DimeMag

Something Special Is Brewing In New Orleans

The New Orleans Hornets (they’re not the Pelicans just yet) are a team in flux. They started the year with the specious ROY, Anthony Davis, and his inexorable brow grabbing most of the headlines. But it didn’t last. Davis went down with an ankle injury. Plus, after matching Phoenix’s offer sheet for the off guard they got in the Chris Paul trade, Eric Gordon, they waited for him to recover from a patella tendon disorder and bone bruise in his right knee.

Well last night, Gordon started just his second game of the season, and the Hornets got their second set of back-to-back victories this season when they defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 95-88 at home. It’s been a long time since the people of New Orleans had something to cheer about relating to basketball, and we’re hoping they continue to trend upwards because they have an exciting roster that could make some runs this season if they can stay healthy.

That’s a big if, though, even as Eric Gordon seems to lack the reticence normally reserved after a month of inactivity and ponderous knee issues. If you watched him last night, he started the game pretty cold from the field, going just 3-for-11 in the first half, but he was attacking the rim with a confidence that has to make Hornets fans happy. Just check out his shot chart from last night.

As you can see, Gordon shot just 4-for-10 in the restricted area, and he also missed a few just outside the lane. But he didn’t lose his confidence. Even struggling from the field, he kept attacking and was awarded with three trips to the line where he was a perfect 6-for-6 on the night. But all his shooting woes changed in the game’s final eight minutes. Gordon sank a couple long two-pointers and a step-back three to beat the shot clock and help a struggling Hornets team get the win after they were on the precipice of wasting an excellent first three quarters against the mighty Borg from San Antonio.

It wasn’t just Gordon that helped New Orleans get the victory, though, and it’s worth noting how well balanced this rotation appears with everyone healthy. Before the last couple weeks, the only thing the Hornets seemed to be missing was a player like Gordon that could get buckets down the stretch when teams like San Antonio tighten their grip on any offensive maneuvering in the game’s final moments.

Greivis Vasquez has been on a tear at point guard lately. Since Christmas, he’s been averaging 19.1 points per game, 10.6 assists and 5.9 rebounds in seven games. He’s also shot 52.6 percent from the field and 47.6 percent on three-pointers as the Hornets are 4-3 in that stretch, including wins in their last two. The last time New Orleans won two games in a row it was early November, and it’s just the second time they’ve done so this season.

Another reason for the Hornets improved play is the health and continued development of Anthony Davis. After missing time at two different points this season, Davis has appeared in 21 of the Hornets’ 34 games so far this year. In that limited action, Davis has managed to play efficiently enough to be ranked among the top 20 in PER for forwards who average over 15 minutes a game (via Hoopdata). His 19.6 Player Efficiency rating is the second-highest among the top rookies, trailing only Andre Drummond, who is playing less than 20 minutes a game.

Davis’ ankle finally appears healthy, and he’s bouncing all around the floor, catching oops on the wing and dashing in to put back offensive rebounds. There was one moment last night where Tim Duncan helped the young star-in-the-making up after he’d been knocked to the floor and lost the ball out of bounds. When Duncan goes out of his way to help you to your feet, you know you’re legit. After struggling to score since a 25-point outburst in a loss to the Raptors on December 28, Davis had 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting last night to go with nine rebounds, three steals and a block. He appears ready to make good on the promise we saw during his lone NCAA championship-winning year at Kentucky.

But it’s not just the Hornets’ now loaded backcourt and their precocious phenom at forward that should have Bayou fans excited. They also has a pretty superb cast of role players to fill in the holes left by the three already mentioned. It’s also probably unfair to label Ryan Anderson a role player, since he led the team in scoring before Gordon’s return, but the guy is rapidly becoming someone you absolutely have to gameplan for because of his quick release and deadly range from outside. Although Andersen is shooting a ho-hum 44.1 percent from the floor, he’s also over 41 percent from three-point land, and that’s with every opposing team trying their damnedest not to allow him an open look. Last night was more of the same as Anderson hit two lightening quick threes at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth to set the table for Gordon to bring the Hornets to victory. If you watch both of those shots, you can see that even with a defender in his mug, his release is so fast and pure, it’s almost impossible to stop when he’s dialed in.

The first of Andersen’s late game three-pointers came in the half-court, and even with Tony Parker running out and challenging him, the 6-10 Anderson had no trouble finding the bottom of the net. The second triple came in transition, and it’s a move we’ve seen Anderson pull before. He lets the help defender cruise by with a solid pump fake (which most defenders have to bite on because Anderson is so deadly a shooter), and the moment the defender passes him by, he has the shot off before they can recover.

Anderson’s range will go a long way towards spreading the floor for Vasquez and Gordon to break down defenses and get in the lane. He also brings another frontcourt defender out of the paint to open up room for Davis.

But it’s not just Anderson that makes this Hornets squad so enticing when they have their full roster. Robin Lopez showed some offensive promise with a couple nifty spin moves into a cute little left hook on the block. Lopez was also pretty decent in limiting the passing angles between the Spurs’ big men last night. A few times the ball ran into his giant hands as Boris Diaw or Duncan tried to make the extra pass.

Austin Rivers, New Orleans’ other first round draft pick, was just 0-for-2 from the floor, and he’s been awful (33.7 percent) from the floor this season, but he’s another guard that could benefit a lot from the extra space created by the presence of Gordon. Al-Farouq Aminu was very active on the glass last night, grabbing 11 rebounds to go along with his three assists and a steal. Even though he was extremely active, Aminu still committed five turnovers, so he’ll have to play a little more under control, but it’s almost worth it because of how hard he worked on the glass and on the defensive end.

The New Orleans Hornets are probably too far gone to really contend for a playoff spot in the West this season, but the New Orleans Pelicans might have a shot at a low seed in next year’s playoffs, and you have to like that if you’re a New Orleans basketball fan. It’s been less than two years since Chris Paul was running the show in New Orleans, but they’ve already assembled a lot of interesting pieces since his departure, and it’s enough to keep the team interesting enough for fans to show up and look towards a more promising future.

How good can New Orleans be in three years?

Follow Spencer on Twitter at @countcenci.

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