30 Questions: Which Hornets are most affected by Peja's health?
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Stojakovic's Hornets career has not been a storied one. It's hard to generate many stories when you play just 13 games and miss most of the season following back surgery. Peja had a herniated disc fragment removed from his back and is still in recovery mode 10 months after the fact. He was only supposed to miss three months. He has not yet shown himself to be at full strength during training camp or in preseason games. He played just four minutes versus the Pacers last week because of back stiffness and missed Friday's game against the Heat. When he has been out there, he has been out-quicked on defense, and you have to wonder how long Byron Scott will tolerate that.
We know what Peja can do when he's feeling good; even last season he managed to average 17.8 points, 2.6 3-pointers and 4.2 rebounds while at less than full strength. I have Stojakovic ranked behind small forwards such as Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani and Richard Jefferson. I like him as a late-round flyer because of his potential, but his slow recovery concerns me, and I think it should concern you as well.
Where does this leave his teammates, and you, if Peja is not 100 percent? In fact, where does this leave them if he is?
The two players who will be most directly impacted by Peja's health are Morris Peterson and Rasual Butler. I believe that Peterson will benefit both if Peja is healthy and if he isn't. How is this possible? Matchups.
If Peja is back to his sharpshooting ways, he will be the first read for defenses on the perimeter. If Chris Paul drives the lane and looks to kick out, Stojakovic will be his first target. Defenses know this and will look to close out on him first. This should give MoPete more open looks from deep, if somewhat fewer opportunities overall. For a player looking to get his confidence back, open looks are just the right medicine. On the other hand, if Peja is unable to go or his minutes are limited, Peterson will become the primary threat from outside, though Butler may have something to say about that. This would give Peterson more attempts and almost certainly more makes and points.
As rosy as this forecast is, I do not expect MoPete to return to his 2005-06 form when he averaged 16.8 points, 2.2 3-pointers and 1.3 steals. This is because I don't see him getting the 37.2 minutes per game he received that season. Bobby Jackson will vie for minutes and has been the better player of the two so far this preseason. I think 33-34 minutes are likely and that the current ESPN projections are a reasonable forecast and good value for where he is going (typically ninth to 11th rounds in midsized leagues).
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If Peja is sidelined, his backup, Butler, will be ready to go. He had some nice stretches last season (he averaged 37 minutes, 15.3 points, and 2.3 3-pointers in December 2006) and with minutes in the 30s, he is a capable scorer. His problem is consistency. While he can get Tabasco-hot for stretches, he can also go into prolonged slumps (see April). If his inconsistency recurs this season, rookie Julian Wright will press him for time. Wright is a completely different player -- a better rebounder and leaper and an excellent passer who leaves shooting to others -- but he can be very effective because of his athleticism and court vision. One thing to note about Butler if you pick him up: Despite being a good long-range shooter, he is miserable at the line (64.4 percent last season). Luckily, as a catch-and-shoot player, he does not venture to the line very often.
David West and Paul would also be affected if Peja misses any long stretches of time this season. Both will need to score more to make up for Stojakovic's absence. West, in particular, would benefit. He would score more and, given his touch, I don't think his percentages would drop too much with more looks and more defensive attention. Paul will score more if Peja can't go. He prefers to pass, but on those nights when Rasual is airmailing his efforts and other players can't get theirs, Paul will not hesitate to bulldog his way to the rim (and free-throw line).
Clearly, this team would be a better one with a healthy Peja. He stretches the floor, and with he and MoPete camped outside, there will be lanes aplenty for Paul to exploit. West will find more space for his midrange shot and shoot a better percentage from the floor. Without him, the scoring load will be redistributed among Butler, Peterson, Paul and West. However, none of them commands the respect outside that Peja does, and while individual points may rise, the field-goal percentage is likely to fall.
Guy Lake is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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