Are the Surprising New Orleans Hornets a Legitimate Playoff Threat?

Dave LeonardisContributor IIINovember 20, 2012

Nov 17, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA;   New Orleans Hornets guard Austin Rivers (25) drives past Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings (3) at the Bradley Center.  Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE

The New Orleans Hornets have been one of the NBA's early surprises, but they aren't a legitimate threat to make the playoffs just yet.

Going into their November 20 showdown with the 7-1 New York Knicks, New Orleans is 3-5 and losers of their past three contests. That losing streak can jump to four games if the Knicks continue to play at the high level they've been showing.

The Hornets have played admirably with franchise guard Eric Gordon out of the lineup. Gordon suffered a setback in recovering from the troublesome knee injury that sidelined him for most of last season and required surgery over the summer. He could be out for another month.

In Gordon's absence, the Hornets have been led by a trio of young stars. No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis has been stellar right out of the gate, averaging 16 points and 8.3 rebounds with a little over two blocks per game. Davis is coming off a career-high 28-point performance in a close loss to Milwaukee on November 17.

Prized free-agent acquisition Ryan Anderson leads the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game. Anderson is also averaging eight rebounds per game, while shooting a little over 37 percent from behind the arc. Point guard Greivis Vasquez, meanwhile, is third in the NBA in assists at 8.9 per game.

The Hornets are going to need more than excellent individual performances to make the playoffs, though. In the current Western Conference standings, New Orleans is just a game behind Dallas for the eighth seed. The problem is that there are at least three teams in front of the Hornets, including the 5-5 Los Angeles Lakers and the 5-6 Denver Nuggets.

Both L.A. and Denver have stumbled out of the gate, but they possess too much talent and experience to stay down for long. Outside of those two teams, New Orleans would have to leapfrog the 5-5 Portland Trail Blazers while also fending off two of the West's other surprises in Minnesota and Golden State.

That's a daunting task for a team potentially without its star player for the next four weeks. Even when Gordon returns, his reputation for being brittle doesn't instill confidence that he'll hold up long enough for a playoff push.

That means the young Hornets are going to need to grow up fast and avoid the costly mistakes that have cursed them during this three-game losing streak. New Orleans let a win against Houston slip away from them earlier in the season after an abysmal second quarter that saw them get outscored 39-18.

Anthony Davis: "The 2nd quarter was when it got out of hand. We just gave up too many points. We were trying to fight out of a hole."

— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) November 15, 2012

"We outplayed (Houston) for three quarters but they just killed us so badly in the second quarter." added fellow rookie Austin Rivers.

The defensive woes continued in New Orleans' November 17 loss to Milwaukee, when the offensively challenged Hornets (23rd in the NBA in scoring) got into an ill-advised shootout with the Bucks. The result was a 117-113 heartbreaker.

Until Gordon comes back, the Hornets' best path to victory would be utilize the talent they have on defense to hinder opposing offenses and grind out some wins. New Orleans has excellent young defenders in Davis, center Robin Lopez and Al-Farouq Aminu. They don't have many dependable scorers beyond Davis and Anderson.

The Hornets are allowing an average of just over 96 points per game, good for 15th in the NBA. They are also scoring a little over 93 points per contest. Those averages won't get you in the playoffs. Making matters worse, 14 of the team's first 19 opponents are playoff teams from last year.

New Orleans is a promising young team with a slew of talent. It will be interesting to see how this team performs once Gordon returns. However, injuries and inexperience have dug them into an early hole and they aren't playing the top-notch defense that should be their bread and butter.

The West is a very deep conference and, with proven teams like Denver and the Lakers already on the outside looking in, the Hornets' playoff chances look bleak unless the team can manage to keep its head above water while Gordon's out.

The more likely scenario is the team uses this season as a learning experience and gets a better feel for who they are as the season progresses. They have a nice core to build around in Davis, Anderson and Gordon. Vasquez, Aminu and Lopez have been nice surprises and Austin Rivers will hopefully begin to play up to his potential.

They have a puncher's chance at slipping into the playoffs, but unless things start to break their way, a trip to the postseason is looking more and more unlikely.