STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Hornets suffered through a disappointing season in 2009-2010 that saw coach Byron Scott get fired after just nine games and All-Pro point guard Chris Paul miss over 30 games with a knee injury. Additionally, Paul voiced his discontent with the direction of the organization this offseason. However, with Paul recovered (and apparently in a better state of mind), and with the acquisition of several offensive-minded players, 2010-2011 could be a huge year for the Hornets. The addition of rookie Quincy Pondexter and the trades for Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza and Willie Green should add depth and skills to a depleted roster that was an afterthought in the Western Conference. The Hornets seem to have a young set of pieces primed for improvement on a 37-45 record and poised for a potential playoff run. With new coach Monty Williams and new GM Dell Demps leaving their mark this offseason, the Hornets hope that success will soon follow.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Emeka Okafor is expected to see 30-35 minutes at center, with Aaron Gray and Jason Smith battling to claim double-digit minutes as Okaforís backup. David West should again see over 35 minutes a game, especially now that there's no clear backup following the trade that sent Darius Songalia and Craig Brackins to Philadelphia. Trevor Ariza and Peja Stojakovic will be battling for the starting small forward position. If Ariza wins the job (which seems likely), Stojakovic will find himself in a reduced role. Ariza should be good for close to 30 minutes per game while seeing time at numerous positions on the floor. Look for Quincy Pondexter to fill a small role at the three and get about less than 10 minutes a game. The winner of the Marco Belinelli/Marcus Thornton competition will start at shooting guard. The starter should log 25-30 minutes, with the latter backing him up for about 15 minutes a game. Assuming Chris Paul is fully healthy, he should return to his All-Star form and average well over 35 minutes a game. Look for newcomer Mustafa Shakur to spell Paul off the bench, likely for 5-10 minute, with Thornton capable of running the point guard position if necessary.
Emeka Okafor: An aggressive rebounder and efficient low-post scorer, Okafor was unpopular with fans last year as many labeled him an underachiever due to an inflated contract and a career-low 10 points per game. However, when playing with a healthy Chris Paul, Okafor posted good numbers (above his season scoring average for three of the four months Paul was healthy last season). To bounce back this year, Okafor needs to improve his shooting percentages and rebounding totals. Last season he shot 53 percent from the field (the third-worst percentage of his career) and finished with just 9.0 rebounds per game (the lowest of his career). Having a healthy Paul around should help him turn things around.
Jason Smith: Acquired in a September trade, Smith adds another seven-footer to the Hornets' frontcourt. Coming off a year averaging 11 minutes a night, Smith likely wonít see many more minutes than that on a crowded frontcourt bench. He isnít a great scorer, but with his size, the Hornets could potentially employ packages that would allow Okafor to play power forward (his natural position) and have a seven-footer to defend the bigger centers.
Aaron Gray: One of the grittiest and hardest-working players on the Hornets, Gray is a seven-foot banger who makes the most out of his limited minutes. He is more known for using his 270-pound frame on defense rather than offense, averaging only 3.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game last season, and you might remember him shutting down Dwight Howard last season (Howard had only three buckets when matched up against Gray). He's a stingy defender and will look to build on that reputation after receiving a new contract in the offseason. If Okafor continues to disappoint fans in the Big Easy, look for Grayís minutes to increase.
Darryl Watkins: Itís hard to make a prediction for Watkinsís 2010 season. Undrafted in 2007, Watkins has bounced around four different NBA summer league teams without seeing regular season action. At 6-11, 255 pounds, Watkins could see playing time relieving Okafor or even some minutes at PF following the trade with the 76ers.
David West: An elite offensive big man, West has earned two All-Star bids in the past three seasons and ranked sixth in scoring amongst power forwards in 2010 with 19.0 points per game. West played in 81 games last season for the first time in his career and also produced his second-best shooting percentage, making 50.5 percent of his attempts from the field and 86.5 percent from the line. He has also improved his passing efficiency, dishing out a career-best 3.0 assists per game. With a healthy Chris Paul, West will draw less attention from defenders and should look to benefit from more open looks, forming a solid one-two punch in New Orleans.
Trevor Ariza: Acquired in the offseason, Ariza is expected to be a cornerstone of the team's rotation this year and should see big minutes at both shooting guard and small forward. He uses his quick feet and long arms to be one of the league's elite sources of steals (a career high 1.8 per game last season). He's also capable of knocking down the three-point shot, showcasing a career-best 33.4 shooting percentage from behind the arc in 2009-10. After posting the highest scoring average of his career (14.9 ppg) last year, Ariza showed he is developing into a consistent offense threat. In New Orleans, he will likely be used as a powerful third option on offense when defenses key on Paul and West. Ariza improved his game across the board last season, setting career highs in rebounding, assists, points, steals, three- point percentage and blocks.
Peja Stojakovic: One of the true question marks on the roster this year, Stojakovic battled nagging injuries and missed 19 games last season. His playing time and statistics declined in pretty much every category, and he will likely see an even steeper drop in minutes this year now that Trevor Ariza is in town. Stojakovic may find himself buried behind Trevor Ariza and Quincy Pondexter at small forward and behind Marco Belinelli as the sharp shooter off the bench.
Quincy Pondexter: A highly touted rookie acquired in a draft-day trade from the Thunder, Pondexter is in the Hornets' deep small forward rotation. After averaging 19.3 points per game his senior year of college, Pondexter brings a much-needed scoring element off the bench and has good defensive skills to boot. While at Washington, he saw yearly increases in his steals, culminating at 1.3 per game, and in rebounding, finishing at 7.6 per game. With the shooting guard and small forward positions in flux, Pondexter can boost his chances at extended minutes with a strong showing in the preseason.
Chris Paul: Superstar Paul is back from injury and apparently happy with the current state of the team after an offseason of speculation and controversy. He's also returning from a torn meniscus that caused him to miss 30-plus games last season. From what was seen of Paul last year, he still stands tall as the top fantasy point guard in the league and will look to improve on his already-impressive double-double average with a slew of new offensive players at his disposal. In addition to his scoring, his skills at distributing the ball ranked second in the league last year (0.3 assists per game behind league-leader Steve Nash), and he is also an extremely deft theft, placing third in the NBA last year with 2.1 steals per game. If Paul is truly healthy, 2010-2011 could be a career year for him. Expect him to be the focal point of the offense this year and build upon his already phenomenal career stats.
Mustafa Shakur: Shakur has no NBA experience, but averaged 16 points a game and earned second-team All-NBDL honors last year with the Tulsa 76ers. He proved to be efficient on the boards too, averaging 4.5 rebounds per game. It's hard to predict how much Shakur will play, but he stands as the lone true point guard on the roster not named Chris Paul now that Darren Collison is in Indiana. Shakur should be in line for decent playing time, and if his raw offensive talent finally translates into the NBA, there's some deep sleeper potential here.
Marcus Thornton: An explosive second-year guard, Thornton was thrown into action last season due to injuries and the ineffectiveness of Morris Peterson and made the most of it. He had an outstanding rookie campaign, finishing as a second-team All-Rookie and averaging 14.5 points per game. Thornton is already armed with an impressive three-point shot - 37.5 percent from deep - but needs to improve his passing and rebounding to secure a starting spot in his battle with newcomer Marco Belinelli.
Marco Belinelli: The Hornets acquired the sharp-shooting Belinelli via trade to add depth at guard and another three-point threat. Belinelli is currently in a depth chart battle for the starting shooting guard position with Marcus Thornton and brings a 38 percent three-point shot to the table to help his case. He only averaged 7.6 points per game last year, but Belinelli was dealing with a coaching change in Toronto and saw his minutes and starts decline substantially. With coach Monty Williams already declaring an open competition for the starting two spot, Belinelli has room to impress. Regardless of whether he starts, look for Belinelli to post meaningful three-point statistics.
Willie Green: The Hornets acquired Green in an offseason trade with Philadelphia. He'll add depth in the backcourt and provide a nice shooterís touch off the bench after shooting 46 percent from the field and 83 percent from the line. While he now joins a deep group of shooting guards, his shooting ability and blue-collar style of play could earn him some points with coach Monty Williams.
DJ Strawberry: A late pickup to fill out the roster, Strawberry comes into the season with very limited NBA action. An athletic guard whose shot is streaky, he'll look to fight for one of the last possible roster spots and could be utilized as a reserve in event of an injury or during a grueling stretch of the schedule.
Marco Belinelli: Belinelli's not a household name, but he's an established three-point threat who should see significant playing time as a three- point specialist. He could also see the lesser ends of defensive matchups and take advantage as a scorer, particularly off the bench. Don't expect him to carry your team, but he should certainly pay dividends as a shooter and could be a solid contributor in other areas as well.
Peja Stojakovic: Stojakovic has upside as the incumbent starting small forward, but he seems destined to lose that role and to Trevor Ariza. He may see a severely depleted amount of playing time due to the additions of Ariza and Pondexter at small forward and Belinelli as a three-point specialist.