The New Orleans Hornets are a team on the rise, but there are still a few obstacles this young team must hurdle to reach its full potential. The Hornets have had a solid January so far, going 7-5 this month after opening 2013 at 7-23.
As of Jan. 23, New Orleans finds themselves tied for the worst record in the Western Conference with Phoenix (14-28) and is seven games behind Houston for the eighth seed. The Hornets' woes are a combination of inexperience and untimely injuries.
After being without star guard Eric Gordon for much of the first half, the Hornets have turned things around since the former Indiana Hoosier's return on Dec. 29. New Orleans is 8-5 since Gordon's comeback against the Bobcats and 7-4 in games that he's played in this season.
The soon-to-be Pelicans (or "Hornicans," as a reader once dubbed them) still have a ways to go. Even with Gordon back, the team is 26th in the NBA in points scored, averaging 93.5 points per game. The team is also getting beat up on the glass, as it is 19th in rebounding, averaging just under 42 boards a game.
At this point, the playoffs look out of reach for the Hornets. However, if the team continues to play like it has been since Gordon's return, it has a chance at making a spirited comeback.
To make good on those high hopes, the team has a few kinks that need to be worked out. Here are five things the Hornets must do to reach their full potential.
It should come as no surprise that the return of shooting guard Eric Gordon has led to the best basketball New Orleans has played all season. He's the team's best player and offensive weapon. He's fearless when attacking the basket, and he is an excellent shooter.
The key for Gordon and the Hornets is the same as it has always been: Keep him healthy. Granted, that's easier said than done. Knee troubles led to the former Clipper playing in just nine games last season and forced him to miss the first 29 games of this season.
Having Gordon on the court allows the team to have a more refined pecking order. It allows veteran Roger Mason to be the spark off the bench, where he is better suited, as opposed to trying to find a rhythm as a starter.
It gives forwards Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis another option that defenses have to prepare for, which leads to things opening up for both of them. Gordon's presence also takes pressure of trying to carry the offense off role players like Greivis Vasquez and Al-Farouq Aminu.
The Hornets have had a smart game plan for Gordon all season. They kept him out of preseason games and most practices prior to the start of the season to keep him fresh. Unfortunately, swelling and pain in his surgically repaired knee still hampered him.
Once he returned, the team kept him from playing on the tail end of back-to-back games, so that he wouldn't burn himself out or risk any further problems with his knee. The only chance New Orleans has of sneaking into the playoffs this season (or really, any season) is if Gordon is healthy.
Dating back to last season, the Hornets are 13-6 with Gordon in the lineup. Without him, the team looks much like the disaster who struggled mightily the first two months of this season.
Austin Rivers was drafted with the No. 10 overall pick to provide an offensive spark and be solid insurance for the oft-injured Eric Gordon. Much like Rivers' shooting all season, the rookie out of Duke has come up empty in both regards.
In 41 games, Rivers is averaging six points a night. He's shooting 33 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three-point line. His role as the team's sixth man and key scorer off the bench has essentially gone to veteran Roger Mason Jr.
The emergence of Greivis Vasquez has lessened the need for Rivers to make good on the team's hopes of turning him into an NBA point guard. However, with his lack of production and conversely, the inspired play of fellow rookie Brian Roberts, Rivers might be in danger of missing out on being Vasquez's backup as well.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Hornets have had their struggles this season putting points on the board. Rivers' disappointing first half plays a part in that.
When you consider the team could have used the selection on someone like Jeremy Lamb (who was solid in the Summer League and looks promising in the D-League) or Kendall Marshall (a pure point guard stranded on Phoenix's bench), the pressure is only going to mount on Rivers to produce.
As important as Gordon's health is to this team, it is equally important that Rivers provide enough quality minutes to help New Orleans' fragile starting two-guard.
Rivers can't do anything to change the first half of his debut season. However, he can still salvage his rookie season with some better play in the second half. If he can play more like the kid who lit up Minnesota on Dec. 14 (27 points, 9-of-14 from the field, including 5-of-6 from the three-point line), then he can restore hope in his detractors.
If not, the "bust" label may start to linger over Rivers' head, and the franchise might have to take a step back to the drawing board.
A talented big man like Anthony Davis should benefit from playing on a team with as many shooters as the New Orleans Hornets have on their roster. The attention paid to guys on the perimeter should open things up for Davis inside, which should give New Orleans the interior offensive presence it's been lacking.
The key word there is "should." One thing that has been missing in New Orleans' January turnaround is significant portion of touches for the No. 1 overall pick. Davis averaged 11-12 field-goal attempts per game in the months of October, November and December. In January, that average is around eight per game.
Davis' minutes have also decreased, from around 33 per night in December to a little over 25 per game in January. There are a number of reasons for the decrease in Davis' workload.
First, the return of Eric Gordon means one more mouth to feed on offense. With Gordon out, Davis had to pick up more of the offensive slack. That pressure has now been alleviated.
Second, the team may be taking a more cautious approach with the future of its franchise. Davis missed 13 games this season with a concussion and ankle issues. It's understandable for the team to be reluctant to have its prized big man log major minutes and risk further injury, especially in a potentially lost season like this one.
That being said, Davis can benefit from more minutes on the floor. The former Kentucky Wildcat represents the team's best offensive weapon inside. With his combination of quickness, athleticism and a developing jumper, Davis could drastically improve the team's scoring output with more touches.
The Hornets could use another scorer, especially in the paint. Davis could also use the experience of being a focal point in the offense. The team needs to run more plays for its 19-year-old forward, and he needs to be more aggressive.
Davis has the skills to be a superstar. It is up to him and the team to bring those talents out of him.
This is less of a problem this season and more of an issue going forward. The Hornets' biggest weakness is at the small forward position. This season, they've tried out Al-Farouq Aminu, Darius Miller, Lance Thomas and Xavier Henry.
Aminu has been the best option of the group, especially the last couple of weeks. However, prior to Aminu's big January, the former Clippers lottery pick was mediocre for much of the first half of the season. Luckily for him, none of the other options stepped up to take Aminu's spot.
In the last few weeks, the team has seen a different Al-Farouq Aminu. He's reformed himself as a slasher who can also be a factor on the glass. In a Jan. 16 upset win over Boston, Aminu got to the free-throw line 13 times, converting 12 of those attempts.
In 12 games this month, Aminu has notched double-digits in rebounds eight times, including the past three games. He has become the player who the Hornets hoped he would be when he was included in the Chris Paul trade in December of 2011.
The problem New Orleans faces on Aminu is that he's a free agent at the end of the season. As good as he's played as of late, one has to wonder if this inspired play is somewhat driven by a big, potential payday this summer. The former Wake Forest star is still only 22 and could fetch some interest on the open market.
For the Hornets, the question remains whether Aminu can be trusted to the long-term option at small forward. As good as these last few weeks have been, they don't erase the atrociousness of the first two months.
The best bet for New Orleans is to try to bring Aminu back at a reasonable price this offseason, but still use its first-round pick on a guy like UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad or Michigan's Glenn Robinson III to give Aminu some competition.
For now, the team can ride out this impressive streak of solid play from Aminu. However, this is an area that is worth keeping an eye on in the future.
The Hornets' inability to close out games was on full display in their most recent loss, a 106-102 heartbreaker to the San Antonio Spurs. New Orleans led through the first three quarters but allowed the Spurs to go on a 16-4 run to take the lead with less than two minutes to go.
Earlier in the season, New Orleans blew a 22-point lead to Indiana and lost to the Pacers, 81-75, on Dec. 22. A couple days before that, the Hornets blew an 11-point lead late in the third quarter against the Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder to lose by four.
The late-game struggles are a sign of a team who is inexperienced and hasn't developed a consistent formula for winning. The losses to Indiana and Oklahoma City can be chalked up to the team being without its best closer in Eric Gordon.
However, this recent loss to San Antonio was inexcusable. With the Spurs playing without coach Gregg Popovich and forward Tim Duncan, San Antonio still managed to rally behind point guard Tony Parker for the win.
A second consecutive win over the Spurs would have been a nice momentum boost for the young Hornets and would have lifted the team to an 8-4 January record. Instead, the Hornets lose another close one and toil at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
The Hornets are better than their 14-28 record, but there's no special asterisk for "games you should've won." The team needs to find a better way of holding it together in close games and keeping its foot on the gas, even when the outcome looks like its in the bag.
With Gordon back and a slew of rising stars around him, this team should be able to keep opponents at arm's length when it has a lead.
Shot-blockers Robin Lopez and Anthony Davis should make teams think twice about coming inside, and the ball should be in Gordon's hands to close things out.
This is an issue that head coach Monty Williams needs to figure out—and fast. Even with the playoffs a long shot, the team can benefit from the experience of closing out tough games. If not, the Hornets will continue to find themselves in the West's basement.