NBA Season Preview: New Orleans Hornets

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Last season: 37-45, after Byron Scott started the season and was bounced for Jeff Bower, they still finished out of the playoffs. Of course they played half the season without Chris Paul and right now he is everything to that franchise.

Head Coach: Monty Williams comes over from being an assistant in Portland and steps into a tough spot as a first year, man. On the court he’s asked to get blood from a stone (the Hornet bench, the starters will be pretty good). Also, he was brought in to try and form a tight relationship with CP3, to help keep him around. We’ll see how that plays out.

You can’t really mention Williams without talking about new GM Dell Demps. Demps is a well-respected guy around the league who is going to have to find a way to get talent in the door while not going into luxury tax range. Unless the new owner, should he ever arrive, change the rules.

Key Departures: Darren Collison, who came into his own when Bower trusted him in a way Byron Scott never did. The Hornets needed to trade Collison — he was the one guy they could move that would bring in talent to put around Paul at other positions (Collison just would have backed him up). Whether they got enough for that trade chip is up for discussion.

James Posey and his oversized contract were shipped out to save money, tied to the Collison trade. Mo Peterson was shipped out mostly to save money, Julian Wright went out to bring in some depth at guard.

Key Additions: Trevor Ariza, who is now Chris Paul’s wingman and should bring some better defense on the perimeter to a team that could use it. Marco Belinelli and Mustafa Shakur will try to prove they can be quality players off the bench. Aaron Gray, Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter also all come over, but may not play much.

Best case scenario: Everyone stays healthy, the bench comes together well enough and they make it back into the playoffs in the West.

For that to happen: Distractions and health issues can’t get in the way of a decent roster, and the bench needs to come togehter.

I never trust teams that that are undergoing an ownership change, and as we passed along this morning the sale of the Hornets is still alive and well. This sale could be good for the team and franchise long term — Gary Chouest could come in and invest in players and really turn the feel of the franchise around. But that has yet to be proven. Or for him to even get the team yet.

And ownership changes will just fuel the CP3 trade  rumors and distractions — with New York papers fanning the embers of whatever is there. Same is true if and when this team hits a rough patch this season (everyone does). Paul is not talking publicly about going, he has done the right things lately, but this fire will not die out this season. The team will have to learn to play and ignore all the talk.

On the court, this team could be pretty good. The starting five is good — Paul is a game changer, one of the elite guys in the league. Marcus Thornton stepped up last season and showed he can play the two, Ariza will bring defense and better energy that Peja has in years, David West remains a quality four and Emeka Okafor is solid at the five. That’s a nice group that can run or play in half court.

For this team to really make the playoffs, it will be about the bench — Peja Stojakovic is your designated gunner off the pine, but he has not been a great gunner in recent years. (Also, as he is in the last year of a big deal, look for his name to come up in a lot of trade talks.) Mustafa Shakur will be CP3’s backup and could be another D-League success story, but he’s going to be challenged to prove it. Marco Belinilli is going to have to play better. Then it’s guys like Aaron Gray that are hard for coaches to trust.

More likely the Hornets will: Be a good team that is a bit inconsistent — they’ll go out and beat the Lakers one night then drop one to the Clippers the next because their bench gets outplayed. The 54-point preseason loss to the Magic may typify that — the Hornets are not that bad but they don’t have the depth of talent to take a night off. They’ll most likely be in the mix but just miss out on a playoff spot.

This is not a bad team, in fact it has the makings of a good team in it. If it can get there some day comes back to the new brain trust of Williams and Demps, and beyond that if they get new ownership that gives them more latitude. More needs to be done to build this team, the question is will the new front office can do it and if the owner gives them the latitude to do it.

Prediction: 45 wins, leaving them 9th or 10th in the West. Then the real Chris Paul speculation will get started

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.