Matt Cianfrone is the newest contributor to Hickory-High. Over the next few weeks he’ll be offerring his Off-Season Help Guides, looking at how each team might upgrade itself in the draft or free-agency. You can follow him on Twitter, @Matt_Cianfrone.
The New Orleans Hornets are in an odd position this offseason. The team just landed the number one pick in the draft, sure to be Anthony Davis, to go with the number ten pick that they acquired from the Timberwolves. The Hornets will combine these two picks with an odd cast of players under contract right now.
The team has some young pieces on the roster that can potentially grow alongside those two high draft picks, such as Xavier Henry, Al-Farouq Aminu and, presumably for at least another year, Eric Gordon. But for all the young players the Hornets also have a collection of mid-age to older players such as Jarrett Jack, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. Even the team’s “youth movement” last year brought in 25 year old sophomore Greivis Vasquez and 27 year old rookie Gustavo Ayon. The first question the Hornets must answer is what they want to do next year. If the answer is try and compete for a spot in NBA purgatory, the eighth and ninth seed, than they play Jack and Ariza a lot of minutes again next year and sign veterans of the same age to try and fill holes in the team. If they want to grow smarter they play the younger players, Henry, Aminu, and the two new rookies more minutes and probably grab another lottery pick while trying to find young role players in free agency. That second option is how I will be looking at the improvements the Hornets can make this offseason, through a young free-agent that can fill a hole on the team and someone they can grab with the 10th pick to make the roster better, since Davis is the obvious choice at number one.
Problem – Scoring
The Hornets were a bad scoring team last year and the problems showed in multiple areas. However, before looking at that problem, the issue of pace must be addressed. The Hornets were last in the league in pace, understandable since two of the three leading scorers on the team were post players, Chris Kaman and Carl Landry (Eric Gordon was excluded since he only played nine games).
The slow pace would not be a problem if it were not for two things, the first of which was turnovers. The Hornets were 29th in the league in turnover ratio at 26.4, only 0.1 points lower than the Thunder’s league worst 26.5. When a team only produces 90 possessions in a game, they simply cannot turn the ball over on over a quarter of their possessions and expect to win games. The turnover problems started with the team’s top two scorers, Jack and Kaman. Kaman averaged 2.7 turnovers per game while Jack checked in at 2.4 per game. When Jack went to the bench though, things did not get much better. Vasquez turned the ball over 2.2 times per game while playing eight fewer minutes than Jack. In total the Hornets top two ball handlers turned the ball over almost five times per game.
Even when the Hornets did not turn the ball over they typically did a bad job of putting the ball in the basket. The Hornets were 21st in the league last season in effective field goal percentage, at 47.6%. The ranking actually dropped when looking at true shooting percentage where the Hornets ranked 22nd in the league with a 51.7 TS%. One of the Hornet’s biggest problems was their inability to hit the three-pointer. New Orleans finished dead last in the league in three pointers made per game at 3.9.
Without the ability to spread the floor things closed in on Kaman and his numbers showed the struggle. For the season Kaman scored on only 38.6% of his post-ups and averaged just 0.76 points per possession. He was a bit better in pick-and-roll situations scoring on 42% of his possessions and averaging 0.82 points per possession as the roll man.
One of the biggest problems for the Hornets was their inability to generate shots off of the dribble. The team finished dead last in the league in points per possession off of isolations, averaging only 0.7 points per possession. Looking at the roster it is no surprise the team struggles in those situations. No player on the roster last season had the ability to break a defender down off the dribble or even the ability to bully their way to the rim. While isolations are not the best offense, in fact far from it, the ability to score late in the shot clock, for yourself or others, against good defensive teams is something a good team must have and the Hornets lacked that this past season, especially with Gordon on the shelf for the majority of the year.
Gordon’s return should help the Hornets a bit with their offense but there are still plenty of areas for growth. The team still needs to find shooting, especially with Belinelli as a free agent. With Kaman and Landry both on the market and unlikely to return, some low post scoring would be nice as well. Luckily for them players that can help and not ruin the future of the team are available on the free agent market and at the tenth pick.
Free Agent that Can Help – Louis Williams
Williams fit with the Hornets would be a unique one. He would still come off the bench like he did in Philadelphia but he would be able to play plenty of minutes due to his versatility. Essentially he could play alongside either Jack or Gordon in the backcourt. With Jack on the floor Williams could play off the ball on the offensive end, spotting up to provide shooting, or running around screens to do the same. Last season Williams shot 36% from three, not blazing numbers but something that could help the Hornets who are in desperate need of shooter. On the defensive end of the floor Jack would be able to check 2’s, something he did fairly regularly two years ago while playing alongside Chris Paul. This would allow Williams to guard point guards and minimize the defensive impact of the small backcourt.
Alongside Gordon though is where Williams could really shine. Williams would play the point offensively and be able to do much of what he did in Philly, make plays for himself and others. While he has a tendency to over-dribble, Williams is a much underrated playmaker for others on his team. This past season he averaged 6.8 assists per 48 minutes while playing point guard according to 82games.com. With Gordon on the floor to keep defenses spaced Williams could also provide a much needed boost of one-on-one scoring for the Hornets. For the season Williams scored 0.9 points per possession in isolation situations, a number that was good for 29th in the league. For a team that was so dreadful in those same offensive situations Williams would be the perfect fit.
Another positive for the Hornets is William’s ability to run a pick-and-roll, a large staple of the New Orleans offense. For the season the Hornet’s ranked fourth in the league in points per possession by pick-and-roll ball handlers, scoring 0.85 points per possession. Williams also finished near the top of the league in the same category as he scored 0.94 points per possession, good for 19th in the league. So Williams would be able to step right in and continue doing the one thing that the Hornets do well, while adding to some of the areas that they struggled in.
Rookie Who Can Help – Jared Sullinger
Sullinger is an interesting case for the Hornets. He does a couple of things very well, one of which the Hornets desperately need with the absence of Landry and Kaman on the roster – score in the post. He also has always struggled against length something that no matter where he plays, power forward or center, he is going to have to deal.
When looking at Sullinger’s similarity scores those worries get worse. The three closest similarities to Sullinger are Damion James, Wayne Simien, and Shelden Williams, none of which would be a promising career path for the 10th pick in the draft. What the Hornets need to gamble on though is that with Davis playing center next to him Sullinger will figure out how to use his brute strength and incredible touch to be able to continue the paint dominance he showed in college. Luckily for Sullinger he has shown more of a post game than either James or Williams ever did in college. The Simien comparison is an interesting one but Sullinger’s ability to put the ball on the floor is something that Simien never had and could be the offensive diversifier that will allow Sullinger to succeed.
Sullinger would also have the opportunity to come off the bench behind Emeka Okafor and play against second unit big men, allowing him the opportunity to develop post moves and counters against some weaker defenders. What he already has going for him is the ability to step outside and shoot the ball at a respectable clip. With that shooting touch Sullinger would be able to be an offensive threat even without being able to consistently score in the post.
The one wildcard with the 10th pick is Dion Waiters. If Waiters is available at number 10, which is possible, he could be another option. He would give them a reliable scorer who can get to the rim and would be a young piece that could grow and eventually replace Eric Gordon if he were to leave via free agency. The other plus with Waiters is he could play some minutes at point guard, something that would come in handy this season playing alongside Gordon. Essentially he could duplicate some of the contributions of Lou Williams, who I mentioned above.
In the end New Orleans is in an interesting place. They will almost certainly be drafting Davis first overall, whether they admit that before the draft or not. After that pick they have a ton of options. They can trade the 10th overall pick, which has been rumored, or keep the pick and draft a future point guard, post scorer, or wing scorer. They can play young players next season and probably be in the lottery again while growing and developing youth, or they can play the random collection of middle aged veterans with Davis and Gordon and a couple free agents they would sign and possibly compete for the eight seed. In that decision lays the blueprint for the moves the Hornets will make this offseason. Hopefully for their fans it does not land them in NBA purgatory but instead builds a bright future.