Published December 22, 2011
| Sports Network
Hornets second-year head coach Monty Williams was careful to pick his words when asked during training camp if he thought his club was still a playoff team despite losing its two top scorers from a season ago.
What Williams said was, "It's easy to say you put these guys together and it's a playoff team. We had two All-Stars on our team last year and nobody thought we'd make the playoffs. Now we have one and I just don't think it's that easy. I think you have to get in the gym and see who works well together, who you can put in certain spots."
What Williams may have been thinking was, "Come on guys, are you serious?"
The task for Williams is not an easy one. Most teams would have trouble in just replacing forward David West, New Orleans' leading scorer and second-best rebounder from a season ago.
But West wasn't the only big name to say goodbye to the Big Easy. Once superstar guard Chris Paul said he would not sign an extension with the Hornets, the NBA-owned franchise was forced to look into dealing arguably one of the top players in the league.
It did so twice.
First, Paul was thought to be going to the Lakers in a three-team trade that also involved the Rockets and would have reportedly landed the likes of Lamar Odom and Kevin Martin in New Orleans. But the league blocked the proposed trade to cast Paul's future into a darker cloud.
The sun finally broke through during training camp, with the Hornets dealing Paul to Los Angeles' other team -- the Clippers -- in exchange for guard Eric Gordon, center Chris Kaman and forward Al-Farouq Aminu, adding three capable bodies to the Hornets' shorthanded roster. New Orleans also secured some help down the road in getting Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round pick from the Clippers.
"With this trade, we now have three additional players who were among the top- eight draft picks in their respective drafts as well as our own first-round pick and the more favorable first-round pick of Los Angeles or Minnesota," said New Orleans general manager Dell Demps.
No matter how Demps spins it, the task of getting to the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons is much more difficult. And even if the Hornets do find a way to finish among the top eight in the West, how far does Demps think they will go considering they hadn't made it past the first round in their last two trips with Paul?
Expectations should be lower for Williams now without West and Paul, the fourth overall pick of the 2005 draft and former Rookie of the Year who made it to four All-Star games during his tenure in New Orleans.
"I inherited what most coaches would want to inherit. Yet, it takes a while to put your program in place, so we're looking at starting over again, which is not something we had planned on or are looking forward to. But it's what I have to do," said Williams, who became just the third first-year head coach in team history to reach the playoffs.
It seems Williams will have a lot going on in his head this season.
2010-11 Results: 46-36, third in Southwest Division. Lost in first round to Los Angeles Lakers
ADDITIONS: G Eric Gordon, C Chris Kaman, F Al-Farouq Aminu
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
FRONTCOURT: The Hornets were much more prepared for the loss of West, who opted out of his contract after missing the end of last season because of a torn ACL in his left knee. Still, New Orleans didn't fill the void until dealing away Paul and getting Kaman in return.
The 7-foot Kaman will team with the returning Emeka Okafor in an effort to replace West's 18.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game a season ago. Okafor, who in his third year with the Hornets is now the club's current longest-tenured player, led the Hornets with 9.5 rebounds a game last season to go along with 10.3 points.
While Gordon was the key piece the Hornets received for Paul, Kaman could have an impact as well if he can stay healthy. An All-Star in 2010 when he averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, the 29-year-old Kaman missed 50 games a season ago due to injury, including 45 because of a bone bruise in his left ankle.
Williams will hope that Kaman can stay on the court and be a presence on both ends, but may be hesitant to put both Kaman and Okafor on the floor at the same time early on. If that is the case, Carl Landry will likely step into the power forward spot like he did when West went down with injury.
Landry played well in place of West and averaged 11.8 points per game. His ability to score down low gives Williams another solid option for his front court.
The final member of New Orleans' frontcourt is small forward Trevor Ariza, who set a career high with 75 starts after being acquired from the Rockets prior to the start of the 2010-11 season. The energy forward did see his points dip by nearly four a game in his first year with the Hornets, but the loss of Paul could create some more offensive chances for the 26-year-old.
BACKCOURT: Gordon now becomes the focal point of the offense and the fourth- year Indiana product is coming off a breakout year.
After averaging just over 16 points per game in his first two seasons, the 22- year-old set career highs with 22.3 points and 4.4 assists per game. However, he did miss a total of 26 games due to a wrist injury but was still the Clippers' second-leading scorer.
Williams will have to learn to trust Gordon like he did Paul and said his new guard still hasn't reached his ceiling yet.
"I've always liked him. I'm always one to get guys on our team that I fear coaching against and he's one of those guys," said Williams. "When he shoots it from range or when he's attacking the basket you're always on edge because you know you're in trouble."
Unlike the loss of West, the Hornets already had their replacement for Paul on the roster with point guard Jarrett Jack, who was acquired during the season last year from Toronto in a deal that sent Peja Stojakovic to the Raptors.
Jack has been a starter before, doing so with Portland, Indiana and Toronto. He led the NBA with 83 games played last year because of the trade and made a career-high 79 starts with Portland in 2006-07, setting a personal best with 5.3 assists per game for a club in which Williams was an assistant coach.
"If you're going to lose a guy like Chris Paul, you better have somebody else who can step in and run the team. Jarrett's been a starter in this league, he knows the game. People don't realize how good he is," praised Williams of Jack.
Jack won't be counted on to score like Paul did, but is a natural point guard who can distribute the ball.
BENCH: The addition of Paul slides Marco Belinelli to the bench after the Italian made 69 starts and averaged 10.4 points per game a season ago. Belinelli will have to adjust to coming in as a reserve and won't see nearly the 24.5 minutes a night he did in 2010-11.
The third piece of the Paul trade, Aminu, is in his second season out of Wake Forest and was durable for the Clippers last year after playing in 81 games. He'll continue to get seasoning off the bench in New Orleans.
Williams will have to get his minutes out of Jack, who is suspended for the season's first game for an offseason reckless driving charge, because the Hornets are very thin behind him at the point. Options include rookies Jerome Dyson and Carldell Johnson as well as the inexperienced Trey Johnson.
While Okafor, Kaman and Landry figure to rotate between the center and power forward spots, the Hornets also re-signed 7-footer Jason Smith to take up space in the middle.
Second-year Washington product Quincy Indexer can also spell Ariza.
COACHING: One thing working in the Hornets' favor is the fact that they excelled at the defensive end under Williams, going 24-4 when holding opponents to 90 points or less. Williams admitted to coming into a fortunate situation, taking over a team with established stars like Paul and West, so his coaching ability will be put to the test in a big way this season. His familiarity with Jack should help on the offensive side of things and getting Kaman and Aminu to fit into his defensive scheme will be key.
OUTLOOK: By definition, different doesn't mean worse, but things certainly don't look bright for the Hornets and whoever ultimately becomes the team's new owner.
Though New Orleans certainly got a solid package of players for Paul, it is going to take time to mold the new pieces together and that isn't the most ideal situation heading into a shortened season following a lockout. Certainly, Demps made the move with Paul with a slight eye on the future.
"Aminu is a young talent with a bright future, Gordon is a big time scorer and one of the best two guards in the league and Kaman is a proven center and former All-Star," the general manager said. "Combined with our other players, we will field a competitive team and our future looks great."
The immediate future likely won't feature a playoff trip unless Kaman reverts to All-Star form and Gordon takes charge right away, but a season of molding together could make the Hornets challengers again in 2012-13.