There is a scene in “Scarface” in which Al Pacino, as boss Tony Montana, is watching a television show about flamingos and he begins to yell out joyously, “Fly, pelican, fly!” Montana wanted those birds to fly so badly, but, more importantly, he wanted those flamingos to be pelicans.
It is a curious kismet in which the New Orleans Hornets find themselves today. Having arrived as the franchise with the most to gain in New Orleans after flying out of Charlotte in 2002 with ten straight winning or par seasons, by the end of this spring, they will likely have since slipped to three last place division finishes in the past four years. And now Tom Benson wants to turn them into pelicans.
The Hornets arrived with stalwarts Jamal Mashburn, David Wesley and Baron Davis, and then transitioned to Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler. The franchise had been built on cornerstones, but now appears to be an edifice on shaky foundation. Blessed with a great 2012 draft, the team is very young and very talented, but is still reeling from front office decisions that traded away its triumvirate as well as its most promising future replacements for Paul in Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison, gaining little in return. Today, Paul, West and Chandler prominently click for three division leaders while the team they left stares directly at another lottery pick.
As for the present-day keys to the team’s future, Austin Rivers is out for the remainder of the season with a broken hand, Jason Smith is out for the season with a torn shoulder labrum and Anthony Davis has been in and out with a bone bruise in his shoulder and even when apparently healthy, has found his minutes curiously limited by Coach Monty Williams. As of early March, Eric Gordon had missed an astounding 140 games in four seasons with an ailing knee. In early March, an astonishing 20-0 Lakers run to close out a stormy comeback win in the New Orleans Arena left fans deflated and the coach’s future in doubt, killing whatever momentum the youthful squad had been building.
Point guard Greivis Vasquez appears to be one element that has been consistently improving and his 9.4 assists per game are almost equivalent to Chris Paul’s 9.5, making him a serious threat to lead the league by the end of the year. Vasquez has not missed a game and has 23 double-doubles, which is all the more remarkable as he plays for a team ranked just 21st (out of 30) in points scored. His assists to turnovers ratio is at 3.00, leaving him in rarefied company like Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo. Vasquez stands as the most likely winner of the league’s “Most Improved Player” award. At some point, the city and even Hornets fans must become aware that they have a budding star on their hands.
At forward, last year’s “Most Improved Player,” Ryan Anderson, who has also not missed a game, has the second-most three-point field goals and the most three-point attempts in the league. He has been rock solid as a sixth man, arguably as good as any in the league. Though he has starter’s minutes, he will not be able to overtake Davis. Entrenched for the future at power forward, Davis brings athleticism and a defensive presence. His scoring prowess is not what some would like from a first overall draft pick (he is shooting just 32 percent from the outside), but he is bringing home 15 points per game with a .508 overall shooting percentage, while recording the tenth most blocks per game in the league. It must be remembered that this is a terrific rookie season for someone who is just twenty years old. His rebounding numbers are not yet among the best in the league, but it is clear those will arrive with development and continued growth.
At shooting guard, Austin Rivers shows traditional skills at ball handling and fundamentals that are rare in today’s NBA. His reliance on layups and backboard shots is refreshing and fun. After struggling through the first half of the season, just before his injury, he was on a streak of hitting close to fifty percent of his shots. Rivers, like Davis, is just twenty years old.
The Hornets struggle most mightily at the boards though, as Robin Lopez has the second lowest defensive rebounding rate per game (2.9) among centers playing at least twenty minutes per game. Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu is better defensively but struggles offensively, scoring the third fewest points per game of players at his position playing at least twenty minutes per game.
So who are to be the Hornets’—or Pelicans’—future cornerstones? Anthony Davis is definitely one, but who else? Are the Hornets committed to Vasquez long term? Does anyone really believe that Gordon will one day be a happy leader and a consistent high scorer? Can Rivers build his game and become an all-around forty-eight-minute court captain? Who will the future big men be and will they arrive via draft or free agency? No matter how hard Tom Benson may wish his Hornets to be Pelicans, they will first have to learn to fly on their own.