Wednesday, September 16, 2009

09-10 Season Preview: Hornets

New Orleans Hornets

This team, out of any of the other playoff-hopeful teams, has the least margin for error. I’m talking microscopic. Could the 09-10 Bugs compete for a championship this year? While anything can and does happen in the NBA, the Bugs have a realistic shot at a championship if three main things come to pass.

The first is what avoided them last season…health. Everyone needs to stay healthy this year. Last season, Tyson Chandler missed 37 games, Morris Peterson missed 39 and Peja Stojakovic missed 21. Add to that Julian Wright only playing in 54 contests due to falling in and out of favor with Byron Scott, and it’s amazing that last year’s team won 46 games.

Peja, in particular, is key to the Hornets’ chances of making a championship run. When Peja is healthy and shooting like he has proven he can over the course of his career, the Bugs are formidable. This is a dude who is only 31-years-old. Last season, back spasms not only caused him to miss games, it also hampered him into missing plenty of shots. His field goal percentage fell below 40 percent for the first time since his rookie campaign.

But remember, this is a guy who was the best shooter in the league for six or seven years running (no offense Ray Ray). He posted back-to-back-to-back seasons of 48 percent shooting, and then averaged 24 a game for second best in the league on his way to carrying the Kings to a 55-27 record while finishing fourth in the MVP voting. (I don’t want to throw salt on an open, festering wound, but CP3 finished fifth last season).

Point is, dude was and has the potential to be wicked good. Injuries have pretty much derailed his career up to this point, but it should be no surprise then, that when he was healthy two seasons ago, and played in 77 games and shot 44 percent, that the Hornets won 56 games, took the Spurs to seven in the second round, and had CP3, this close, to an MVP. With Paul and David West on board, the Bugs don’t need Peja to be an MVP, just a lethal and efficient and healthy third scoring option.

Finally, the Bugs will need huge contributions from all of their young players. Before we get into this point, I’d like to point out the major weakness of this team and why it will be hard for them to break the top five in the west let alone contend for a championship even if everything breaks in their favor.

Similar to the plight of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Bugs just don’t have enough big bodies. Sure, they have four power-forwards in David West, Sean Marks, Ike Diogu, and the recently acquired Darius Songalia, but West and Diogu are undersized, Songalia fits in, but is not a difference maker, and Marks is 34, thin and not athletic. As for center, the Hornets have Okafor and the thus far hugely disappointing Hilton Armstrong.

Fun fact. There’s nobody over 7-feet on the roster. And in a conference that boasts Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Amare Stoudemire, Al Jefferson, Andres Biedrins, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby, etc. etc. not having 7-footers who are at least decent is a huge problem.

Armstrong has proven to be one of the most turnover-prone players in the NBA. To make matters worse, statistically, his rebound rate last year was only slightly better than the 6-foot Chris Paul. Chandler blossomed when he turned 24, so there remains a sliver of hope for Hilton, but unlike Hilton, Chandler showed signs of being good before hooking up with CP3, while Hilton’s been pretty god-awful even playing with him.

The addition of Okafor, at the very least, is an upgrade over Chandler in that he’s more likely to play 75 plus games. He’s also more well-rounded bringing a much better offensive game. But there’s plenty of downside to his acquisition as well. Okafor is undersized, can’t jump or finish like Chandler, and doesn’t play bigger than he is (a la Chuck Hayes, Charles Barkley, etc.). He’s also not as mobile as Chandler, thus creating a major dilemma for the team’s stated desire to run more this season.

Of course, Okafor’s never had the opportunity to play with anyone even remotely close to the caliber of Paul, and seeing as how CP3 is widely considered to be the best point guard in the league, I’m sure Okafor’s game will improve through osmosis. Chandler’s game exploded when he hooked up with Paul and I suspect Okafor’s game will have a similar up-tick. He could very well shoot over 60 percent this year. Okafor's offensive presence will also ease the burden on David West. West has been a solid second option for three years running now, but despite playing back-to-back seasons of 76 games, over his career, he hasn't been the most durable.

But even if Okafor posts better numbers than last season and West plays another 76 games, the Bugs will still struggle to match up with the bigger teams. I mean, West had a career year in rebounding averaging 8.9 two seasons ago, so Okafor has got his work cut out for him. Signing James Posey (whose "intangibles" and defense were perfect for the Celtics at the money he used to make, but remain the bare minimum for a team who needs much more from a player making $6.5 million) two offseasons ago instead of a big body continues to haunt New Orleans.

Okay, back to the youngins. The Hornets, as commissioned by owner George Shinn, will be looking to develop and play their young guys, which should spell out good things for both the team as a whole and those stated young guys.

Julian Wright, Marcus Thornton, Diogu, Armstrong and Darren Collison should therefore get every opportunity to develop and succeed.

Backup point guard, a huge positional weakness last year, suddenly has become a strength with the drafting of Darren Collison. After trying to fill the position with journeymen Devin Brown, Antonio Daniels and Mike James to varying degrees of unsuccess last season, the Bugs now finally have a player who can orchestrate a successful team while Paul rides pine.

My affection for and excitement over UCLA alum Collison is well documented in this blog. But his play during summer league (18.5 points, 4 assists on 45 percent shooting) and his history at UCLA that includes one trip to the championship game and two other final four appearances, should give Hornets fans comfort that when Paul comes out of the game, the ball will be in very capable hands.

What will be interesting to see is how much Collison and Okafor play together. Collison played four years under Ben Howland who ran half-court, slowed-down, methodical offensive sets. As mentioned above, this is ideal for Okafor’s offensive game. Either way, Collison’s presence will lessen Paul’s minutes and provide a confidence in the bench that wasn’t there last season.

While there are those who think the Hornets reached for Collison at 21, I’m of the opinion that any big man they took at that position had too many question marks to make a true difference this year. San Antonio taking DeJuan Blair was lower risk because of the lower draft choice and because he won’t be crucial to their rotation. Anything he gives the Spurs will be a major bonus. But Blair on the Hornets? That would be like a much shorter Chandler saga all over again. No thanks.

Another boon to the bench will be Marcus Thornton who was one of the top scorers in the Summer League and has a varied offensive arsenal and good range that should help out a second unit in dire need of scoring.

And whether or not he starts or comes off the bench, the wildly inconsistent Wright must take a huge step forward in his game this year for any talk of a deep playoff run. While a superb defender, Wright settles for too many jump shots and has no post game whatsoever. Consistency on offense will go a long way for him to get minutes.

Diogu, is entering his fifth year, but has only played in 187 total games, at about 12 minutes per contest. With a career 16.1 PER, he is the prototypical John Hollinger player in that he puts up efficient and eye-opening per-minute stats, but has never actually gotten the minutes. Case in point, his ten game stint with Sacramento last year resulted in a 24.9 PER which would make him better than Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson and Amare Stoudemire. Hornets success this year hinges on if Diogu can come in with the Bugs second unit and be the offensive force his numbers suggest he is.

All in all, if healthy, and if the young players progress as planned, and if the Bugs can get 07-08 Peja back, then it's within the very realistic realm of possibility that this team will be a 50 to 55 win squad and could finish as high as the 2nd or 3rd seed. If any or all of those things go awry, the Hornets will struggle to a bottom seed or might fall out of the playoffs all together.

No comments: