Obviously New Orleans is in a rebuild, with only one guy on its roster — Roger Mason Jr., 32 — over the age of 27, but there’s lots of reasons for optimism. Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, has come as advertised, only slightly glossed over due to the success of Portland’s Damian Lillard. Ryan Anderson, the team’s most notable free agent acquisition, is Monty Williams’ leading scorer. And Greivis Vasquez, 26, is perhaps the favorite for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, on a 19-win team.
All that said, there are 2 major concerns for Hornets fans. One is Eric Gordon, the centerpiece of the Chris Paul return from L.A., who agreed to a max 4-year, $58 million deal this offseason with Phoenix, his publicly preferred destination, only to see New Orleans match the offer sheet. Gordon, due to a right knee injury and, most recently, a sprained right hand, has only appeared in 19 games this season; he missed 57 of 66 in last year’s lockout-shortened campaign. On paper, the Gordon and Vasquez backcourt could be one of the league’s best, but it’s fair to question Gordon’s durability, and maybe even his commitment to New Orleans, at this point.
Then, there’s Austin Rivers, the No. 10 overall pick in last year’s draft. Rivers is getting chances — he’s started 25 games in Gordon’s absence and is playing 23.2 minutes a night — but shooting only 35% from the field, 32% from 3 and 55% from the foul line. His 5.32 player-efficiency rating, almost 10 whole points below the league average, is dead-last among rookies on pace to play at least 500 minutes this season; Anthony Davis, in contrast, only trails Andre Drummond. Rivers’ ability to feel passing lanes (2.1 assists) also needs considerable improvement.
Yet I’m still high on this New Orleans team, very high. Vasquez has shown a distributor facet to his game I never expected from his days in Memphis, where he was mostly pinned in starter Mike Conley’s shadow. His 9.4 assists per game is 3rd in the NBA, trailing only Boston’s Rajon Rondo and L.A.’s Chris Paul. Vasquez could still make strides as a shooter and scorer, though he’s up to 13 points per game and 43% shooting, but his 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio is best on the team, as is his propensity to locate New Orleans’ open shooters. At 6’6″, he has great size for a 1-guard, and he’s even a willing rebounder, at 4.5 per game.
In the frontcourt, New Orleans has 4 guys worth keeping around: Davis, Anderson, Robin Lopez and Jason Smith. All 4 of these guys, maybe subtracting Lopez, are capable of stretching their games outside, with Anderson primarily an assassin from distance — he’s attempted a league-high 400 3′s and made a league-best 159 — and Davis sometimes even playing as if he’s a guard. At 6’10″ and with probably the most athleticism for a Western Conference big aside from Blake Griffin, Davis, 19, should bulk up and develop his around-the-basket offerings. In the meantime, at 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, the Kentucky rookie is still a more-than-capable pro.
Smith, a 48% shooter, is a nice floor-spacing option, and Lopez, though limited as a rebounder (a career-high 5.5 per game in 2012-13), is a solid contributor around the basket on both ends, with strength, energy and a team-high 56% shooting percentage. New Orleans, the league’s 20th-ranked rebounding unit (but a +1.0 differential), is forced to rely too heavily on bruising SF Al-Farouq Aminu, a team-best 7.5 boards per game, who’s limited shooting range and overall offensive game has yet to develop.
Unsurprisingly, New Orleans’ problem is scoring. With all their perimeter-oriented bigs, the Hornets struggle to get to the FT line, averaging a 28th-ranked 19.3 attempts per game. Anderson is, by all means, a chucker, throwing up 7.4 3-point attempts per game off the bench on the way to his team-high 16.9 points. Davis also often settles too easily for an outside jumper, relying more on his range than his athleticism against slower bigs. Gordon’s full-time return, likely by the end of the season, should help here, considering not only his ability to hit an open outside shot, but also to slash, score and create. (New Orleans’ offense currently scores a 24th-ranked 94 points per game.)
Brian Roberts, a 27-year-old rookie PG out of Dayton, has impressed me, with an ability to create his own shot and score in bunches — he’s averaging 6.4 points in 14.4 minutes and has a PER, 15.0, almost 3-times that of Rivers. Roberts filled up the cup for 17 points, 7-8 from the field, against Cleveland on Wednesday in 11 minutes. And New Orleans’ highest-percentage outside threat, journeyman Mason Jr., has shot the ball consistently — 44% from the field and 42% from 3 — in a limited role all season. In all, the Hornets’ bench, last year ranked No. 18 at 30.3 points per game, has jumped up to No. 11, at 36.8 points a night.
Even with Gordon’s max deal, all 3 rookies under lock and Anderson’s $8+ million per, New Orleans has all its main pieces locked up through next year, minus Aminu, with team options on Lopez and Roberts, to the tune of around $40 million, meaning plenty of room to sign a few impact free agents, or preserve the flexibility. But more importantly, New Orleans needs to make a decision on Gordon, whose name’s been floated recently in trade rumors. Should the Hornets decide to deal him this offseason (or even by Thursday’s trade deadline), the organization would take an immediate step back, but hopefully acquire assets in the mold of draft picks and young players to build around Davis.
Say New Orleans holds on to Gordon, who returns fully healthy at the start of the 2013-14 season, I see no reason why this New Orleans team cannot make a fringe playoff push, for the first time since Chris Paul’s departure.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.