Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon Lead a Team on the Rise: 2012 Hornets Team Preview

What a difference a year makes.  This time last year, the Hornets were a team in a state of turmoil; they had just traded their future-hall-of-fame point guard (and the best player they got in return missed all but nine games due to injury), their other all-star packed his bags and left for Indiana via free agency, and they had no owner, having been purchased by the NBA.  Sure enough, it was a long season, and the Hornets finished in last place in the Western Conference.

Fast forward a year, and the picture is a lot rosier.  First (and foremost, at least from a stability perspective), they once again have an owner, having been bought from the NBA by Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints.  Benson’s purchase was accompanied by a new lease with the city, assuring the team’s future in New Orleans.

But more importantly from a basketball standpoint, this is a whole new team.  There are a lot of new faces, via the draft, trades and free agency that will help to influence the immediate direction of the franchise.

A New Foundation

Talking about new arrivals to the team obviously must begin with Anthony Davis.  From the moment the Hornets hit their 13.7% chance at the draft lottery, Hornets fans have been salivating over the thought of the big man from Kentucky suiting up for their team.  Rookies in this league (particularly big men) often need time to find their games, but Davis

[caption id="attachment_34" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Following in the footsteps of Christian Laettner. His pro career should turn out better, though."][/caption]

seems poised to be an exception.  His inclusion on the USA Olympic team (and his solid performance in his limited playing time) showed that he’s ready made to play with and against the best players in the world.  Will he live up to his full potential immediately?  Probably not (he IS only 19 years old, after all), but he will immediately show that he belongs, and with some more time to develop, the sky is the limit.

The Hornets’ other (less-hyped, but perhaps just as important) first-round pick is Austin Rivers, a guard from Duke (and son of former NBA player and current Celtics coach Doc Rivers) who the team hopes to pair with Eric Gordon to form a dynamic backcourt tandem.  Now I’ll admit I wasn’t totally sold on the Hornets taking Rivers with the tenth pick.  He’s more of a scorer by nature, probably more of a natural two-guard in the NBA.  I thought the Hornets had enough scorers and shooters that they would be better served taking a more traditional point guard, such as Kendall Marshall.  But in spite of that, I can’t deny that Rivers has skills.  If he can make the transition into being an NBA point guard, he and Gordon indeed could form one of the top backcourt combos in the league.  Rivers will most likely begin the season on the bench (unless Eric Gordon is not ready to return for the opener), but could very well be starting by midseason.

The Returning Superstar

[caption id="attachment_33" align="alignright" width="216" caption="Gordon can do it all. Doing it all will require him to be on the court, though."][/caption]

Draft aside, the most important personnel move the Hornets made this summer was re-signing shooting guard Eric Gordon.  Gordon was the centerpiece of the package the Hornets received in exchange for Chris Paul, and while his season was limited to nine games because of knee surgery, he lived up to expectations when he was on the court, averaging over 20 points per game and leading the team to a 6-3 record in games where he was active.

Gordon (and more specifically, his right knee) may hold the key to the team’s success this season.  The Hornets have held him out of preseason games and contact drills in practice in order to give him time to get as close to 100% as possible by the beginning of the season, knowing that if this team is going to have immediate success, they will need Gordon to be able to play most of the season.  He has all the tools to be one of the top shooting guards in the league, but must remain healthy.  Should Gordon not be ready to start the season, or miss time along the way, Austin Rivers will likely start in his place.

The Remaining Pieces, New and Old

Other notable Hornets returning from last season include Greivis Vasquez (a solid shooter and passer who will likely start at point guard to begin the season), Al-Farouq Aminu (possible starter at small forward, a solid defensive player who at 22 years old is still developing), and Jason Smith (provides some muscle and an inside presence off the bench, best known for shoulder checking Blake Griffin into oblivion).

There are also several new faces who will likely be immediate contributors.  The two biggest additions came via trades in the form of Robin Lopez and Ryan Anderson.  Lopez will replace the departed Chris Kaman at starting center and offer some defensive muscle in the low post.  Anderson, a versatile forward, will likely come off the bench backing up multiple positions and provide help with both rebounding and outside shooting.

Finally, rounding out the new faces that should see regular action are Darius Miller, Hakim Warrick, and Brian Roberts. Miller, the team’s second round pick out of Kentucky, has shown a nice scoring touch and could challenge Aminu for the starting small forward spot.  Warrick (acquired in the Robin Lopez trade) will provide a scoring spark and athleticism off the bench.  And Roberts, who’s played four years in Germany after going undrafted in 2008 out of Dayton, impressed the team enough in summer league and preseason action that he could see regular minutes off the bench, providing a smaller “true point guard” alternative to guys like Vasquez and Rivers, who are bigger and more suited to shooting the ball than distributing.

So What’s the Verdict?

The 2012 Hornets are a team with a lot of question marks, to be sure.  Between three rookies expected to play key roles, a lot of turnover from last year’s roster, and the health of the team’s top scorer and best player, there are a lot of things that could potentially go wrong for this team.  Having said that, all the pieces are there.  Anthony Davis looks like the most “sure thing, ready-made” NBA rookie since LeBron James.  Rivers has grown up around the league, and should have little trouble transitioning into the point guard role.  This team is too young and hasn’t played enough together to be considered a serious contender (yet), but if Gordon can stay healthy and the role players do their part, don’t be surprised to see the Hornets sneak into the playoffs as a 7- or 8-seed.

Two or three years down the road?  Look out, because this team is poised to be a major force in the near future.

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