Last year, with a new coach and some added depth, the question was whether the New Orleans Hornets could win the Eastern Conference. More injuries and a horrible debut by Coach Tim Floyd (since fired) left the Hornets with a 41-41 record, a fifth-place finish and a first-round playoff exit.
So what makes them think they'll survive in the more competitive Western Conference? Here's looking at both sides of the argument.
Five Reasons They'll Sink
1. Balance in the West. Let's be clear: The Hornets' 41-41 record last year, while good enough for fifth in the East, would have placed them in a tie in the West last year with Portland -- two slots away from the playoffs. And if you didn't notice, the West's seventh- and eighth-seeded teams -- Houston and Denver, respectively -- improved dramatically in the offseason. Not only were Houston and Portland within a few games of making the playoffs, but next-to-last Phoenix added Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson. Yikes!
2. Hornets front office. Simply stated, the combined efforts of the Hornets' ownership (which controls the purse strings) and front office (which sweats the salary cap) couldn't do anything to significantly improve the roster in the offseason. Did they have any choice? Well, let's just say there are only so many Mark Cubans in this league, meaning there aren't a lot of owners who spend regardless of the cap. Still, they may have to blow up this current team and start over if they're to make any upgrades.
3. Jamal Mashburn. Even when healthy, you have to wonder about Mashburn; he's never been confused with Ron Artest as a defender, and his decision to rehab his knee back home in Miami last season rankled more than a few among the Hornets. But his knee injury (and career status) hang mightily over this team.
4. Old Man River. No, not the Mississippi, but the river of old age. The Hornets' roster features six players with at least 10 years of NBA service. If that included names like Shaq, Webber or Allan Houston, that'd be fine. But as upstarts like Denver and Memphis are proving, the trend is toward younger, more athletic teams.
5. Frontcourt punch. Center Jamal Magloire made the East's All-Star team for the first time last season. Even with Shaq heading East, don't be looking for Magloire to repeat the honor this time around. This is still the conference of Yao Ming, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and now, Lamar Odom and Kenyon Martin. And P.J. Brown isn't getting any younger. They will have to improve their production for New Orleans to survive.
Five Reasons They'll Swim
1. Baron Davis. His agent grumbled about a potential trade in the offseason, which is understandable considering the front office made no major moves in anticipation of stiffer competition in the West. No matter; despite his shoot-first ways, Davis remains one of the NBA's top point guards and is a deadly scorer when he's hot. If he can focus more on leadership and passing, this team can compete.
2. The Los Angeles Lakers. With the departures of Phil Jackson (to the sidelines, for now) and Shaquille O'Neal (to the Miami Heat, for good), the Lakers become just another playoff contender. This isn't a major shift -- they're still better than the Hornets on paper -- but the Lakers are no longer the NBA Finals lock they were in previous years. It represents a nice, subtle, psychological shift in the conference.
3. David Wesley. Hobbled by injury, Wesley missed the most amount of games (21) in nine seasons and shot his worst field-goal percentage (.389) in 10 years (his rookie season, 1993-94). The diminutive shooting guard nobody appreciates, Wesley, when healthy, spreads opposing defenses. His health is key this season.
4. Depth. Gradually, the Hornets are developing a decent bench that might help make up for the expected injuries to their starters. David Wesley showed flashes as a rookie, and bringing in Rodney Rogers will help spread opposing defenses. The question is whether they'll get anything out of rookies J.R. Smith and Tim Pickett. 5. Byron Scott. Make no mistake: Scott comes into this season with almost as many question marks as Tim Floyd last season. But who are we kidding? Floyd did nothing to prove his value, and Scott has at least some previous success to his credit, which should warrant more respect from his players.
- Guard David Wesley's health is key this season because when healthy, he spreads opposing defenses.