Published November 20, 2014
Welcome to the New Orleans Hornets, the team without a superstar.
The Hornets enter their second season post-CP3 looking for someone to take the banner of team leader with no shortage of potential options.
The most logical is rookie forward Anthony Davis, the top pick of the 2012 draft who spent his summer in London wearing a Team USA jersey while hanging out with some guys named Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
Davis isn't the only NBA freshman looking to make an impact this year for the Hornets. Guard Austin Rivers, the 10th overall pick out of Duke, may morph into the heir apparent of Chris Paul.
Or it could be fellow guard Eric Gordon, the key return piece of last offseason's deal that sent Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers. New Orleans fans are still waiting to see what Gordon can bring to the table after injury kept him out of most of the 2011-12 strike-shortened season.
One thing is certain in New Orleans: the face of the franchise is still a blank canvas.
"That's who we are. We don't have the quote unquote elite player, so for us it's going to have to be by committee every night and I think that's a good foundation for us," said Monty Williams, who enters his third season as the club's head coach. "We hope that one of these young guys we picked becomes a superstar, if not all of them. That would be a good problem to have."
The more pressing problem for Williams is how to get a franchise back on track that is still recovering from the losses of both Paul and forward David West.
Plenty of new faces appears to be the current course of action. Only six players in camp this year were a member of last season's final roster after overhaul and injury led to Williams having to use 22 different players in 28 distinctive lineups. That included 16 players making their debut with the club and 15 different starters.
As if moving on from the departure of your franchise player wasn't enough, but 11 different players missed time with injury a season ago, totaling 218 games. In fact, Williams only had the benefit of a full bench of 13 players five times in the campaign.
But New Orleans' luck could be changing. After jumping over three teams to get the No. 1 pick and select Davis, Tom Benson, owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, officially became the new owner, giving the club some stability and a long-term relationship with New Orleans.
"It's good, short-term and long-term. As far as short-term, we've got a lot of young guys and it's time to progress at this point," said Gordon.
The Hornets spent this past offseason putting a solid group around Gordon, but they are still entering an upcoming season without a lead man to play the starring role.
2011-12 Results: 21-45, fifth in Southwest Division; Missed playoffs
KEY ADDITIONS: F Anthony Davis, G Austin Rivers, F Ryan Anderson, C Robin Lopez, F Hakim Warrick, F Darius Miller, G Roger Mason Jr.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Greivis Vasquez SG- Eric Gordon SF- Al-Farouq Aminu PF- Anthony Davis C - Robin Lopez
KEY RESERVES: G Austin Rivers, F Ryan Anderson, C/F Jason Smith, F Darius Miller, G Roger Mason Jr.
FRONTCOURT: The biggest changes to grab hold of the Hornets take place up front, with the club possessing four capable players to fill the three spots.
Most eyes will be on the 19-year-old Davis, the prize of the draft who helped lead the Kentucky Wildcats to the NCAA Championship as a freshman before jumping to the NBA.
The 6-foot-10 Davis is a great defender with a knack for blocking shots and that should instantly make him a favorite of Williams. And even though he has yet to play an NBA game, Davis certainly picked the minds of his superstar colleague's while at the 2012 Summer Games.
Those friends quickly become foes and Davis will be a targeted man this season.
"That's the NBA. Guys are going to come after you and he's got to get used to that," Williams said of Davis. "He's playing against the best players in the world and the best players at his position are really good in this league. He's got to understand that not only does he have a target, he's probably got a few booby traps out there too and that will be good for him."
Credit, then, should go to general manager Dell Demps, who made sure to get Davis some help up front. After trading away center Emeka Okafor and swingman Trevor Ariza to clear a starting spot for Davis, he made a deal with the Orlando Magic to secure the services of 6-foot-10 forward Ryan Anderson while also getting center Robin Lopez from the Phoenix Suns as part of a three-team trade.
Lopez doesn't offer much in terms of scoring, but does represent a 7-foot option to eat up minutes in the middle and save Davis some wear-and-tear down low.
Anderson could also be key to giving Davis some room to work with.
Though he has the body of a big man, the fourth-year vet has the shooting touch of a sniper. The 24-year-old set career bests with 16.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game with the Magic last season and led the league in three- pointers made on the way to earning the NBA's Most Improved Player award.
His ability to shoot from the outside will force teams to pull a player out of the paint and give Davis some room to thrown down dunks.
"Pick your poison," said Anderson on the club's versatility to create offense.
Anderson or Lopez could come off the bench and leave minutes at the small forward spot to Al-Farouq Aminu, who had a strong finish to the 2011-12 campaign.
BACKCOURT: Gordon became the de facto franchise guy a season ago after coming over from the Clippers, but one season removed from a 22.3 point and 4.4 assist per game campaign, he was limited to just nine contests due to injury. That included 51 games lost to a bruised right knee and the Hornets gave him little action during camp to try and keep him ready for this season.
Still, Gordon, one of the league's up-and-comers, and is in the mix for the next four years after New Orleans matched the offer the restricted shooting guard got from the Phoenix Suns worth a reported $58 million.
"I'm glad to be here. It's a new, young team. It's going to be an interesting year for us and I look forward to the challenge," noted Gordon.
While Rivers figures to be Gordon's running mate of the future, it seems likely that Williams will opt to open the season with Greivis Vasquez as the starting point guard.
The second-year guard was one of three players to appear in all 66 games last season for New Orleans and the club went 12-14 when he started. However, he may be the right fit for this offense as the new additions and return to health of Gordon will give him plenty of options to exercise his past-first mentality.
BENCH: Williams figures to throw some different looks out early on in the season in an effort to find the right mix of players to generate offense. That should give his bench a changing look throughout the season.
Rivers should see plenty of minutes even if he doesn't start. The 20-year-old became just the third freshman in Duke's star-laced history to lead the team in scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game. Rivers sprained an ankle in a preseason game, so his availability immediately is unknown.
The son of current Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, Austin likes what he sees from his new club, comparing the latest edition of the squad to an Oklahoma City Thunder franchise that steadily built itself into a Western Conference powerhouse.
Just how much he contributes this year will be up to Williams.
"I want Austin to play. If he puts the pressure on me to give him more minutes, that's a good thing," declared the coach. "As far as putting him in a position right now, I don't think that's fair to him."
Williams will also have rookie and 2012 SEC Sixth Man of the Year Darius Miller, a college teammate of Davis, as an option along with forward Hakim Warrick and 7-foot big man Jason Smith, who averaged nearly 10 points and five rebounds a game last year in 40 games while missing time with a concussion.
Warrick, entering his seventh NBA season, figures to offer Williams' young squad some valuable experience off the bench along with eight-year veteran guard Roger Mason Jr.
COACHING: Williams has had two polar opposite seasons with the Hornets.
He inherited a talented roster in his first season, leading New Orleans to 46 wins and an opening-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Lakers before slipping to just 21 victories in the shortened campaign. Still, he got an extension from the front office, a reported four years, and has some new pieces to play with for 2012-13.
If it is one thing Williams can get his team to do, it is play defense. The Hornets held 50 of their 66 opponents under 100 points a season ago and ranked eighth with 93.4 points allowed per game.
OUTLOOK: As expected with a team of vigorous young players, the Hornets' players are setting the bar at playoff level.
The more realistic Williams isn't so sure.
"We can't skip steps. I want our guys to understand that we have a lot of work to do, yet I'm excited about getting back to work," he said.
"I share in that excitement, yet the reality is we have a lot of work to do."
Luckily, his players agree.
"We're really excited, but we also know that it is a process. You just don't go out there and just win. It doesn't happen like that," declared Rivers. "We have to put it together in training camp, the preseason. We're going to have to take some bumps, play these older, veteran teams. We're going to learn things, failure or success, either way. And it's just going to make us better."
While the Hornets don't figure to be a walk-over opponent night in and night out, there is in fact some growing pains the club must endure. It will first have to establish its offensive identity while also making sure its young players commit to defense.
Talents like Davis, Rivers, Anderson and Miller are used to winning and the upcoming season could offer many moments of frustration. It's turning those impediments into lessons that will serve the Hornets down the road.