Spurs-Lakers, Lakers-Spurs; it's all you hear about as far as the heavyweights in the Western Conference.
Everyone seems to agree that the Lakers are the favorites out West after dismantling the "establishment" by dismissing the Spurs in five games this past spring, as they figure to only get better by adding a healthy emerging Andrew Bynum to their cast. And most people agree that the Spurs, with a healthy Manu Ginobili and possibly a face-lift in their supporting cast, stand to be the biggest obstacle in the way of a Lakers return to the Finals.
After those two teams, everyone agrees that the rest of the West looks fairly tough, but it's clear that many people believe there is a divide between those two teams and the rest of the Conference.
Really, are you still sleeping on the New Orleans Hornets? Are you still dismissing this last year as them simply "playing over their heads?"
All of last year people were constantly dismissing that the Hornets could possibly be as good as they were playing, and the Hornets kept proving their doubters wrong. After winning the Southwest division, beating the supposedly "more experienced" Mavericks in the first round, and bringing the vaunted Spurs to their knees before finally falling 4-3 to the defending champs, the Hornets have proved that the top two in the West needs to be expanded to a top three.
While there hasn't been much talk about the Hornets this offseason largely because they haven't done anything yet- and even if they had, I doubt you would have heard about it if it didn't involve Baron Davis, Elton Brand, or Corey Maggette- let's take a look at who the Hornets have coming back next year and what moves they might make to put them over the top.
The Starting Five
Obviously everything begins and ends on this team with point guard Chris Paul. When he's on the court, the entire offense revolves around him, whether he's creating for himself, playing a two-man game in the pick-and-roll with David West, or driving and dishing out to an open teammate.
In my humble opinion (and with no intent to slight the most talented player on the planet, Kobe Bryant) I believe that Paul was the MVP last year. When Paul went to the bench in their series against the Spurs, the scoring just stopped; more than any other player, Paul makes his teammates better and facilitates their offense, while also being a force defensively, leading the league in steals.
After Paul, we come to the Hornets' second All-Star and the man I believe is the most underrated player in the league, power forward David West. West is also fundamental to the Hornets' offense, especially in tandem with Paul, where he practically makes a living making jumpers off of the pick-and-roll. Though creating his own shot is not his strong suit, he can do that as well to some extent.
The biggest issue for West is developing consistency and confidence playing away from home; while he had two 30-point games at home against the Spurs, including a 38-point 14-rebound explosion in game 5, he had a pair of 10-point 5-rebound games in San Antonio. This is the kind of progression that naturally comes with experience in the postseason, so don't expect him to have bad games on the road next year in the playoffs.
Though small forward Peja Stojakovic will never regain his scoring prowess that made him an All-Star in Sacramento, he's still one of the most deadly three-point shooters in the league, hitting them at a 44% clip. With Chris Paul on your team, you tend to get a lot of open looks, and Peja is pretty much the player teams dream of having as their designated shooter.
Center Tyson Chandler anchors an underrated defense that gave up less than 93 PPG last season, in large thanks to Chandler's presence around the rim. But despite his defensive prowess, he remains a liability on offense, where almost all of his production came as the result of put-backs and ally-oops from Paul.
If there is a weak link in the Hornets' starting lineup, it would be shooting guard Morris Peterson. Though a competent three-point shooter at 39%, coach Byron Scott really ran this position by committee and often went with whoever happened to be hot on any given night; though Peterson was the starter, it was not uncommon to see him on the bench in the fourth quarter.
One of the main downfalls for the Hornets against the Spurs last year is that they simply lacked much depth on their bench, especially at the big man positions. When your top two options off the bench are often Jannero Pargo and Melvin Ely, it's probably time for an upgrade, and that's what's making a number of Hornets fans nervous considering the eerily quiet offseason so far.
The only two bench players to average more than 4.9 PPG, point guard Pargo and swingman Bonzi Wells, are free agents, and there is a strong chance neither will return. It appears Pargo thinks his scoring flurry has raised his value into the range of the mid-level exception, which is a price the Hornets would be wise not to match, while Wells was inconsistent and completely disappeared in the playoffs.
Of the players that are left, forward Julian Wright figures to have the opportunity to have his role increased next year. He showed promise in stretches against
the Spurs this year, plays solid perimeter defense, and showed flashes of being able to create shots for himself- an asset that the Hornets need when Paul takes a break.
Center Melvin Ely was the Hornets' primary backup big man by the end of last year. He doesn't give the Hornets much more than a semi-warm body and serviceable defense, and the Hornets should look to upgrade this position.
It's possible the upgrade could come from their project center Hilton Armstrong, whom the Hornets selected in the draft three years ago. Due to limited playing time, no one's really sure of how much Armstrong can contribute right now, but perhaps he's ready to make the jump to being a solid rotation player.
The other two players under contract, point guard Mike James and small forward Rasual Butler, are frankly washed up and probably nothing more than practice players at this stage of their careers. Butler averaged a career low in points and had his lowest three-point shooting percentage since his rookie year; in the 21 games he played with the Hornets after coming over midseason in a trade with Houston, James averaged career lows across the board in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and field goal percentage.
The Hornets must be kicking themselves for selling their first-round pick in this year's draft to the Blazers. A player like Mario Chalmers, Chris Douglas-Roberts or Darrell Arther would have gone a long way to helping them with their issues with depth.
Other than Wright, the Hornets can't really be happy with any of the options they have off the bench. Though I imagine the Hornets would like to improve at the shooting guard position by bringing in someone like Boston's James Posey, they would likely be better off by splitting their mid-level exception amongst two or three smaller pieces that can give them solid minutes and improve their depth.
Wright gives them a player they can bring in on the wings to possibly give them some offense. That leaves the Hornets looking for a point guard and a big man.
The most obvious option at point guard would be to re-sign Pargo. Pargo brings the ability to create his own offense and can play some shooting guard as well.
However, if his value creeps up anywhere near to the mid-level exception, the Hornets should let him go. He's streaky and is a volume-shooter, getting his 8.1 PPG last year on a miserable 39% shooting while his assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 1:1.
The Hornets have apparently reached out to the Pistons' Juan Dixon, who would be a much more affordable option though he wouldn't bring the same scoring ability as Pargo.
Other options that could likely be had at moderate prices include the Magic's Carlos Arroyo and Keyon Dooling, the Kings' Anthony Johnson, the Mavs' Tyronn Lue, and the Heat's Jason Williams. None of those guys are sexy, but when your starter is Chris Paul all you really need is a guy who's competent enough to run the offense for ten minutes a game.
Finding a backup big may be more difficult, as there are relatively few good ones left on the market. The Spurs' Kurt Thomas would be a great fit if he could be lured away from the Spurs, and would be a good investment of $3-4 million of the mid-level exception. The Pistons' Theo Ratliff would also fit well.
Besides those two, there are a ton of lukewarm bodies such as Francisco Elson, Adonal Foyle, David Harrison, Randolph Morris, and Pat Garrity all available for probably near the minimum, but banking on any of them being useful seems like a long shot. Re-signing center Chris Andersen also remains a possibility.
While those seem to be the positions of need for the Hornets in my opinion, we have heard rumors they may be considering offering Celtics swingman James Posey the majority of the midlevel exception. While Posey would be a good fit and would likely be an upgrade at the starting shooting guard position, it seems like that would be a poor allocation of resources considering the glaring needs elsewhere on the roster.
In addition, apparently the Hornets are inquiring about Pistons' small forward Jarvis Hayes. Though that is not a position of need, if he can be had cheaply, he figures to be a decent addition.
The Hornets have a strong starting five built around their two all-stars, but lack depth. If they can bring in a serviceable backup point guard and big man while continuing to develop Julian Wright and Hilton Armstrong, the Hornets will have a solid 8- or 9-man rotation that may be able to lead them even deeper into the playoffs next year.
Ultimately, regardless of what else the Hornets do, this offseason has to be considered a success since they managed to extend Chris Paul for an additional four years, meaning they're a lock to contend well into the early part of the next decade. Hopefully by then the rest of the nation will wake up and stop sleeping on them.