5 Things That Must Go Right for the New Orleans Hornets to Make the Playoffs

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIISeptember 10, 2012

5 Things That Must Go Right for the New Orleans Hornets to Make the Playoffs

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    The New Orleans Hornets are a young team that will need a few things to bounce their way in order to make the playoffs this season. The Hornets are brimming with talent and potential, but they are stuck in a deep Western Conference where making the postseason is going to be a tough task.

    This offseason, Hornets GM Dell Demps took a wrecking ball to the roster of a team that finished with the fourth-worst record in basketball last season. Veteran staples such as Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Jarrett Jack were shown the door. In their place, the team added Ryan Anderson, Robin Lopez and rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers.

    The changes have brought excitement to the Big Easy, but also an understanding that the team is in rebuilding mode. As high as expectations will be with a potential superstar like Davis in town, the Hornets are still a couple years away from being an actual contender.

    That doesn't mean they harness all their talent and untapped potential into being a playoff team immediately. Davis gave the world a taste of what he can do in London as a member of Team USA in the Olympics.

    Shooting guard Eric Gordon, the centerpiece of last year's Chris Paul trade, is now signed for the next four years. The team also extended the contract of head coach Monty Williams, who showed some promise last season.

    The return to the regular 82-game season should benefit a team like New Orleans, which has good depth and young legs. The Hornets have only two players on the roster that are even in their 30's. Like any young team, New Orleans will need luck on their side if they are going to make the playoffs this year.

    Here are five things that need to go right for the New Orleans Hornets to make the playoffs this season.

They Must Stay Healthy

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    The key to any team having success is being fortunate enough to avoid the injury bug. Injuries plagued this Hornets team last season. Emeka Okafor, Jarrett Jack, and Eric Gordon were some of the key players to miss time last year.

    Of that group, only Gordon returns this season. Gordon staying healthy is the most important factor for this Hornets team. He's the team's best player and he's coming off a season that saw him play in just nine games.

    Durability has been Gordon's biggest problem his entire career and has hindered him from being the star he's supposed to be.

    Another key player that needs to stay healthy is No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis. Big men drafted as high as the former Kentucky Wildcat have seen their careers derailed by injuries. The most recent example being former Blazers center Greg Oden.

    Davis is a rail-thin forward whose game relies heavily on his athleticism. There are concerns about whether his skinny frame can handle the pounding of life in the NBA.

    The Hornets have a lot of young talent, but Gordon and Davis are the team's two main "stars." Rookie guard Austin Rivers is the closest thing to a player with star potential and he's already been slowed by ankle and foot injuries that cut his time in the Summer League short.

    There's also guard Xavier Henry, who is coming off having arthroscopic knee surgery this summer. Both Henry and Rivers are expected back by opening day, but these are early bumps in the road the team can ill afford.

    It remains to be seen what Gordon can do if able to stay healthy for a full season. He played well in the short span he was healthy last season and has the skills to be one of the best guards in the game.

    With a healthy Gordon and Davis, New Orleans has the core to be competitive on a nightly basis. Guys like Rivers and Henry bolster a supporting cast that can make this Hornets team dangerous.

    The key is keeping all of these guys on the court and not on the bench in business suits.

They Must Build Chemistry

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    The shuffling of the roster over the summer has left the Hornets with a team high on potential but low on chemistry. None of the members of the projected starting five were on the team before last season.

    Point guard Greivis Vasquez was acquired in a trade from Memphis in January. Shooting guard Eric Gordon came over in the Chris Paul trade a few weeks before Vasquez, as did small forward Al-Farouq Aminu. Power forward Anthony Davis was drafted this past June and center Robin Lopez was added a couple months ago.

    Even the key members of the bench haven't been in New Orleans very long. Center Jason Smith is the longest-tenured member of the second unit, and he's only been with the team for two seasons.

    The slew of new faces means head coach Monty Williams will have to work steadfastly to make sure his young bunch builds a rapport with each other. Defined roles will need to be established and the team will have to get a feel for each other quickly.

    The Hornets lack an elder statesman of sorts to be the glue in the locker room that keeps everyone together. The days of having a guy like David West or P.J. Brown or Chris Paul to get everyone in line is over. It's up to Williams to get all his ducks in a row.

    We have seen young teams like New Orleans go in one of two ways. There is the example set by the Oklahoma City Thunder, where everyone comes together as a cohesive unit.

    The other side of that is a team like the Sacramento Kings where young stars play for themselves and there's no clear-cut pecking order to abide by. In the latter example, the inmates tend to run the asylum and coaches get canned quickly.

    As important as staying healthy is for this team, it is equally imperative for them to stick together. A young and talented team with their head on straight could be dangerous in a Western Conference that has its share of rosters that are long in the tooth.

    It is up to guys like Gordon and Davis, who are the team's most recognizable stars, as well as Williams, to keep this young ship sailing smoothly.

Play Solid Defense and Dominate the Boards

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    The Hornets aren't an offensively gifted team that will win by scoring 120 points every night. They do have plenty of talented defenders and big men who can work the glass. The key for New Orleans each game will be playing great defense, hustling for loose balls, and winning the rebounding margin.

    Anthony Davis set records at Kentucky for blocking shots and was one of the best rebounders in college basketball. Al-Farouq Aminu has built a reputation for being a solid defender, which was highlighted by his performance in the Olympics.

    Center Robin Lopez was an excellent shot-blocker in college. Reserve big men Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith are good rebounders as well.

    The Hornets aren't going to beat many teams in a shootout. They can, however, win games by using the surplus of length and athleticism they have to force bad shots and grab rebounds. The San Antonio Spurs were successful for years by playing tough defense and grabbing every loose ball within their grasp. That's the mold the Hornets must follow.

    New Orleans isn't going to win many 117-109 games in the near future but they can stockpile a few 87-79 W's while they get better offensively. One of the keys to winning in today's NBA is being able to protect the rim. Davis and Lopez can do that and, when they get tired, Smith and Anderson are capable of spelling them.

    Aminu could become this generation's Bruce Bowen. He's freakishly long and athletic. He's also selfless enough to sacrifice his offense to exhaust all of his energy on shutting down his opponent. He's the kind of perimeter defender the Hornets need in a conference with guys like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

    The Hornets have the personnel to be stingy on defense and on the boards. That should be their philosophy going forward. Teams like the Spurs and Lakers that play solid defense end up more successful than offensive juggernauts like the old Mike D'Antoni Suns teams.

Utilize Austin Rivers Properly

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    Austin Rivers was drafted with the No. 10 overall pick with the idea that he could potentially be the team's point guard of the future. Rivers only played two games before injuries abruptly ended his Summer League stint, but his performance in Vegas running the point wasn't promising.

    Rivers was a shooting guard at Duke. His game was based on creating his own shot and utilizing his dynamic scoring ability. In an effort to pair him in the backcourt with Eric Gordon, the Hornets want Rivers to be at least competent as the team's point guard so they can play their two best scorers together.

    It remains to be seen whether Rivers can be an NBA point guard. The Golden State Warriors have gotten by with a college two-guard in Steph Curry as their point guard.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have found success with Russell Westbrook, who was a shooting guard at UCLA, running point for them. Rivers may not be as skilled as them but they are best-case scenarios the Hornets can model Rivers after.

    However, the Hornets would be wise to not try to force things with this experiment. Rivers is a talented scorer on a team that doesn't have many talented scorers. He could benefit the team as their sixth man to provide an offensive spark off the bench. By forcing Rivers to suppress his offensive instincts to be more of a distributor, the Hornets risk limiting their offense.

    If it begins to look obvious early on that Rivers can't be the point guard, it might be better for the team to leave the point guard duties to veterans Greivis Vasquez and Brian Roberts. They could then let Rivers do what he does best on the second unit as well as be insurance for the injury-prone Gordon.

    The Hornets have a lot of young talent but very few guys with star potential. Rivers is one of those potential stars.

    History has been littered with careers that went south because young guys were forced to play roles they weren't comfortable in. Just ask DaJuan Wagner or Juan Dixon about how much they loved being a point guard after being shooting guards in college.

    Austin Rivers is a talent that needs to be unleashed. In order for the Hornets to make a playoff run this year, they'll need to figure out the best way to utilize their other talented rookie before it is too late.

They Must Find a Second Scoring Option

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    Eric Gordon is a talented scorer and lethal shooter. He's the Hornets' best offensive weapon. The problem is there isn't a clear-cut second option to lighten the scoring load on the oft-injured guard. The Hornets have a number of options they could call plays for to make teams pay for focusing too much on Gordon.

    New acquisition Ryan Anderson is one of the game's best shooting big men. He's coming off a breakout season with the Magic that saw him win the NBA's Most Improved Player last year. The only issue is that his playing time will be compromised by the presence of Anthony Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu at the starting forward spots.

    As mentioned earlier, Austin Rivers put up some excellent scoring numbers at Duke. His offensive capabilities rival Gordon's as an athletic guard who can create offense for himself and dominate with his smooth jumper. If they can manage to play together, Rivers could take some of the scoring burden off Gordon's shoulders.

    Fellow rookie Anthony Davis' offensive game is still a work in progress. However, he showed off the ability to shoot at different times while playing for Team USA. As the potential face of the franchise, he could be in line for some touches on the offensive end.

    Regardless of who gets the call, somebody has to establish themselves as a viable second option on the offensive end. With Gordon's inability to stay healthy, the team is taking a huge gamble relying on him to be their offense. Somebody out of this group has to step up and take advantage of the attention Gordon receives.

    The best option, for right now, may be Anderson. He can score on the inside or on the outside and can play either forward position or center. He has good size and he's a more proven commodity than Rivers and Davis are at this time.

    Once Davis develops a more consistent offensive game, he could be another option. The same for Rivers if he becomes less erratic with his jumper than he was in Las Vegas.

    The Hornets aren't brimming with offensive talent but they'll still have to find a way to outscore opponents. It may be in transition as a result of their solid defense. It may be on the perimeter with shooters like Rivers and Anderson. It could be in the paint with Davis and Robin Lopez. It just needs to be more than just Eric Gordon.

    Establishing versatility on offense will pay dividends for this team in the long run. When this team is ready to contend in a couple years, it won't have to worry about being a one-man show.

    The Hornets need to safeguard themselves and not put too many eggs in the withering basket of Eric Gordon. They have to find other alternatives.