Next Wednesday’s season opener against Milwaukee marks a new chapter for the New Orleans Hornets under Dell Demps, Monty Williams, and several new players looking to get the team back into the playoff picture.
The Hornets 1-7 preseason record is virtually meaningless, because after all, it’s preseason. But exhibition play is good for one thing- pointing out problems, and for the New Orleans, the problematic finger is pointing directly at the bench.
The starting frontcourt tandem of Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor has big defensive potential that can improve last year’s ranking of 21st in points allowed. Both can haul in the boards and defend well individually on the perimeter and underneath, respectively.
Power forward David West is currently injured (wrist), but remains a dangerous mid-range shooter when healthy. But he needs to play more aggressively defensively to effectively complement Ariza and Okafor.
The starting backcourt is also beginning to gel. Marco Bellinelli looks comfortable at the two spot and is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc, while Chris Paul is just being Chris Paul.
But that’s not enough. NBA champions aren’t comprised of five man teams. The key to the Hornets season in obviously hidden somewhere on the pine; it’s just a question of determining who possesses it.
Unlike the NFL or MLB, team depth isn’t always identified as a glaring concern in the NBA, but for New Orleans, it will itself early against a tough opening schedule. Of the Hornets first 20 games, 14 will come against teams that made the playoffs last year.
Marcus Thornton is the sixth man, no questions asked. But after a stellar rookie season, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard has gone cold in the preseason, averaging just four points in 17 minutes on 20 percent shooting. He and Peja Stojakovic are the only shooting threats coming off the bench and with Peja’s age and limited offensive role, the Hornets desperately need Thornton to step it up.
Thornton’s ability to create shots for himself is crucial to a backcourt recently robbed of its bread and butter: the pick and roll and kick out passes. Chris Paul’s injury last year ended that attack, which was already hindered by the Tyson Chandler trade, until Thornton and Darren Collison stepped up.
But Collison is gone, and Thornton is the key to quality backcourt depth. Like many of his teammates, he’s young, athletic, and potentially a good scorer in transition. The Hornets aren’t traditionally a “run-the-floor” team, but this year’s squad is geared towards fast-paced, transitional offense.
Backup point guard Willie Green has ample experience and has done well since arriving from Philadelphia, averaging seven points in 17 minutes, but fans have seen what happens when CP3 goes down, and it’s not pretty.
Jason Smith is another good byproduct of the Philadelphia trade. The 7-footer is second on the team in rebounds and matched up well against Chris Bosh in the Hornets’ lone preseason victory, but lacks the scoring that David West brings to the position. He has the size to back up Okafor at center, but such a move would entail a major defensive drop-off the Hornets can’t afford.
Frontcourt depth might not be so worrisome if the Hornets played in the East, but they don’t, and the West has some sizable power forwards- Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan. All 7-footers, all experienced, and all equipped with diverse offensive skill sets. Dirk can drain it from 20 feet and beyond, Gasol has a nasty spin move and hook shot, and nobody draws the foul better than Timmy D.
And don’t forget about that Blake Griffin guy. He’s had a phenomenal preseason and New Orleans will get a taste of him within the first couple weeks of play, along with Nowitzki and Duncan.
As for the center position and low post scoring, which was envisioned to change with the Okafor trade, hasn’t been as asset for the Hornets since the Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning days in Charlotte.
And while the Okafor trade is still materializing offensively, his low post defense has been good. But the Hornets will face some very talented big men early on: Andrew Bogut, Yao Ming, Zydrunas Ilgauskus— guys with serious size and scoring abilities.
Williams has limited Okafor’s minutes early on, allowing recently acquired D.J. Mbenga more playing time. Between him, Smith, and Aaron Gray, the Hornets have three 7-footers coming off the bench, but no definitive, go-to, backup big man.
Bottom line, the opening quarter of the season is going to tough for this young team with a new head coach. But if the bench can develop into a solid eight or nine man rotation, New Orleans could find itself cheering for something besides the Saints once again.