The New Orleans Hornets have a lot of things going for them, but they still have some areas that need to be addressed before they can become a playoff threat. The team has a nice, young core and adding a couple of pieces at the trade deadline could help them in the long run.
The Hornets have had a solid January, going 8-6 after entering the month at 7-23. This recent stretch includes wins over perennial playoff teams such as Boston, Dallas, San Antonio and Memphis. The return of guard Eric Gordon as well as the improved play of forward Al-Farouq Aminu are largely the cause of New Orleans' turnaround.
Even with the notable improvement, the Hornets are going to need some big breaks to make the playoffs. As of Jan. 28, New Orleans is 8.5 games behind Houston for the Western Conference's eighth seed.
The focus should turn to next season, where the team is likely to have another lottery pick and significantly fewer needs than they had at this time last season.
There's no need to blow up the roster and turn into a seller's market. With guys like Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis in place, the team has a nice trio to build around. They also don't have much trade bait to dangle in a potential deal, either.
That's why the deals New Orleans must make at the deadline should be relatively small. They could take advantage of Aminu's hot streak and expiring contract and try to lure a team into a trade. They could also try to sell a team on the potential of disappointing rookie Austin Rivers.
Despite their 15-29 record, the Hornets don't need much. As one of the youngest groups in the league, New Orleans will improve simply from gaining experience and growing as a team. That being said, it wouldn't be a bad idea to address some needs at this season's deadline.
The small forward position has been the Hornets' Achilles heel all season. After a disappointing first two months, starter Al-Farouq Aminu is finally starting to come along. The former Clippers lottery pick is averaging 8.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in the month of January, which nearly double his numbers from the previous month.
A large part of Aminu's emergence has to do with him finding his niche. Never much of a shooter, Aminu has reformed himself as an aggressive slasher who excels on the glass.
Aminu has recorded double-digits in rebounds in nine of the team's last 14 games. This current version of Aminu looks like the answer to New Orleans' small-forward woes.
The downside to Aminu's hot streak is two-fold. First, Aminu is a free agent at the end of the season and you have to wonder how much of his improved play is contract-driven.
Is the former Wake Forest standout finally finding a role he's comfortable with or is he auditioning for 29 other teams this summer?
Secondly, it's legitimate to question how long Aminu can keep this streak up and whether he can be trusted to be the team's long-term answer.
His decent November numbers (9.8 points, 7.4 rebounds per game) were followed by a dreadful December (4.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and playing just eight minutes in the final seven games of 2012).
The Hornets could use Aminu's rise in stock to acquire someone a bit more reliable and consistent. Losing Aminu would cost the team in the rebounding department (another weak area), but it also safeguards them from Aminu parlaying his breakout second half into a new deal elsewhere.
It's unrealistic the team can make a move for Memphis small forward Rudy Gay, but perhaps a deal with Phoenix that would net SF Jared Dudley and a draft pick would do the trick. The team could use either the Suns' pick or their own to address their need at small forward, while having a steady hand in Dudley to keep the seat warm.
The team could also sign Aminu to a long-term deal in the offseason, but they are taking the chance that he plays more like his January self and less like the guy who imploded in December.
The Hornets don't have many veterans on the roster. In fact, guard Roger Mason Jr. is the only player on the team older than 27. The second-oldest guy on the roster is backup point guard Brian Roberts, who is in his first full season in the NBA after playing a couple years overseas.
New Orleans could use a veteran point guard to mentor the younger guards on the roster as well as provide stability for the second unit. Starter Greivis Vasquez has played well in his first full year as the team's starting point guard, but this is only his third season in the league.
Roberts has played admirably in the limited minutes he's received (roughly 14 minutes a game), but he doesn't do much in terms of developing the other guards on the roster.
A Derek Fisher-like presence in the locker room could help out guys like Vasquez and rookie Austin Rivers. It would also be a boost to Roberts, albeit at the cost of his minutes.
Mason is a veteran capable of providing wisdom to his younger peers, but he's an undersized shooting guard who plays his best when he's off the ball. The team needs someone adept at being a quality facilitator to help mentor this young cast of point guards.
A good example is Minnesota's Luke Ridnour, who is playing behind Ricky Rubio for the Timberwolves. Ridnour makes a little over $4 million a year for the next two seasons, which is a modest price for a veteran backup point guard.
With Rubio, J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved already on the roster, there isn't much need for Ridnour on the depth chart.
Cleveland's Daniel Gibson is another option worth looking at. A second-round pick for either seems like a fair price.
Despite the presence of promising young big men like Robin Lopez and Anthony Davis, the Hornets could still use another rebounder to help them on the glass. New Orleans is 19th in the NBA in rebounding, averaging nearly 42 boards per game.
Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu has helped out in the rebounding department as of late, but the team could use another body on the second unit to help them get more second-chance opportunities. The biggest way New Orleans can fix this area would be improved play on the boards from Lopez and fellow center Jason Smith.
For a guy who plays as close to the rim as Lopez does, the former Stanford big man is only averaging 5.3 rebounds per game. Smith, meanwhile, is contributing a measly 3.9 rebounds a night.
Ryan Anderson, who plays mostly on the perimeter as the one of the team's best three-point shooters, is out-rebounding both men with an average of 6.7 rebounds per contest.
The team needs someone whose sole role is getting in the paint and getting after rebounds. They need a Reggie Evans-type role player, who can come off the bench and chase down loose balls. These kind of energetic hustlers have been found on teams' scrap heaps in years past.
The Trail Blazers managed to steal J.J. Hickson after he was sent packing by Cleveland and Sacramento. Now, he's the NBA's sixth-leading rebounder, averaging 10.8 boards per game for Portland. Evans was a cheap pickup by Brooklyn over the summer after playing for numerous teams throughout his career.
Currently, he's averaging 8.9 rebounds per game for the Nets. Given how Evans has dominated the glass recently, it's hard to imagine the Nets being willing to part with him. However, the Hornets could explore deals for someone like Sacramento's Jason Thompson or Atlanta's Zaza Pachulia.
An interesting target would be Philadelphia's Thaddeus Young, who would fill New Orleans' need for a rebounder and a quality small forward. It would probably take a substantial offer to land a young guy with Young's talent, however.
Over the last decade or so, the NBA has become a league dominated by perimeter scorers from Michael Jordan to Allen Iverson to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James. Of the league's top 10 in points per game, only one (Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge) provides offense primarily in the paint.
The need to protect the rim and find a way to hinder scorers on the wing has become paramount. The Hornets have guys like Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez, who can make opposing teams think twice about attacking the basket.
However, the team is lacking a surplus of perimeter defenders. Beyond forward Al-Farouq Aminu, there isn't another solid perimeter defender on the roster. Eric Gordon can hold his own defensively, but it would be better if he focused his energy on leading the offense.
Making a move to bring in another defensive stopper would help the Hornets in the long run. The team could ultimately wait until June's NBA draft to address the issue with someone like Georgetown's Otto Porter, but it wouldn't hurt to try to find a poor man's Thabo Sefolosha before the trade deadline.
Phoenix's Shannon Brown is a solid athlete who can play a couple of different positions. He's averaging a little over a steal per game (two per 48 minutes) and could be pilfered off a Suns roster filled with guards. With his ability to play point guard, Brown could help defensively as well as provide an upgrade to the team's second unit.
The Hornets are near the bottom of the league at forcing turnovers, averaging 13.3 a game. Davis and Lopez will do their part protecting the rim, but New Orleans could really use another guy who can come up with a few steals and hinder opposing scorers on the perimeter.
Scoring points is a problem for the Hornets, whether it is being provided from the starting lineup or the bench. New Orleans is 28th in the league in scoring, averaging 93.2 points per game. In fairness, the team was without its best scorer in Eric Gordon for much of the season.
The brunt of the scoring load has fallen on the shoulders of forward Ryan Anderson, who leads the team in scoring despite primarily coming off the bench. The starting lineup will get better offensively as Anthony Davis develops and Gordon gets back into game shape.
As for the second unit, somebody needs to step up and give Anderson a hand. Roger Mason Jr. has had his moments since Gordon's return, but he isn't a reliable option. Rookie Austin Rivers has been disappointing, while guys like Darius Miller and Xavier Henry aren't even worth mentioning.
It's unrealistic to think Henry or Miller will emerge into a viable scorer off the bench anytime soon. The Hornets can't afford for the offense to go flat when the starters come off the court. As much as Anderson's shooting has kept New Orleans in games, it can't be the Hornets' sole source of scoring off the bench.
It's time for New Orleans to scour the league's depth charts in search of someone who can be a spark for the second unit. They can try to flip Henry or Miller into a more reliable option, but the more likely scenario may require using a draft pick to entice another team. There's no reason for other teams to think they can salvage Xavier Henry or Lance Thomas at this point.
If the Hornets can swing a deal for someone like Charlotte's Ramon Sessions, that would give them a guard who can come in off the bench and keep the momentum going on offense. Sessions is also a more reliable option at backup point guard than Rivers or Brian Roberts.
New Orleans is a nice collection of young talent, but there isn't a lot of quality depth. The bench needs to be fixed if this team is going to contend in the years to come. The team would be doing themselves a disservice by putting all of their offensive "eggs" in the fragile basket of someone like Eric Gordon.
They need to add another contributor to the second unit.