In this series I will be looking at teams currently in the NBA’s basement and evaluating their potential, while also trying my hand at making moves and suggestions to make the team a contender. I will start by doing a position-by-position analysis of both the starters and bench players, and then segue into areas of concerns, draft considerations, potential offseason signings, cap situation, and finish grading each teams’ potential to contend within the lifespan of their current core.
Here’s my breakdown of the New Orleans Hornets, Pelicans.
Vasquez is an offensively gifted point guard with impeccable court vision. He is putting together a season worthy of some most-improved player votes due to his 13.9 points 4.5 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game. Vasquez is a pass-first point guard with a 46.5% assist percentage, but he is more than capable of finding his own shot and shoots pretty well from deep at 36%. The question with Vasquez is how much more will he be able to progress? He is 26, but it is only his third season, and he has seen his production increase every year. Usually we like to say that an athlete’s prime starts around 27, but I believe that Vasquez will see his ability as a distributor increase well past that point because he relies little on his athleticism. As he grows older, he will make fewer mistakes and have a better feel for the game, and his teammates’ tendencies. Vasquez could make some improvements on the defensive end, and become a better perimeter defender. Also, he could really help his team if he worked himself into a deadeye shooter.
Brian Roberts is seeing limited minutes since Vasquez leads the team in minutes, and has been average in those minutes. Literally. He is at a 15.2 PER, right above the league average of 15. He’s a pretty good shooter and ball handler, but the offense really suffers under him, halting to a 98 rating. This speaks more to Vasquez’s value to the offense as a floor general than to Robert’s deficiencies, but it is clear that the offense needs a backup with Vasquez’s ability to control the game, and that’s not Roberts.
Eric Gordon clearly doesn’t want to be in New Orleans. They are paying him the max, and he has the potential to be worth it. He gives them a go-to scorer who can do it in many different ways. The Hornets are in the bottom third of the league in drawing fouls, so Gordon’s ability to slash to the basket and draw fouls and get to the free throw line is very valuable. His two concerns are defense and durability, both having something to do with his attitude. He has been cleared to play by all doctors, yet has missed a seemingly unnecessary amount of games this year because of his knee. However, he does have a history of injuries, so his time missed may very well be legitimate, but I can’t help to think that he is sitting because he doesn’t want to play. I think the same lack of interest translates to his defense, as he is capable of being a solid defender. If he can put it together, he is an elite player that can score 25 points a game.
Austin Rivers is having a disastrous season. He is shooting 36% from the field and not doing much else, and he is posting negative win shares. Having him on the team is actually causing the Hornets to lose games. Hope is not lost, however. He was a good player at Duke and there should be reason to believe he can rediscover that, but I’m sure Hornets fans are wishing they used their #10 pick on anyone else.
Roger Mason is a shooter who offers stability and veteran presence on a very young team. His play could have a lot of value in limited minutes as he is shooting a career high 42% from deep. If anything he should be kept for 3-point shooting off the bench.
Al-Farouq Aminu came into this season regarded as one of the worst starting small forwards in the league. He’s had an okay season, but is not good enough to be a starter. His contributions are very valuable, as he leads the team in rebounding at 7.8 a game, and he takes the title of the team’s best perimeter defender (by default). He would be a great rebounder and defender off the bench, but he should not be playing 28 minutes a game.
Backing up Aminu is another young wing player, Xavier Henry. He’s inserted at the three because he has decent size at 6-6, and they can’t afford to play Aminu that much, but he is a terrible defender and rebounder so the Hornets suffer with him on the floor. He might have a place on this team as a shooter if the Hornets can get a quality small forward.
Both of these guys would be starting if the Hornets had a reliable bench, but Ryan Anderson has taken on a bench role to give the second unit a scorer. Anthony Davis has shown signs of the defensive monster that he will eventually become, posting a 103 rating and averaging 1.8 blocks per game. The amount of time Davis has missed this season is a bit of a concern, but once he settles into his frame he will stay healthy. Once he fills out and tones his offensive game more, he will be the Hornets best player.
Ryan Anderson is an amazing floor-spacing big man who can shoot 40% from the 3-point line. Basically he is the perfect complement to a more mature Anthony Davis because his flaws (defense and rebounding) will be covered, and his strengths (spacing, shooting) will be amplified. Currently he sits on the bench because he adds instant offense to a second unit that struggles to score, but when the bench gets stronger he can be freed to wreck havoc alongside Davis.
Robin Lopez is enjoying an efficient season posting a 19.8 PER. He is starting now, but I believe that Anthony Davis should be starting at the center position. This allows the Hornets to play Davis and Anderson next to each other, and also bolsters the bench by moving Robin Lopez down. He is a nifty post scorer and also a viscous offensive rebounder, which is a valuable asset that is frustrating for opposing teams. Lopez has a future on this team as Davis’ backup if he can build on his current career-year.
Jason Smith has also been relatively effective in his minutes this season. He has a 16.8 PER and averages 17.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes. He offers value as a big man who can score, but might lose his place in the team if the Hornets look for a bench player who can rebound better.
Areas of concern and how they can be addressed:
Defense: The Hornets are one of the worst teams in the league defensively, and it starts on the perimeter. Davis will eventually take over the paint on defense, but until he develops the “Dwight effect” where everybody is forced to adjust their shot just by his presence, the guards have to be able to keep guys in front of them. The main way to fix this is to get Eric Gordon and Vasquez to put a little more effort into their defense. Some free agents to consider include Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver as both give you three and D capabilities.
Small Forward position: The Hornets are in need of a strong starting small forward, and I suggest they spend to try to get one. The hypothetical dream would be to resign Aminu for a very small deal and then try to pry Luol Deng away from the Bulls in 2014 (unlikely considering how much Coach Thibs loves Deng). This would give the Hornets one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and allow them to keep Aminu as a rebounder and defender off the bench. This also creates a logjam at the forward position, but a guy like Korver or Brewer can play the two for a size advantage.
Back-up point guard: This may be another spot where they look to free agency, but quality back-up point guards can be found for cheap. A guy like D.J Augustin might be willing to accept minimum money after being humbled by falling out of the Indiana rotation. Augustin is an explosive scoring point guard who can also run an offense quite adequately. It was only a season ago when he was averaging 14.4 points and 6 assists a game, so the guy can ball when given a shot.
Bench scoring and rebounding: The above moves should give the Hornets some good shooters and perimeter defense off the bench, but they still need a guy that can create his own shot and some solid rebounders. In his most recent Mock Draft, our own Jason Quint pins the Hornets at the 7th pick and selecting Shabazz Muhammed. This gives them the perfect explosive bench scorer from what we have seen from the guy at UCLA, where he is averaging 18.3 points per game. In terms of rebounding, relocating Aminu and Lopez to the bench would strengthen the second unit.
The Hornets can be a legitimate threat if they are able to surround Davis with shooters. Once his offensive abilities grow he will be forcing double teams and be able to kick it out to three point shooters. The shooters would also thrive with a slasher like Gordon and a good drive-and-kick point guard like Vasquez. Ryan Anderson will be able to space the floor for Davis and open up the post for him, while also providing an onslaught of three-pointers. Luol Deng gives them an amazing defender and solid third or fourth option on offense that can also shoot the three. The bench consists of sixth man Shabazz Muhammed leading a combination of defenders, shooters, and rebounders.
The Hornets will probably be competing for a playoff seed through development of studs like Davis and Gordon alone, but with some future cap room and free agent classes that fit their needs, they might be able to mold into a high seed contender.