After watching the New Orleans Hornets' first two games of the 2011-12 NBA season, I now have the confidence to say what I've wanted to say before the first ball was tipped: The Hornets will make the playoffs.
I know, I know. Two games is too early to declare that a team of ragtags and misfits who just lost arguably their best player in franchise history will make the playoffs. They're playing for the lottery; their best players don't want to be there; they're a team without an owner in complete disarray. I've heard it all.
That still doesn't deter me from what my gut felt upon scanning the Hornets' preseason roster or what my eyes have seen from them in these past two games.
I'll give you five reasons why:
While we've seen what Eric Gordon can do in a New Orleans Hornets uniform only once (he missed last night's game against the Boston Celtics with a bruised right knee), he is clearly the centerpiece of the team's attack in a post-Chris Paul world.
Bring on the new world.
Never mind his career average of 18.1 points per game or the 24.1 points he was averaging last year before a right wrist injury. Gordon drove to the rim seemingly at will against the Phoenix Suns. And he did it on a night where his jumper was clearly off, going 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
But, in the most encouraging development, he stepped up and calmly hit a 20-foot jumper from the top of the key, the game-winner, with 4.2 seconds left. This shows that EG possesses the clutch factor, even on an off-night where he's not blowing up the stat sheet.
Gordon also showed plenty of intensity on the defensive side of the ball. Although he only had one steal, he did record a block and could be seen hounding the ball-handler at all times.
Gordon possesses all the ability necessary to step up and become the leader for the Hornets; he just needs to avoid the injury bug.
After the Chris Paul trade, it was widely believed that the New Orleans Hornets would suffer from lack of depth in the backcourt, specifically at the 1. Well, the Bees have yet to sport their starting backcourt, and it has yet to be a problem.
Its because of depth.
The trade for Greivis Vasquez is arguably the biggest reason for this. He plays with a flair and confidence that is key off the bench. Although his stat lines thus far (10 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 3 STL; and 6 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL) are modest, the way Vasquez has come in and kept the offense running smoothly while providing the timely basket and solid D is nothing short of admirable.
The play of Jarrett Jack is the other reason the Hornets should be comfortable in the backcourt. Before the season, people wondered if Jack could be a competent starter at the 1. He answered that loud and clear with a Paul-esque game against the Celtics (21 PTS, 9 AST, 4 REB, 1 STL, 2 BLK). While I don't expect Jack to maintain averages that mirror those stats, 16 points and seven assists per game is certainly not outside the realm of expectations.
As the fourth backcourt option, Marco Belinelli's play has been about what is expected of him. He's a deep threat; he only needs to maintain averages of around 12 points per game while shooting 40 percent from downtown to keep coaches happy. And thus far, it appears he can.
So the Hornets backcourt will start Jack at the 1 and Eric Gordon, the team's horse, at the 2. They will be backed up by Vasquez and Belinelli, respectively. The beauty, though, is that fans can expect JJ and EG to be used at both spots. This makes the Hornets sufficiently three-deep at both positions.
Size will sometimes be an issue, but I see no reason that this is not a playoff-caliber backcourt for the Bees.
Landry will be a physical and emotional leader of the 2011-12 Hornets.
The play of Chris Kaman, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor was what many experts considered, I believe, to be the make-or-break part of the team.
At this point, they appear to be making.
The knock on Kaman coming from Los Angeles Clippers fans was that he's maddeningly inconsistent. Some nights he'll do everything: grab boards, block shots, work the post, knock down the J; other nights he'll be sluggish on both ends, showing no hustle and settling for the jumper. So far, Kaman seems very enthused to be playing with his new frontcourt mates; he's been a lot more Jekyll than Hyde.
Carl Landry is a big reason for the enthusiasm.
His energy is infectious, and he appears rejuvenated in his starter's role. If he can maintain anything similar to his current averages of 17 points and nine rebounds per game, Landry will provide great presence and scoring down low.
His starting frontcourt mate, Okafor, is a proven double-double man who never gives up on the defensive end. Yes, his offensive game can be frustratingly timid and limited, but Mek will always give intensity and effort. Couple this with the energy Landry provides, and its no surprise that Caveman Kaman has shown commitment on both ends.
Throw in Jason Smith, serviceable length off the bench with a steady jumper, and the Hornets appear to be very stout up front. They have four guys who can play the 4 or the 5 while providing scoring and defensive intensity in a variety of ways (although I'd only expect Landry to play the 5 if the Hornets want to go small and fast with three guards).
Any team that has three big men who are double-double threats every night has a very good shot at the playoffs.
I can't think of a stealthier weapon in all of professional sports than when a team appears to be in rebuilding mode.
It is a multi-faceted tool.
It unifies the team to play together with a chip on their collective shoulder, AND it causes their opponents to overlook them. When used correctly, this weapon will leave opponents on the losing end of a scoreboard with a look of "What just happened?" on their faces.
While the Boston Celtics clearly have issues of their own, I believe I saw a little bit of that on their faces Wednesday night.
Monty Williams is a playoff coach with a playoff-minded philosophy.
Look at that calm, cool demeanor; I believe I see a little bit of Phil Jackson in there.
All kidding aside, Monty Williams is probably the biggest reason I think the Hornets will make the playoffs.
He is a player's coach who is young enough to still relate to his players on that level: he's never unfair, and he's one of the best at getting players of many identities to buy into his philosophy. If anyone can get production out of Al-Farouq Aminu, it will be Monty.
His philosophy, you ask? Defense.
This is why the previously unmentioned Trevor Ariza (you know, the guy with the worst shot selection in the league) continues to hold down a starting role. And at this point, you really can't blame Williams for keeping Ariza in there. He's a great defender and you can always tell that he's at least trying on offense.
Monty Williams expects to win. He's said it many times. And he doesn't need the most talented players to do it either. All he needs is effort and understanding. He's already proven it. Last year, Williams took a team that was a little bit David West, a lot of Chris Paul and a whole lot of elbow grease to the playoffs. Once there, his team pushed a vastly superior Lakers team, the two-time defending NBA Champions, to six games.
Call me crazy, but I think Monty has more to work with this year. After all the offseason moves, the Hornets have become a lot younger, more athletic, slightly more talented (CP3 is a beast) and significantly deeper.
If the team learns to grow as a unit, and it appears they will, they will be a very tough out come playoff time.
Will Eric Gordon hold up?
Yes, the Hornets are young; and, yes, it has only been two games. But, if the aforementioned factors hold up as I anticipate them to, I see no reason why they cannot push for the fifth or sixth seed.
Isn't that supposed to be the beauty of prognostication this early in a season anyway?