 New Orleans Hornets team is completely different from the depressing, talent-barren team of 2004-05, and the differences give reason for considerable optimism.
2004 to the Present - A Brief Summary
At the '04-'05 season's trade deadline, disgruntled Hornets' biggest talent (and biggest ego), point guard Baron Davis, forced a trade out of New Orleans. The result was a team left with scraps and one which was quickly transformed into a shell of its former self. Want proof? Nineteen different players started a game for the Hornets that season. Nineteen! Four of those nineteen started more than half of the team's games - P.J. Brown (78), J.R. Smith (56), Lee Nailon (51), and Dan Dickau (46). The team's leading scorer was Nailon with 14.2 PPG, yet he sported just a 14.5 Player Efficiency Rating. Due to how the rating is calculated, the league average is set at 15. What kind of team has a leading scorer whose efficiency rating is below average? To make matters worse, this team wasn't exactly a young group blooming with potential. Even after trading long-time Hornet David Wesley to the Rockets two months into the season, this team was still one of the older ones in the NBA. Brown was 35, Nailon was 29, and many of the others receiving minutes would hardly be deserving of a bench spot on many other teams.
With such limited assets at its disposal, the Hornets' ability to rise from the depths of the Western Conference to within a game of the Western Conference Finals in just 3 seasons is nothing short of remarkable. When it came down to it, the Hornets had 4 main assets at the end of the 2004-05 season - 19 year old shooting guard J.R. Smith, 24 year old backup forward David West, 26 year old backup forward/center Chris Andersen, and the 4th overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft. Of the 4, the Hornets kept two (West and the pick, soon to become CP3), traded one (Smith was dealt with P.J. Brown in exchange for Tyson Chandler, a move that worked out very well), and lost one (Andersen was banned from the NBA for 2 years for failing a drug test). Throw in a vast overpayment for sharp-shooting forward Peja Stojakovic, and you have the 4-man core (CP/West/TC/Peja) of a team that, when healthy, could compete with anyone.
After that team's peak in 2007-08, it experienced a rough decline, largely due to two problems - injuries and bad contracts. The Hornets would not have made it as far as they did without Peja, but the fact remained that his deal was both for too much money and too much time. Typically, smaller markets tend to have to overpay for non-elite players in order to remain competitive, so it would be tough to fault the Hornets for doing so. That being said, $5 million+/year contracts for players like Morris Peterson and James Posey over multiple seasons were inexcusable deals, and more directly led to the team's rapid fall from grace. Eventually, the team arrived at the point where Chris Paul got tired of waiting for the front office to put together a squad with at least the same level of talent as the 2007-08 team, so he decided he wanted out. The Hornets granted him his wish, dealing him to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2012 1st round draft pick.
Differences between 2004-05 and 2011-12
So here we are, seemingly right back in a nearly identical position as we were stuck in seven years ago. Though things may seem exactly the same, I can guarantee you that this is anything but the same situation, and that is absolutely a good thing. Though rebuilding doesn't happen overnight and it takes a little luck in the draft (i.e. Atlanta drafting Marvin Williams 2nd overall instead of Paul) to expedite that process, this Hornets team is MILES ahead of the sorry excuse for an NBA team in 2004-05. Remember those four assets that the pre-CP3 team possessed? Double that for this team, and then some:
- The 2011-12 Hornets have a young star, Eric Gordon, who is easily more talented than any player from the 2004-05 Hornets' roster.
- This team will likely have two top-10 picks in the 2012 NBA draft, as opposed to just one in 2005.
- Al-Farouq Aminu, another piece of the Chris Paul trade, was the 8th overall pick of the 2010 NBA draft and can be compared to the 2005 version of J.R. Smith in the type of potential-based value that he provides to the team.
- Carl Landry and Chris Kaman are two above-average NBA big men with expiring contracts who could both bring in a decent return at the trade deadline; Belinelli is in the last year of his deal as well and could provide value to a team needing perimeter shooting help.
- Jarrett Jack, Trevor Ariza, and Emeka Okafor are all solid players on contracts that may pay them slightly more than they're worth, but not too much so that a contending team wouldn't look to acquire one of them if the need presented itself.
From top to bottom, it is clear that the current Hornets' roster is much better positioned for long-term success than the roster of 7 years ago. If you're not yet convinced, see for yourself:
The included chart is a breakdown of each team's main 9-man rotation, including each player's age, minutes per game, and player efficiency rating. In order to get as accurate of a comparison as possible, the total team PER is a weighted average based on each player's MPG, not merely an average of each player's PER. (Note: for the remaining minutes unaccounted for by the top 9 rotation players, a PER of 11 is assumed for each team.) On the surface, a .5 total team difference in PER does not seem terribly significant. However, keep the following three points in mind:
- The production from this year's Hornets team came from a group that was, on average, two years younger and less experienced than the 2004-05 unit; no current Hornets have even reached the age of 30. One more year of NBA experience should benefit most of the players on the roster; in fact, John Hollinger expects every player's PER to improve except for Jarrett Jack, Emeka Okafor, and Chris Kaman. Based on those projections and 2010-11 minutes per game, that 14.15 team PER would increase to 14.32.
- The player weighing the 2004-05 team down the most, Lynch, was a league veteran who retired after the season. The player weighing the current Hornets team down, Aminu, was a rookie with lots of room to grow this season (as evidenced by Hollinger's projected PER jump for Aminu from 9.6 to 11.56.
- Dan Dickau, Lee Nailon, P.J. Brown, and Jamaal Magloire all achieved PERs for that 2004-05 Hornets team that they would not reach again for the rest of their respective careers, a painfully obvious indication of their limited value as potential assets for other teams. In the cases of Dickau and Nailon, it was the highest PER of each of their entire careers. Simply put, the ceiling for each of these players was their performances as key pieces of a team that finished with 18 wins and 64 losses. If that doesn't sound very encouraging, that's because it isn't.
With all of the flaws (and as you can see, there were many) dragging down the future of this Hornets' franchise, it's important to understand that the only way that team could have turned things around within a window of even FIVE years would be through drafting a transcendent star. Luckily for New Orleans, Chris Paul was that star. As currently constructed, this Hornets team won't need to rely so much on luck; with what will likely be two top-10 draft picks in a deep class, the team will have two chances to grab its next star, along with another solid player to go along with it. Add those two picks to the young star they already have in Eric Gordon in addition to whatever the team can get back in its inevitable trade deadline deals, and the sky is the limit for this new era of the New Orleans Hornets. Stay on board, Hornets fans - we're making a short pit stop now, but it's going to be a fun and exciting ride back towards the top.