The Hornets and the Play-Ifs

Published: August 29, 2012

‘Tis the season for the “if” game. McNamara plays along, listing the top “ifs” for the potentially playoff bound Hornets this year

It’s rare that a team goes from 21 wins to the playoffs, but fans forecasting a seventh or eighth seed for the New Orleans Hornets this season should not be dismissed as irrational homers. The Western Conference has four virtual locks for the postseason (LAL, SAS, Denver, OKC) and two teams that should make it in if they stay relatively healthy (LAC and Memphis). That leaves two spots for six teams (Phx, Sac, and Hou have already been eliminated) and while the Hornets odds are admittedly lower than some other teams in the conference, there is a slight chance that we can see them in a round one match-up against the Lakers or the Thunder next March.

When playoff predictions rolled out last year almost every analyst wrote off the Jazz and the Suns in the Western Conference, but things broke right for both of those teams, and as a result they were both in playoff contention going into the final week. Utah eventually secured the final spot despite being considered too young entering the season. Both teams had a large set of “ifs” heading into the year and 66 games later, a giant check mark was placed next to most of those bullet points. Meanwhile, a team like Portland had fewer ifs, but struck out on almost all of their X-factors and subsequently missed the playoffs.

The Hornets have more ifs than a team like the Dallas Mavericks this year, but something as simple as Eric Gordon staying healthy while Dirk Nowitzki getting hurt can completely shift the balance of power and catapult the Hornets into the playoffs, while the Mavericks would be relegated to the lottery for the first time in over a decade. So let’s look at the top 10 “ifs” for the Hornets this season, and I will leave it up to you to decide how many will have to be checked off by the end of the season for the Hornets to be playoff-bound.

10. If Jason Smith continues to improve

Mason did a fantastic job pointing out Smith’s improvement and detailing exactly what he was getting better at this past season. Now, the question is: Can Smith take another step forward? As Gerry V. revealed in our podcast, Smith has been working on his corner three this offseason, and we can assume that Davis and Lopez playing behind Smith will only help him defensively. If Smith improves for the third consecutive year and goes from “elite 5th big” to “elite 3rd big”, then the Hornets’ versatile front court will give opponents nightmares.

9. If Dell Demps can add some firepower in February and March

Dell Demps has put the Hornets in a position to do almost anything over the next 12 months. Most expect him to be patient and let certain deals expire, then strike again next summer, but what if an opportunity arises that is too good to pass up? What if the Hornets exceed expectations and are on the playoff bubble in mid-February? Dell has a couple of expiring contracts (Henry and Warrick) along with some young assets (Vasquez and Aminu) that could be moved to upgrade the point guard or small forward position if need be.

It can be something major (say Danny Granger if Indy declines and they want to clear space), something that improves the team without totally killing flexibility (a Jared Dudley or Jameer Nelson for expirings), or a minor upgrade in the form of a rental. Dell can also wait for teams not making the playoffs to buy a player out and make a push for their services. Either way, Dell will have options if the Hornets are sniffing the playoffs around the All-Star break.

8. If Greivis Vasquez can maintain or improve on his starter’s numbers

Vasquez’s numbers weren’t ultra impressive last season (9 points, 5 assists), but he was actually a middle of the pack PG in the games he started (12 points, 7 assists, 45% from the field). Of course, he did average three turnovers per game and he will have to cut down on that, but if he can give 12 and 7 over 82 games, the Hornets should take that and run. Ideally, he would get to the free throw line a bit more and he can become more consistent from deep. Most expect his numbers to go up simply because he is a year older, but I could see the opposite happening because he will actually be surrounded by NBA players this season. I guess that is why this is an “if”, huh?

7. If Robin Lopez and Al-Farouq Aminu can become average

I fully expect Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, and Jason Smith to get around 90 minutes per game among them and combine for a PER that averages out to around 19 or 20. That leaves 54 front court minutes for Aminu, Lopez, Warrick, Miller, and Lance Thomas – with Aminu and Lopez likely to get the majority (if not all) of those minutes. If they can combine to average a 15 PER while they are in the game, the Hornets will have a top 8 front court in the NBA.

Aminu’s PER was just under 11 last year and Robin Lopez was practically the definition of an average player, checking in at 15.23. However, if Lopez can return to his 2009-10 form (17.23) and Aminu can cut down on his turnovers and get his true shooting percentage up to 54%, the Hornets could have an advantage almost every night up front.

6. If Monty can get this team to increase its pace

The Hornets were 30th in pace last year. Let that sink in… 30th. You know there are only 30 teams in the league, right? Truth be told, Monty was hamstrung by the lack of talent on his roster last season, but that is not an excuse any more with the additions of Rivers, Davis, and Anderson and the return of Eric Gordon to the lineup. Now, I am not advocating that the Hornets incorporate a Mike D’Antoni type of system, I simply want them to be in the middle of the pack when it comes to pace. In order to hit the league average, the Hornets only have to increase their possessions per game by 4. That is one per quarter – something they were able to do in the 9 games Eric Gordon played in last season, a factor that made the Hornets one of the 7 best offensive teams in the league with regard to points per 100 possessions when EJ was on the court.

5. If the defense can make the leap into the top 10

People look at the points per game that the Hornets gave up last season and assume they were an above average defensive team. They were not. They were the definition of average, finishing 15th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 105.1 points per 100 possessions. If they can get that number down to the 102 area, they should easily crack the top 10, and that combined with (hopefully) improved offensive efficiency, should put the Hornets in the playoff race.

4. If Ryan Anderson continues to improve

Jason Smith was 24 when he got to New Orleans and was a bottom tier NBA player. Two years later, after working with Monty and buying into the system, Smith is vastly improved and has solidified his game to the point where he is one of the better reserves in the league. Anderson comes to the Hornets this year at the age of 24, and yet the majority of writers and analysts are expecting a decline from Ryno, in large part due to the fact that he will no longer be playing off of Dwight Howard. But what if he goes the other way?

I understand that Anderson won’t have Howard any more, but has he ever played with a wing player as good as Eric Gordon? A pick and pop option with those two (and Davis rolling to the rim) could be unguardable. Remember when Tyson and West would set that double pick for CP3 and defenses had to choose between giving up the lob to TC or the 17-footer to West? Now imagine that same play, but Anderson pops out to the three-point line. What is a defense to do?

Anderson could also see some time at SF where he could have a significant advantage size wise. If he develops a low post game, we could see an increase in his FG% and in his free throw attempts. As Bradford Doolittle stated on our last podcast, Ryan Anderson’s NBA game closely resembles Dirk’s at this point in their careers. Who is to say that, like Dirk, his game can’t continue to evolve?

3. If Austin Rivers can be Jannero Pargo

Nobody knows what to expect from Austin Rivers this season. Heck, most people have no clue what to expect for his career in general. While I maintain that he is destined to become a scoring point guard in the mold of Westbrook, Wall, and Damon Stoudamire, I will concede that this year will be rough for the rookie point guard. The Hornets don’t need Rivers to be a star this year, they just need him to be the occasional spark plug that helps them steal a few games here or there. They need him to be 2007-08 Jannero Pargo.

Pargo only played 19 minutes per game that year and shot just 39%, but when he caught fire he was the X-factor in some close games that the Hornets eventually pulled out. He was scrawny, like Rivers, but fought for every inch and never backed down. If Rivers can muster up that same grit and determination, along with the occassional game where he just goes off, the Hornets will be happy with his debut season.

2. If Anthony Davis can be Serge Ibaka

The comparisons are all over the board for Anthony Davis, from Marcus Camby to All-time greats like Garnett, Duncan, Robinson, and Olajuwon. For this year, though, just give me Serge Ibaka. I know, I know, Ibaka was the DPOY and Anthony Davis is just a 19-year old rookie, but would it be impossible for him to put up 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 4.8 blocks per 36 minutes? Heck, I can argue that we should expect more in the points and rebounds category and I fully expect him to shoot a better percentage from the field and the free throw line (53% and 66% respectively).

The truth is, that despite the fact that Monty and Dell keep telling us that they don’t want to put giant expectations on the rookie, the Hornets playoff chances are tied to just how special this kid can be right off the bat.

1. If Eric Gordon stays healthy

I have a feeling that this will be the #1 “if” every season, as long as Eric Gordon is on the roster. This year it is “The Hornets will make the playoffs if Gordon can stay healthy.” Two years from now it might be “The Hornets will make the WCF if Gordon can stay healthy.” So it goes.

Look, we all know that Gordon is a special, special player when he is on the court, and the scary part is that he still has room to grow. He has been an inconsistent three-point shooter since entering the league and he has only scratched the surface of his potential as a defender. That, combined with him improving as a playmaker, gives him the potential to become an All-NBA caliber player. All he needs to do is stay healthy – undoubtably the biggest “if” of them all.


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