Lakers – Hornets Preview

To get an idea of what the Lakers can expect in Tuesday evening’s contest against New Orleans, we enlisted beat writer Jim Eichenhofer, who went in depth to describe a Hornets team that’s playing much-improved basketball of late:

Q: New Orleans has won road games at Dallas, Philly, Boston and Memphis this month. What’s been the key to the road success?
Eichenhofer: A big chunk of the credit for the team’s recent turnaround – both at home and on the road – must be given to Eric Gordon, who made his season debut Dec. 29 at Charlotte after missing the first two months to injury. The Hornets entered that game with a 6-23 record and fell behind the Bobcats by 17 points at halftime, but in his first game since April, Gordon spearheaded a comeback that served as a turning point for New Orleans. The former Los Angeles Clipper is still trying to fully regain his rhythm and hasn’t shot well yet by his standards (39.9 percent from field, 31.5 percent from three-point range), but his presence has allowed other players to settle into roles more suited to their ability. Perhaps not coincidentally, during the same timeframe, role players including Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith and Roger Mason have been outstanding. In the most telling example, Mason is shooting a ridiculous 69.2 percent (18-for-26) from three-point range since Dec. 29. Prior to that date, he was at 32.4 percent (23-for-71). Aminu, who like Gordon came to New Orleans from the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, has gone from multiple DNPs due to coach’s decision in December to averaging 10.2 rebounds in his last 10 games.

Q: What’s the ideal mix of minutes for starters Robin Lopez and Anthony Davis and reserve Ryan Anderson? Should Anderson be playing more?
Eichenhofer: One of the interesting aspects of this team is that, unlike virtually every other club in the NBA (other than perhaps frontcourt-loaded Utah), the Hornets have a surplus of effective big men. In addition to the three players you mentioned, Smith also has played well and eats up about 18 minutes per game at center and/or power forward. As a result, Anderson is averaging “only” 31.7 minutes and comes off the bench. Though you might make a case that Anderson could be on the floor more, most of the fan complaints/suggestions I’ve seen regarding minutes have been about Davis (28.9 mpg). The “problem,” if you want to call it that, is that Smith has been arguably the team’s most efficient fourth-quarter player lately. There have been a few January games in which Davis has sat out crunch time, but Smith and Anderson were the two biggest reasons New Orleans won. They combined for 17 points in the fourth quarter in Sunday’s win at Memphis, part of NOLA’s 27-15 comeback.

Q: You mentioned how big a difference Gordon has made, and the 8-5 record in games he’s played shows it. What does he do well to help the team on a macro level?
Eichenhofer: The ball movement immediately improved in Gordon’s first game, a testament to Monty Williams’ notion that passing may be the most underrated aspect of Gordon’s skill set. Gordon also can create his own shot, something that was sorely lacking early in 2012-13. During the first two months of the season, New Orleans frequently had possessions that stagnated and resulted in a player having to take a difficult attempt to beat the shot clock. Anderson had virtually no room to operate against opposing defense prior to Gordon’s return to the court, but has gotten considerably better looks in the past month. Overall, Gordon has made life much easier for many of his teammates, particularly at the offensive end.

Q: Is Greivis Vasquez as good as his offensive numbers suggest? He’s averaging 9.2 assists with his 13.8 points per game this season.
Eichenhofer: I think Vasquez deserves major consideration for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. His pass-first mentality has also helped foster the improvement of some of his teammates. The chemistry the native of Venezuela has developed in particular with Aminu has led to many of the forward’s highlight-reel alley-oop slams on fast breaks this season. Vasquez has also been part of Robin Lopez’s jump from an offensive afterthought with Phoenix to a jump in scoring average from 5.4 to 11.0 points per game. Vasquez has also become a much more dangerous perimeter shooter, at a career-best 37.6 percent on threes.

Q: Do you take exception with the seemingly common knowledge that Damian Lillard is the clear Rookie of the Year? Anthony Davis is putting up nice numbers, though he did miss 13 games…
Eichenhofer: You can’t argue much with the opinion that Lillard deserves the accolades he’s gotten at the midway point of the season. He’s been brilliant individually and made Portland a playoff contender, when few expected the Trail Blazers to be close to .500. However, it seems like there have been several instances over the years where people wanted to hand out a trophy in January, but by April they had a drastically altered opinion. Consider also that Lillard was able to get a nice “head start” on Davis when the No. 1 overall pick missed 13 early-season games to injury (the Hornets were 3-10 in those games, by the way). I’d be happy to see Davis get more consideration for the award, but to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s ultimately that critical in the grand scheme of things. The 19-year-old, who possesses freakish defensive timing and athleticism, has shown immense potential, but like many young bigs, he seems to be just scratching the surface in terms of his offensive repertoire. I’m more excited to see what he looks like after an offseason of working on his mid-range and low-post game than concerned about whether he makes a run at Lillard for ROY.