Welcome to “Pretty Much Screwed,” our 2012-13 guide to the upcoming NBA season, in which we identify the reasons why your favorite team might have to start looking forward to 2013-2014 — and highlight at least one reason for you to be hopeful. Today: the New Orleans Hornets, who are still picking up the Chris Paul pieces – but doing it a little faster than expected.
Right around the time the NBA rejected the Hornets’ trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers (for only the most basketbally of basketball reasons, of course) “pretty much screwed” seemed too kind for the Hornets. They were completely screwed. How was the franchise supposed to function when the league that owned it was getting in the way of its basketball operations? Where did the Hornets go from there? Were they just resigned to losing Paul for nothing in free agency after a year because of the NBA’s meddling? And how was Hornets GM Dell Demps supposed to go about doing his job with David Stern’s gaze hovering over him at every step, the threat of veto ever present?
And then… things turned pretty quickly. The team was able to trade Paul, to the Clippers, and got itself one of the most talented young guards in the league, Eric Gordon, in return, as well as Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and a 2012 first-rounder. That’s a pretty good haul. As expected, the team pretty much fell off a cliff last season without Paul around, but their 21-45 record was just bad enough to put it in prime draft lottery position… and then the Hornets landed the No. 1 pick… not to mention an actual owner in Tom Benson.
The Hornets used that pick on Anthony Davis, who has the potential to alter a franchise based on defense alone. They used their other first-rounder on Austin Rivers, whom they’ll train as Paul’s heir apparent at the point. They locked up Gordon with a four-year deal. They acquired Magic forward Ryan Anderson in a steal of a trade. They even got Robin Lopez from the Suns, to give themselves a true center. Plus their coach, Monty Williams, is one of the league’s most highly regarded. The future in New Orleans is increasingly promising.
But this isn’t the future.
This is the present. And the 2012-13 New Orleans Hornets are pretty much screwed. Why? Well, two of their future centerpieces are rookies, and not just any rookies – rookies with only one year of college experience each. Sure, Davis dominated at Kentucky, got some valuable Olympics experience going against some of the NBA’s best every day, and worked on transforming his Slender-Man-esque frame. He’s still a 19-year-old. And generally, 19-year-olds (who aren’t named LeBron James) need some seasoning before they’re ready to make a real impact at the pro level.
As for Rivers: he’s got tons of talent, sure. He’s also learning to play point guard, which he didn’t at Duke. And by the way, he wasn’t dominating everyone all year at Duke, either. He only shot 66 percent from the line. He averaged as many turnovers as assists. Playing the point instead of two guard might help the assist-turnover ratio on its own, by virtue of him passing more, but the free throw percentage is going to have to go up substantially for him to fulfill his potential. Rivers would be a bit of an unknown commodity even if he weren’t switching positions. Since he is? Even if he succeeds long term, he’ll have plenty of growing pains this year.
As for the guys who were already around, it should be noted Gordon only played in nine games last season due to injury, and missed 46 combined games in the two seasons before that. Is he fully healthy now? Well, no – his balky knee has kept him out of preseason action, and might sideline him for the beginning of the regular season as well. These are far more injury question marks than you’d like to see in a franchise cornerstone. And that’s not even getting into the whole restricted free agency “I don’t want the Hornets to match my offer sheet” mini-disaster. Oh, and back to Davis: if he does turn out to be as good as advertised, the rest of the NBA will be bitter.
One reason you might not be screwed: Pretty much went over it in the beginning, but: this team does have talent. This is one of the most interesting rosters in the league. What if Davis is good from the get-go? What if Rivers turns out to be a natural at the point? What if Gordon stays healthy? If Anderson slides right in to his role with the Magic and knocks down threes left and right, with Williams earning all the praise he’s received and making the pieces hum? It’s a ton of ifs, but it could happen, and even having that possibility so soon after the end of the Paul era is an impressive turnaround.
Actual season prediction: 12th in the West. The new pieces are exciting, but not because of what they’ll do right away. If everyone sticks around/stays healthy/pans out reasonably well, the Hornets will be a serious contender in a few years. For now – hey, they’re three games better than the Lakers this preseason.
Photos via Getty