Do the New Orleans Hornets Need to be Taken Seriously?

| by David Berri

And then there was one. Only one team has failed to lose a game in 2010-11, and that team is somewhat surprising. 

Last year the New Orleans Hornets only won 37 games. Since the 2009-10 season has ended the Hornets have added eight new players. In other words, only five players from last year’s team are still in New Orleans. Nevertheless, one would not think that players like Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, Willie Green, Jason Smith, and Jerryd Bayless would be enough to transform a team that missed the playoffs in 2010 into one of the top teams in the league.

And one would be right to think this. Yes, the Hornets appear to be a better team in 2010-11. The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 8.4 is clearly better than the -2.6 mark seen last year. But this improvement is really not about the players added.

To see this, let’s move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced. The following table reports the productivity of the Hornets after seven games (these are “hand-crafted” WP numbers).  It also reports what we would expect if the players the Hornets are employing this year offered the same level of per-minute production seen in 2009-10.

If we focus on the team’s primary additions, we see that Ariza, Smith, Belinelli, Green, and Bayless are projected to produce 7.1 wins across an 82 game season. These same five players would be projected to 4.0 wins had their performance not changed from 2009-10. In sum, it doesn’t look like the team’s newest faces are responsible for the team’s improvement.

To see who is responsible we need to look at the first two names listed. Chris Paul and Emeka Okafor are currently on pace to produce 46.3 wins. Had these players maintained what we saw last year they would only be on pace to produce 26.3 wins. So, most of this team’s improvement can be linked to the play of the team’s two best players. 

Now that we can see who is responsible for this team’s fast start we can now ask the big question:Should we expect Paul and Okafor to keep producing at this level?

Let’s answer that question by first noting why Okafor and Paul are so productive. Relative to last season, Okafor is offering – on a per-minute basis – fewer rebounds, steals, and assists. He is blocking more shots, but the key to his productivity leap is an adjusted field goal percentage of 73%. One would suspect that this level of efficiency can’t continue. 

A similar story might be told about Chris Paul. Yes, Paul may finish as the most productive player in the game in 2010-11. But he can hold that position without maintaining his current leap (from — as noted below — his career best performance) in productivity. More specifically, Paul’s productivity leap is tied to an increase in rebounds and a decline in turnovers. In fact, in 239 minutes, Paul has only turned the ball over 12 times. 

Yes, that could continue. And Okafor could keep hitting 73% of his shots. But if we look at each player’s career, it seems unlikely.   

The following table reports what each player’s career production. As one can see, neither player has ever been this productive.

Okafor’s best season was the 2006-07 campaign where he posted a 0.563 ADJ P48. If he offered this mark in 2010-11 he would currently be on pace to produce 11.3 wins, or about 3.6 fewer wins than we see reported above. Chris Paul’s best season was in 2008-09 (and yes, he was amazing that season). If he was producing at the level observed that season he would be on pace to produce 26.5 wins, or about 4.9 fewer than what we are currently observing. So if Okafor and Paul revert to their previous career highs, the Hornets would be on pace to win 53 games this season. And this mark is a shade below what the Hornets did in 2007-08 (the best team in Hornets’ history).

So are the Hornets contenders for the title? At the moment the team is Paul, Okafor, and not much else (of the other players, only David West has played more than 100 minutes and posted an above average WP48 mark). And the lofty efficiency differential this team has posted so far is primarily due to Paul and Okafor posting numbers beyond what we have seen at any point in the past. 

So if you think Okafor can continue to hit 70% of his shots and Paul can keep his turnovers per game below 2.0, then it is possible to believe the Hornets are title contenders. If these numbers don’t continue, though, it seems likely the Hornets will come back to the pack of Western Conference playoff teams. 

- DJ