Know Your Enemy: The New Orleans Hornets

Kurt —  September 23, 2008

This is the first in a series here at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. We start with a team that many think will take a step forward next year, the New Orleans Hornets.

Last Season Record: 56-26 (second seed, one game back of the Lakers)
Last Playoffs: Beat Dallas in the first round (4-1), lost to San Antonio in the next round in seven games
Offensive Rating: 111.5 (5th in league)
Defensive Rating: 105.7 (7th in league)

Last year, the Hornets emerged as a power, improving by 26 wins and rather than challenging for the eight seed they were challenging for the top seed (and the MVP). They did it with Chris Paul running the high pick-and-roll better than anyone in the league, Peja spreading the floor and people in the mainstream finally figuring out that David West is really, really good. Don’t forget that Tyson Chandler is a beast on the boards, pulling down 19.5% of the available rebounds, and that leads to a fair amount of offense as he gets some easy put backs.

The young Hornets were somewhat unexpected and fun to watch (even though they played at one of the slowest paces in the league, nearly six fewer trips up and down the court a game than the Lakers), but their youth caught up with them. They learned some lessons from the veteran Spurs in the playoffs. The question now is, can this team mature, take the confidence of last season and those lessons and turn them into a possible title?

Maturity and improvement of existing players will be key — starting with Chris Paul, who enters just his fourth year in the season. He is the unquestioned leader and force behind the team, and his time (and impressive showing) in Beijing likely will lead to an even faster maturation process. That is good for the Hornets and bad for the rest of the West.

One big knock on the Hornets last year was depth — they had a great starting five but off the bench came Jannero Pargo, Rasual Butler and others of such quality. If you look at the numbers, the starting five regularly outplayed their opponents (60% of the time or more) but the bench was in the 40% range or lower.

This season, the first guy off the bench (and maybe starting at times) will be James Posey, a very good pick up for the Hornets. First, he can shoot and stretch the floor. Second, he plays good defense. And finally, he brings a winning attitude to a young locker room. He has rings, he knows how to win.

Just how big an upgrade Posey is was the first question I asked of Ryan from the fantastic blog Hornets 24/7.

Laker fans are plenty familiar with James Posey. Just how big is the Posey signing for the Hornets? What does he bring that New Orleans needed? Depth and outside shooting?

Posey adding depth and outside shooting is the easy answer. That’s a given, considering The Hornets had no proven back up at the forward spots with Julian Wright being only spottily utilized/trustworthy, Rasual Butler being Rasual Butler and Bonzi Wells being Bonzi Wells.

Posey brings a grit and desire that isn’t that prevalent on the Hornets. The Hornets aren’t a soft team, but they aren’t a tough team either, if that makes sense. Their players won’t let someone push them around (except Peja), but neither are they going to make them pay for doing so (except Paul). Posey brings that willingness to get into it. That’ll be important for the Hornets as they go deeper into the playoffs.

What else will help improve this team and move it forward next season? How important is the maturity factor, having players a year older and having gained good playoff experience?

The Hornets are an odd bunch. Typically a few years in the playoffs tempers a team, forcing them to recognize their mistakes and compensate – or fail. The Hornets, however are wise beyond their age. Despite the relative youth of their core trio, they are a tightly disciplined crew, and are already a team that rarely makes mistakes. Last year they played at a deliberate pace (5th slowest in the league), committed few turnovers (3rd least in the league), and played solid, basic defense without much risk taking. (lowest number of fouls in the league)

That sort of discipline is typically forged in the playoffs. I’m not sure the Hornet’s starting five will become noticeably more effective given that exposure.

The one great hope I have for internal improvement is with Julian Wright. His brand of energetic, brilliant basketball could turn into something special. I’m still somewhat convinced his ceiling is a Scottie Pippen-style all-around force. Posey’s presence complicates that some, as it may stunt his minutes some, but I still would love to see Julian emerge this season.

And of course, Chris Paul is still only 23. He can still improve as well, as scary as that thought is.

Both the offense and defense were good last season (fifth and seventh in the league in points per possession, respectively). Still, based on opponent PER the Hornets has some trouble defending good two guards and some centers. What are the areas that the Hornets need to improve to take the next step?

Honestly – one of those things will not improve. The Hornets purposely leave Chandler on an island against big scoring centers, and concentrate on jamming the perimeter. He does a solid job, but the offensive talent of some of those players is nearly impossible to stop without assistance and the average NBA center outweighs Tyson by a good fifty pounds. You also won’t find many bigger drops off in talent in the league than when the Hornets go from Chandler to Hilton Armstrong or Melvin Ely.

As for defensive improvement this season, I have my greatest hopes pinned on two things:

A. Julian becoming more disciplined, effective, and gaining Byron Scott’s trust.
B. Improvement from the shooting guard position. Morris Peterson is a solid player, and his ability to hit the corner three is valuable with a penetrator like Paul. However, his limitations kept him in the lineup only for 24 minutes a game, and frequently the Hornets were running with Pargo at the 2. Replacing Pargo as the primary backup shooting guard will help both the defense and offense. I liked Pargo, and I think Byron used him appropriately, but I also think it is not difficult to replace his highly inconsistent and inefficient offensive output, and his pressure defense was only effective when used against point guards – which frequently forced Paul to play much bigger 2 guards. I have a hard time imagining the trio of Peterson, Julian Wright and Devin Brown not improving that position.

Like every team in the West, health will be key. While the Hornets have improved their depth, they cannot handle many injuries, and certainly not any lightly ones to CP3.

At the end of the season, when (knocking on wood) the Lakers are fighting for a top seed, and they will be fighting the Hornets for those spots. There is a very good chance that in the second round or Western Conference Finals, the Lakers will face the Hornets in the playoffs. And if Wright and Posey add depth, if this team continues to mature, the outcomes of those games will will be anything but certain to Lakers fan.