In order for the New Orleans Hornets to rise from Western Conference bottom feeder to playoff team, they'll have to limit costly mistakes this season. The Hornets enter this season with a retooled roster, hopeful expectations and a new attitude.
The Hornets also find themselves in a deep conference with no room for error. New Orleans is a couple years away from being title contenders, but they can make the playoffs this year if things bounce their way. They have a good, young core in forward Anthony Davis and guards Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon.
They have rising star in the coaching ranks in Monty Williams and they have a wise GM in Dell Demps, who has done a masterful job in rebuilding this franchise. There is reason for hope in the Big Easy for the first time in a long time. That doesn't mean the Hornets don't still have a ways to go.
With so many teams vying for playoff spots in the West, the bottom half of the playoff bracket will more than likely be filled by the teams that made the least amount of mistakes. Teams such as Portland, Minnesota and Golden State are all looking to return to the postseason as well and will give New Orleans a tough run.
It's going to be a battle royal this season out West. The Hornets will need to be smart and not fall victim to many of the perils that engulf young teams. The road back to respectability is steep, but it's not an impossible journey.
The biggest obstacles facing New Orleans are the ones that can't be accounted for. They need to stay healthy as well as find a way to be a cohesive unit despite all the new pieces that were added over the summer. Those are issues that will be monitored over time.
For now, here are five costly mistakes that the Hornets need to avoid in a 2012-13 season filled with hope and high expectations.
Anthony Davis entered the 2012 NBA Draft with a ton of hype and potential. He was viewed as the type of franchise-changing big man that only comes around every few years. The Hornets were fortunate enough to win the lottery and select Davis to be the face of their franchise.
With a few cameos in London this summer as a member of Team USA, Davis whet the appetites of Hornets fans and gave New Orleans a glimpse of things to come when "The Unibrow" makes his pro debut.
With his freakish athleticism and immense defensive ability, Davis has the chance to be a special player for a long time. He will be counted on to lead this Hornets team, much like franchise big men such as Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have over their careers.
However, while it's easy to get lost in the impact Davis will have on the Hornets, it is important to remember that Davis is only 19.
There hasn't been a teenager faced with the weight of carrying a franchise since LeBron James came to Cleveland in 2003 and James was a child prodigy without peer or precedent. As great as Davis is or can be, he's not LeBron James.
The problem is that there aren't many on the Hornets' roster who can carry the mantle until Davis is ready. Eric Gordon is being paid to be a franchise guy, but he's far too fragile to be reliable. Gordon is already experiencing trouble with his surgically-repaired right knee.
If Gordon's knee keeps him out like it did last season, the Hornets are going to be in big trouble. While Davis is the logical choice to take charge, the Hornets would be smart to not ask too much out of their rookie big man.
It's tough enough dealing with the pressure of being a No. 1 overall pick. To be asked to carry a young franchise with high hopes in your rookie season is pretty daunting. Davis is still very raw, especially on offense. You don't want to ruin his confidence by putting too much weight on his shoulders and have it derail his career like it did to Greg Oden and Kwame Brown.
The best approach for New Orleans is to limit Davis' minutes and draw plays for him on offense that are in his comfort zone. He's coming off a long postseason run with Kentucky and a summer spent abroad at the Olympics. That's a huge toll for a young man.
Davis' value to the team extends beyond this season. When he's ready to be the man, it will be evident. The risk of rushing greatness always outweighs the reward and that's a gamble the Hornets can't afford to make.
Speaking of young Hornets that will need time to develop, fellow rookie Austin Rivers is right at the top of the list with Anthony Davis.
Unlike Davis, Rivers is being asked to learn a new position. The Hornets are hoping to maximize the potential of their starting lineup by having Rivers transition from college shooting guard to NBA point guard.
We've seen college shooting guards make the move to point guard in the NBA before. Russell Westbrook played off the ball most of the time at UCLA before running point for Oklahoma City. The same for Golden State's Steph Curry, who mostly played the two at Davidson.
As good of a prospect as Rivers is, he's not as good as either of those two—at least, not yet. Rivers doesn't possess Westbrook's immense athletic ability and, while a great shooter in his own right, Rivers doesn't shoot it quite like Curry does. That doesn't mean Rivers can't join Curry and Westbrook on the list of success stories. It's just a work in progress that will need time before New Orleans can reap the benefits.
That's why it is important that, like with Davis, the Hornets exercise some patience in regards to their potential franchise point guard. Rivers was rarely asked to create offense for others at Duke.
One of Rivers' biggest drawing points coming into the Draft was his dynamic scoring ability. It's going to take time for a young guy like Rivers to think of the big picture when he's on the court.
On top of that, the Hornets already have a viable starting point guard in Greivis Vasquez. While he's not exactly the second coming of Chris Paul, Vasquez is a steady hand who can commandeer the offense while Rivers earns his stripes.
Again, the Hornets are years away from being title contenders. There's no need to try to force a square peg down a round hole with this Rivers experiment. If Rivers can't run point, he can still be serviceable to the team as a scorer off the bench, as well as insurance for the oft-injured Eric Gordon.
It took Westbrook a couple years before he became an elite point guard. Curry is still trying to stay healthy enough for critics to get a good glance at what he can do running the offense for the Warriors.
These things take time and, with no realistic visions of hoisting an NBA Championship trophy in sight any time soon, the Hornets would be better served giving Rivers time to grow.
In addition to having a young core, the Hornets also have the benefit of having cap space. New Orleans' payroll is a little over $63 million this season after a summer of wheeling and dealing. That puts them over the salary cap of $58 million, but under the luxury tax.
Next season, the Hornets' payroll drops to around $53 million with Rashard Lewis' amnestied contract completely coming off the books. While they'll have money to spend next summer, it is important that New Orleans doesn't let that cash burn a hole in their pocket.
The Hornets made some sharp moves this offseason in not only bringing in guys like Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez, but getting rid of toxic contracts like Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. We have seen young teams in the past get pressured into short-term moves and burning potential cap space by making "win-now" trades.
The Wizards had Lewis' expiring albatross contract coming off the books next summer. Rather than using the amnesty clause or just waiting another year to make a big splash, Washington shipped Lewis to New Orleans in exchange for $43 million of Ariza and Okafor over the next three seasons.
Did it make Washington better? Sure. Will the additions of Ariza and Okafor make up for Washington's inability to be players next summer and build around point guard John Wall? I don't think so.
The Hornets enter next summer with few needs. They have a franchise shooting guard in Eric Gordon. They have another franchise cornerstone in forward Anthony Davis and fellow rookie Austin Rivers could be another building block if things fall into place. There's also Ryan Anderson, who will be more valuable once he finds a more defined role.
As deep as next summer's free agent class could be with guys like Chris Paul and Andrew Bynum hitting the market, the Hornets should save their money. They should also not allow themselves to get roped into taking on big names with big salaries in hopes it will help them this season.
Trading for Josh Smith sure sounds tempting, but it isn't worth the long-term effects.
Hornets GM Dell Demps worked hard this past summer to put the team in the rare position of having money to spend and players to build around. It would be wise of him to not undo all of that great work with short-sighted thinking.
For all of their talent, the Hornets are still a team with a lot of youth.
What's the biggest downfall of young teams with potential? Immaturity.
Look at a team like the Sacramento Kings. They have a core of solid young players and the potential to be a factor in the Western Conference for years to come. Instead, they find themselves among the bottom in the West.
While there are many factors to Sacramento's plight, immaturity is certainly chief among them.
With a roster that has all of two members over the age of 30, the Hornets can't afford to fall into that trap. New Orleans is one of the youngest teams in the NBA. The oldest guy in their potential starting lineup is point guard Greivis Vasquez, and he's 25 years old.
Anthony Davis is 19. Austin Rivers is 20. Al-Farouq Aminu is 22. Eric Gordon is 23. Ryan Anderson is 24, as is Robin Lopez. Those guys make up the best players on the Hornets' roster. It is imperative that head coach Monty Williams keeps the kids in check.
With a team lacking chemistry, thanks to so much roster shuffling this past summer, it will be interesting to see how everyone comes together.
Another aspect to watch is how they handle adversity. Will they fall apart if they lose a few in a row? Will they let the embarrassment of a huge loss affect their moral and carry throughout the season?
Those are all potential problems Williams must solve. Williams has done a remarkable job so far, particularly last season, in guiding this team after they traded away Chris Paul. With that said, Williams has his own youth and inexperience issues. He'll be 41 this week and will start his third season as an NBA head coach this month.
Williams' ability to right the ship and keep everyone in line will be the biggest factor this season. There isn't much of a veteran presence in the Hornets' locker room and stars like Gordon haven't been on the team long enough to prove themselves as leaders.
Going forward, the Hornets will be their own worst enemy. They must stay level-headed and put forth their efforts in living up to the potential of a team with this much youth and talent. History is riddled with young teams that never lived up to expectations. New Orleans needs to not follow down that same path.
With a team that has many solid defenders and too few proven scorers, defense is going to be the Hornets' bread and butter this season. They don't have the offensive acumen to win many shootouts.
Their best chance for success will be to hinder their opponents' offense and put up points in transition.
New Orleans has a bevy of notable defenders.
Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu is steadily building a reputation as one of the game's rising perimeter defenders. Big men Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez were infamous for their shot-blocking in college. Point guard Greivis Vasquez, at 6'6, is going to be a tough match-up for smaller point guards. Even guys like Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon have potential on defense.
Gordon is the only player on the Hornets' roster with the potential to average 20 points per game, which he did last season. Davis and Ryan Anderson will most likely scorer in the 12-16 range. Rivers will be somewhere between that, and the rest of the team will be lucky to get into double figures.
This is one of the most offensively-challenged basketball teams, as you'll see this season. However, the Hornets can own the paint with the presence of Lopez and Davis. Aminu can make life miserable for the opposing team's best scorer. Gordon, Rivers and Vasquez could, at the very least, be average on defense.
That is all contingent to the team buying in to Monty Williams' philosophy on defense. Williams is a defense-minded coach. He molded this team last year into a decent defensive bunch with defenders like Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman playing tough on D.
Those guys are all gone.
In their place, the team brought in Lopez to man the center position. Lopez was a solid shot-blocker at Stanford and showed potential in his stint in Phoenix. Davis' defensive abilities was the stuff of legends at Kentucky, as he broke records for blocked shots. Aminu put on a defensive campaign in the Olympics.
Williams needs to make his team understand that defense will be their best offense. Until a couple guys emerge to lighten the offensive load on Gordon, the team will be better suited to win more 87-80 defensive struggles than 112-108 shootouts. Teams like San Antonio, Chicago, Boston and Miami have been successful for years by playing top-notch defense.
These young Hornets need to follow in those footsteps. With the talent they have, they can be special on defense. The offense will come eventually, but the best way to score more points than the other team is to hinder them from scoring on you in the first place.