NBA previews: Athlon predicts third in Southwest

Tuesday, September 8, 2009
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

When the calendar flips to the month of September, many sports fans are focused on the opening weeks of college football and the NFL, as well as the pennant races in Major League Baseball. For avid NBA fans, one of the best aspects of this month comes when numerous national media entities begin publishing their season preview magazines.

As part of’s look ahead to the 2009-10 season, I’ll be taking a closer look at what several of the major publications are writing about the team. The first preview magazine I’ve seen so far this fall, Athlon Sports, just hit newsstands ($6.99).

Like virtually every NBA prognosticator who has weighed in so far, Athlon projects the Southwest Division race in this order: San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans, Houston and Memphis. Let’s discuss the major topics Athlon addressed in its Hornets preview:

Athlon chose to write extensively about the third-year small forward, asking: “Will this be the year that Julian Wright steps forward to assert himself?”
The magazine added about the 2007 lottery pick that, “No one worked harder last season than Wright, who often arrived at the gym early before practice and stayed late afterward, in an effort to sharpen his skills, become better versed in the Hornets’ offense, and earn some quality minutes… He played well on the Hornets’ summer league team, and many in the organization believe he is finally ready to take on a larger role this season.”
In the article, Wright was quoted as saying, “I don’t have time to take off. I’m a player that needs to be in the gym daily. I just need to continue working on my skills as a sport-up shooter and scoring in the post. I’m trying to be a threat, not the third or fourth option.”
If anything, I think what’s taken place over the past year shows that Wright’s role on offense needs to be defined more clearly, not expanded. Based on his shooting numbers last season, he probably should be taking his offensive game closer to the basket. He was 2-for-21 from three-point range in 2008-09, accuracy that was far lower than his rookie season. During summer league, the coaches also talked about cutting down on the “fat” in Wright’s game, meaning unnecessary extra dribbles or attempts to make highlight-reel plays when a simple play will do. He was at his most effective in 2008-09 during the late-season stretch when he started at small forward and was able to feast on fast-break layups, tip-ins and other opportunistic scoring chances. Of course, it was much easier for him to fill this role when he was on the floor with Chris Paul and David West – players who command significant defensive attention – allowing the 6-foot-8 Wright to roam free and capitalize on his quickness and athleticism.
Despite the potentially key bench additions of Darren Collison, Ike Diogu and Marcus Thornton, Athlon pointedly questions whether New Orleans has a deep enough roster to withstand injuries, saying “it’s doubtful heading into the season that New Orleans has shored up its bench sufficiently to ward off the expected injury bug that hits all NBA teams at some point during the long regular season.”
Whether or not this statement is true depends greatly on what impact the newcomers actually can make. Certainly, no NBA team can have major injuries and not show a drop-off. Not even the defending champion Lakers would be able to maintain the same level of play if a couple of their stars were sidelined. But if Collison shows that he’s even a top-20 backup point guard and Diogu produces similarly to what he’s done in the past, that’s at least two more reliable members of the rotation. Obviously the Hornets were looking to upgrade at the backup 1 and 4 spots, because Chris Paul and David West both need to play fewer minutes so that they don’t wear down during games and over the course of the season.
Athlon foresees Emeka Okafor’s addition as one that will improve the Hornets’ offense, writing “The acquisition of Okafor, who has averaged a double-double over his five-year career, gives the Hornets a healthy starting center, albeit a slightly shorter one. Okafor will need time to absorb the Hornets’ system and to transition into a post presence with Paul. But his ability hit a mid-range jump shot will be a welcome addition; Chandler was nothing more than a dunker.”
Athlon says “Without another All-Star season from Paul and West, and better play in the post, the Hornets will be hard-pressed to make a playoff run… Paul and West, the team’s young stars, will once again be carrying the bulk of New Orleans’ burdens.” The magazine does pick New Orleans to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs (along with the Lakers, San Antonio, Portland, Denver, Dallas, Utah and Phoenix), but obviously doesn’t sound optimistic that the Hornets will be able to avoid a first-round postseason ouster.