July 27, 2012; Metairie, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis who also will be in charge of basketball operations for the New Orleans Hornets franchise talks with their general manager Dell Demps and team president Dennis Lauscha on the sideline during training camp at the team

Western Conference Roundup: The New Orleans Hornets—On the Verge


The Hornets struck gold in last June’s draft, jumping from the fourth-worst record to the first overall pick.  Fishy?  You bet. (And if it wasn’t rigged, it simply shows how awful the ping-pong ball deelybop really is. In any sane system, the 4th place team CAN’T have the #1 pick. You’re welcome.) The new owner needed a major perk for bailing out the franchise while losing Chris Paul under Stern’s stewardship. Money talks and bullshit walks, so nothing new there.

No sense getting into the Hornets twisted history. It’s a whole new day. New owner and a spanking new roster. No fewer than ten mostly veterans from last year’s team are gone, including Chris Kaman, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Jarret Jack, Carl Landry, Marco Belinelli and local favorite Gustavo Ayon. Though those guys are better than decent, remember that, playing together, they had the worst record in the West, 21-45. (The Kings were 22-44, in case you were wondering.) The new cast is younger and has a brighter future, though it may take a while.

Or maybe not that long.

They drafted consensus Player of the Year Anthony Davis at #1, and with their other lottery pick (10th) picked Austin Rivers, a shooter with point guard skills. In the second round they nabbed Darius Miller, a small forward from Kentucky’s recent juggernaut. Not a bad haul on draft day.

Eric Gordon, under a new four-year, $58 million contract, has been a major scoring threat but now has to prove he can still do it after knee surgery.  The guess here is that he will. Backing him up are Roger Mason, a free agent signing who is a lights-out shooter, and Xavier Henry, currently injured, whom the Hornets see as a defensive stopper.

The Hornets have a roster full of guys on the verge. One guy I’m thinking of is  point guard Greivis Vasquez. It’s the first time as a pro that the starting point guard position has been given to him. Memphis drafted him out of Maryland two years ago in the late first round. He played in college a full four years, so he was rather seasoned entering the NBA. He got in 70 games a rookie, then the Grizz traded him to the Hornets for Quincy Pondexter. He played in 66 games last season in New Orleans, starting 26 times. What I’m saying is that this guy is ready to take on the starting point guard position for an NBA team. New owner, new roster, new point guard.

The Hornets acquired two big guys who are both also on the verge. Ryan Anderson was dealt straight up from the Magic for Gustavo Ayon. Like I said, Ayon was popular but Anderson is a rare one–a 6’10” power forward who has a pretty good inside game and a phenomenal outside game. Dude goes out on the wing and nails 3s. It would be too much to expect him to improve on last year’s production—16.1 points a game and 7.7 rebounds—and scaring everyone to death from 3-point range, but he might.

During the off-season, GM Dell Demps made a nice move (as part of a 3-team deal with the Suns and the T-Wolves) to get C Robin Lopez, a tough defender who has a nice post game, and Hakim Warrick, a fine combo forward who is also a much-needed veteran presence.

Lopez had been a backup center during his entire four-year career with the Suns, averaging a mere 14 minutes a game. That’s about to change. It’s likely that he will be the starting center and thus in the same situation as Vasquez—ready to step up to a new level of maturity and responsibility, and being given the opportunity.

Jason Smith, a talented and versatile–and hella obscure–center-forward (7’, 240  pounds). was a 1st-round pick (20th overall) by the Miami Heat in the 2007 draft. They traded him on draft day to the Sixers for Daquan Cook.  The Heat didn’t know how much they’d need a guy like Smith in 2010 and ’11.

In his first three non-descript seasons (two with the Sixers and his first in New Orleans), Smith was getting only 14 minutes a game, but he stepped up last season (his second with the Hornets) to 10 points and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes. With Smith and Lopez at center, and Davis, Warrick and Ryan Anderson at PF, the Hornets have some bigs that can play the 3, 4 or 5.

Small forward is the one area that needs a serious upgrade. That may come from the development of Al-Farouk Aminu, who’s now in his 3rd season and, like several of his teammates, is due to climb another rung or two up the ladder. Also looking for playing time will be Lance Thomas, best known as a defender, and Darius Miller. Both of them could surprise but neither seems ready for major minutes.  The Hornets don’t have enough assets to deal for a good small forward so I would use Ryan Anderson there and even Warrick, who is still athletic enough to play the 3 once in awhile. Another approach is to use three guards, with Gordon and Austin Rivers (or Mason) both in the lineup.

The key to quick improvement for this team is Vasquez. If he is up to the task, the Hornets will get past the Kings and perhaps more. (As insurance, Brian Roberts, a PG who played at Dayton and spent the last three years overseas, will probably make the team.)

The fans are into it. More than 12,000 season tickets have been sold already, with a probable 15,000 by Opening Day. I can dig it. These guys are fascinating. Gotta give Dell Demps credit. With a few deft moves he’s put together a brand new team that has good balance, depth and versatility.

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