Tuesday, September 18, 2012

David Stern Was Right - New Orleans Hornets Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Greivis Vasquez, SG Eric Gordon, SF Al-Farouq Aminu, PF Ryan Anderson, F/C Anthony Davis

Key Bench Players:
G Austin Rivers, SG Xavier Henry, F Hakim Warrick, PF Jason Smith, C Robin Lopez

Notable offseason additions:
F/C Anthony Davis (1st overall pick), G Austin Rivers (10th overall pick), PF Ryan Anderson, PF Hakim Warrick, C Robin Lopez

Offseason subtractions:
SG Marco Belinelli, SF Trevor Ariza, PF Carl Landry, F/C Emeka Okafor, F/C Gustavo Ayon, G Jarrett Jack

David Stern was right. There. I said it.
Perhaps the lesson was hardened right in front of the Commisioner's eyes. The mid-decade Sacramento Kings rode highly paid veterans to low playoff seeds in the post-Chris Webber era, rather than sell off those parts while they still had value. Now the franchise is in a prolonged rebuilding process, with not only it's on-court product in trouble, but also the very soil in which the team plays. Yes, the Kings were able to grasp the last remaining threads of relevancy within their reach, but for the very little success they achieved, the organization is now in shambles. This isn't to say that poor ownership decisions and the city fo Sacramento don't have anything to do with it, but certainly a winning product on the floor would help allay the massive obstacles the Kings are facing.
Last December, when the commissioner laid down The Veto, this is the situation he hoped to avoid. This squad that I just listed is the team he had in mind to take the floor for the 2012-2013 season. No, he didn't want 30-something vets with eight figure contracts like Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Emeka Okafor and Lamar Odom staying for the short term. Sure, they'd either make the playoffs or remain on just the fringes of contention, but a swift four-game first round exit would be at the expense of any long-term growth for a franchise that's struggled for so long. Stern was hoping that the 2011-2012 edition of the Hornets would have valuable young pieces like Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu, but what he surreptitiously pined for was the team being awful enough that they could acquire a franchise-saving high lottery draft choice. No doubt citing the Clippers, Magic and Cavaliers...twice as recent examples, David Stern had no choice but as acting "owner" of the Hornets to kibosh the potential trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers. For it, he'd get an impudent young guard and a trademarked unibrow. Not a bad haul.

This Hornets team is the fruits of Sterns' bloodletting. From just the sheer physical presence of Anthony Davis, you can see that he's a potential all-league superstar. There's no amount of superlatives that can adequately describe exactly how impactful he can be. Still, we're talking about a 19 year-old kid, who won't be 20 until the 70th game of the season. I suspect that at the very least he'll be a force on the defensive end immediately, seeing as he showed a hunger on that end of the floor, while most young men his age are only focused on scoring. I'm not sure if he's the type of rebounding savant that Dwight Howard was in his rookie season, but he's shown nothing besides maximum effort on the court. Offensively, he'll have a lot to learn, but the pure unorthodox combination of his size, length and agility that will allow him to put up 12 to 15 points per game. He'll quickly become the face of the team publicly (if he isn't already), which won't be great aesthetically, but surely will be on the court.
Offensively, this team is going to revolve around Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and to a lesser extent Austin Rivers. Gordon had a week-long love affair with the Phoenix Suns after they signed him to a massive 4-year, $58 million dollar offer sheet, but like in real life, the city of New Orleans quickly swallowed him back up into the beaded seas of anonymity. It's been somewhat forgotten because of a knee injury that cost him most of last season, but Eric Gordon was a star on the rise for the Los Angeles Clippers. He's a fearless shooter that can drive the basket on a dime and has complete control of his powerful body. Though his contract might sound hefty, only further knee trouble could stop this deal from being worth every penny. Beyond Gordon, Anderson will help provide Davis with enough spacing to keep defenses from packing down too hard on the number one overall pick. Oddly enough, Rivers and third-year man Greivis Vasquez are the third and fourth best offensive options on this team, as inefficient and limited as they might be.

GM Dell Demps, and to a lesser extent David Stern, built this team very shrewdly, though not without a few imperfections. Aside from Gordon's deal, this team is young and cheap, with enough cap flexibility to take on a higher-priced veteran if this squad should surprise anyone and compete in the next year or so. The team is mostly full of hard-working, very coachable rookies or young players who's willingness to learn and grow should be spearheaded by Davis, but also encouraged by guys like Anderson, Robin Lopez, Hakim Warrick and Aminu. The biggest areas of concern have to come from Xavier Henry and the number 10 pick Austin Rivers, both of which had big expectations as highly-touted recruits out of high school, but (and especially in Henry's case) haven't fulfilled any previous promise. So far the most intriguing part of Xavier Henry has been how the hell do you pronounce his first name (if indeed it's "Zav-e-ay", he can just go straight to hell). Rivers is another shooting guard masquerading as a point guard type of player, but seeing how Russ Westbrook has worked out in his young career, perhaps Doc's son could replicate the same path.
Looking at the '12-'13 Hornets, they have a tremendous amount of upside. Demps' offseason moves, which included clearing out $45 million dollars of Jarret Jack, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza in exchange for Rashard Lewis' reduced $13 million dollar expiring contract and a $35 million dollar deal for an appropriately paid Ryan Anderson, helped clarify this team's future even further. Win or lose, this squad will win or lose based on the merit of their young stars, who will hopefully grow and learn together, in the mold of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls. You can't disagree, can you?
Then David Stern was right.
Best Case Scenario: This team comes together a little better than anyone hoped. Anthony Davis is an absolute wrecking ball his first year out of the gate, throwing down a nightly double double as a teenager. Coach Monty Williams keeps together his trademark defense starting with his young anchor up the middle, but also with Aminu and Henry, who both show signs of promise, finally. Eric Gordon stays healthy, and if the team were a bit better, anyone worth listening to would nominate him as an All-Star. The team plays fast and tough, finishing with 30 wins, earning every single one of those but feeling like they deserved more. For their troubles, they end up with another top-10 lottery pick and buildling block for their bright, bright future.
Absolute Apocalypse: Eric Gordon's knee problems remind everyone of Brandon Roy, which makes both cities of Portland and New Orleans cry. Austin Rivers looks like another extremely talented waste of DNA, simlar to Xavier Henry. The most notable part of Anthony Davis is his unibrow, as he fumbles through his first professional season looking more like a young Michael Olowokandi rather than Dwight Howard. The team still plays great team defense, which gets them 20 wins, but somehow finishes with only the number four pick, when they truly needed a more dynamic player to help them move forward. The cities of Los Angeles and Houston laugh maniacally and cry hysterically in tandem, as The Veto doesn't look as sound as it did on opening day.

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