Commentary

Hollinger's Team Forecast: New Orleans Hornets

Originally Published: October 1, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Chris PaulLayne Murdoch/Getty ImagesWill the Hornets build on their rapid rise? That's a burning question for Chris Paul and New Orleans.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

If basketball manages to stick in New Orleans, the 2007-08 season will be the reason. When the season began few felt the hurricane-ravaged city could support an NBA team, and pathetic early-season attendance numbers supported that notion. When the Hornets reached a lease agreement with the city which gave them a way out if certain attendance thresholds weren't met, the handwriting seemed to be on the wall.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 56-26 (Pythagorean W-L: 58-24)
Offensive Efficiency: 109.0 (5th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.9 (7th)
Pace Factor: 92.1 (26th)
Highest PER: Chris Paul (28.69)

But a funny thing happened -- the Hornets kept winning. And as they did, more and more people started showing up. By the end of the season the Hornets had some of the most raucous crowds in the league, the team was on pace to easily exceed the attendance thresholds, and the Hornets appeared to be gaining a long-term foothold in the city.

For that, they can thank Chris Paul. The third-year guard helped rocket New Orleans to the top of the ridiculously competitive Southwest Division by leading the league in assists and steals, posting the league's second-best player efficiency rating (PER) and running a close second in the MVP voting. His breakout year was the main reason the Hornets won 15 games more than anyone expected and were one game away from a spot in the conference finals.

Fewest Opp. FTA per FGA, '07-08

TEAM OPP. FTA/FGA
New Orleans .239
Memphis .253
Phoenix .254
Toronto .264
Philadelphia .265
League average .306

But he wasn't the only reason. The duo of David West and Tyson Chandler up front managed to stay healthy and productive after missing much of the 2006-07 season, playing 155 games between them in 07-08. West made his first All-Star team while Chandler had his best pro season, helped along by a slew of alley-oops from Paul. With Peja Stojakovic returning from injury to hit 44 percent of his 3-pointers and free agent Morris Peterson filling an open sore at shooting guard, New Orleans had a devastating nucleus.

Offensively, the Hornets didn't shoot a good percentage and were terrible at getting to the free-throw line, ranking 28th among the league's 30 teams in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt. They succeeded because they made 3s and they didn't make turnovers.

The Hornets didn't attempt an unusually high number of 3-pointers, but ranked third in the league at 38.9 percent from downtown. Stojakovic was the main reason, but Peterson (39.8 percent) and Paul (a surprising 36.9 percent) also shot it well; equally important was the guys who couldn't make 3s didn't take them. Thanks to the 3s, New Orleans ranked 11th in the league in true shooting percentage.

But what really set the Hornets apart was how well they took care of the ball. Paul did the bulk of the creating off pick-and-rolls and hardly ever made a miscue, while the other players mostly were asked to catch and shoot. As a result, New Orleans made turnovers on just 12.8 percent of its possessions, the second-best rate in the league -- a feat that allowed them to finish fifth in offensive efficiency despite the lack of free throws.

On the defensive end, the Hornets were average at first glance, allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent overall and 49.4 percent on 2-pointers. However, they were fantastic in two respects, and overall that allowed them to finish in the top quarter of the league.

First, they didn't put opponents on the line. The Hornets committed the fewest fouls in the league and allowed only .239 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, which was easily the lowest rate in the league. This was not only impressive on its own, but it stood in direct contrast with the team's persona under Byron Scott -- this was a gritty, tough club, but one that managed to avoid going over the line with the aggression.

In addition to not fouling, the Hornets grabbed everything that came off the rim. New Orleans ranked third in the league with a 75.4 percent defensive rebound rate, with Chandler having a monstrous year on the glass and West and others contributing in support.

Unfortunately, the Hornets couldn't outlast San Antonio in the second round of the playoffs, losing Game 7 on their home court thanks to a barrage of 3s from the Spurs. Nonetheless, their season was a raging success by any standard, moving the Hornets from a nonentity to a legitimate contender in the West.


Biggest Strength: Perimeter shooting

Having Chris Paul is great, but having Chris Paul with a bunch of 3-point shooters surrounding him? That's even better. New Orleans' offense succeeds because when Paul gets into the paint he has so many options scattered around the floor to deliver the ball to.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Hornets make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

Starters Stojakovic and Peterson are the main long-range weapons, but they aren't the only ones. At power forward, West is an excellent midrange shooter who spaces the floor when he isn't scoring on the blocks, leaving Chandler as the only starter who needn't be defended away from the rim.

And one can see a conscious approach by the Hornets' management to add to this arsenal. Posey (38.0 percent last year) provides another deep threat, and there's a good chance he'll be finishing a lot of games in Peterson's place. Up front, Marks can also stroke it from outside and could earn minutes with that ability. Brown, who played here two seasons ago, is also decent from outside.

Deeper on the bench lie a few other good shooters. Rasual Butler struggled badly last season but is a 36.5 percent career marksman from downtown; it's possible he could get back in the mix if Peterson struggles. The same goes for James (37.8 percent), who might be able to steal minutes in a small backcourt with Paul if he knocks down shots.

Biggest Weakness: Frontcourt depth

Look, I don't mean to put too fine a point on this, but they're really taking a risk by playing with what is basically a two-man frontcourt. Chandler has missed 64 games in the past five years; West has missed 107. The odds are that one of these guys is going to miss 20 or 25 games, and the Hornets have left themselves completely high and dry should that happen.

The two main reserves behind them are Armstrong and Ely, both of whom had single-digit PERs last season and have given little cause to think the coming season will be any different. New Orleans has left itself with relatively little flexibility even to trade for help at this point, though it's likely they'll be calling Louisiana native P.J. Brown every week between now and the end of the season to see if he'll play for the minimum.

New Orleans can also play small with Posey at the 4, but this look isn't going to work against everybody, especially in the Western Conference playoffs. In particular, the Suns and the Lakers would appear to have a massive advantage against such a lineup. At some point, teams need to throw multiple post players into a game -- and the Hornets risk being completely unprepared for those moments.


Outlook

New Orleans has been a trendy pick as a conference champion out West -- it seems most of the people who aren't picking the Lakers are choosing the Hornets.

It's possible they could do it … but for a variety of reasons, I think it's a lot more likely they'll take a step back. New Orleans is battling the Plexiglass Principle -- teams that sharply improve one season tend to shrink backward the next -- and they offer a good example as to why.

The reasons start in the frontcourt, where West in particular is an injury risk and the Hornets' depth is woeful. Additionally, the age of the three main wing players -- Peterson, Posey and Stojakovic -- is of concern; all three are 31 and as a group can be expected to perform worse than a year ago. Meanwhile, the loss of Pargo leaves a gaping wound at backup point guard; it remains to be seen if Brown or James can be an effective Band-Aid.

Offsetting that are a few positives. Most notable is the potential that second-year pro Julian Wright will build on his stellar play in limited minutes a season ago. There's also a limited chance that Armstrong, who is still just 23, develops a pulse.

Even so, I projected them to lose five wins from last season's win total, and that was with Paul leading the league in PER; too many things went right for them last season to reasonably expect an encore performance. The Hornets may very well get as far as they did a year ago in the postseason, but given the heightened expectations I'm not sure it will feel like such a euphoric success this time.

Prediction: 50-32, 2nd in Southwest Division, 4th in Western Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.