The New Orleans Hornets begin the week tied for the lead in the Southwest, the toughest, most competitive division in the NBA. They took the league's longest current winning streak into a Martin Luther King Day matinee against Milwaukee, the third installment of a five-game homestand featuring only one team with a winning record, surprising Portland, which visits Wednesday.
The Hornets beat the Bucks 106-92 Monday afternoon.
|New Orleans center Tyson Chandler is finally living up to his potential. (Getty Images)|
The truth is, recent history might have a totally different spin if injuries hadn't ravaged the team's roster the last two seasons.
In 2005-06, then-rookie Chris Paul had the Hornets on a five-game winning streak entering the All-Star break, but Speedy Claxton's ankle problems, the inability of head coach Byron Scott and J.R. Smith to see eye to eye and Paul's own hobbled state contributed to losses in 12 of 14 entering April. They fell too far behind to rally and gain what would've been invaluable postseason experience.
The Hornets should've learned what playoff basketball was about that year, but did experience the pain of falling short and did have to deal with the pressure of meaningful stretch-run situations.
They came back adamant on moving forward, adding Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler to surround franchise focal points Paul and David West. Success came quickly. Scott's team won eight of their first 11 last season. The Hornets seemed set to turn the corner, to do the things we see them currently accomplishing.
Fate had other plans. By the time November ended, Stojakovic would be done for the season with back issues, tipping off an injury-riddled season that would see West miss 30 games with elbow and forearm issues, Paul sit out 18 games with ankle and foot problems and key reserve Bobby Jackson out for 26 games with a cracked rib and a strained Achilles. Only reserves Jannero Pargo and Rasual Butler were healthy enough to play all 82.
Mix in the added burden of having to shuttle between Oklahoma City and New Orleans as a result of being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and you begin to see why the Hornets shouldn't be written off as a flash in the pan.
Although they haven't experienced playoff basketball yet, they've been through plenty to help accelerate the growth process, experiencing turmoil few other teams have had to persevere through. They've grown without having their confidence shaken, holding steadfast to the belief that they would be so much further along had injuries not foiled them. In a league where a swagger is so important, having that valid excuse to complement natural ability shouldn't be sold short.
Neither should these Hornets. They have just one place to call home now. Although attendance could be better, it should pick up in the next few months. The nucleus of Scott, Paul and West is in its third year together. Each is a winner and leader, pushing the guys around them without alienating them.
Chandler continues to improve, growing into the center Chicago always envisioned he'd become, a shot-blocking rebound machine who had to grow out of bad habits like silly fouls, bad turnovers and wasted energy. Stojakovic has missed only five games and is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range, the highest clip of his NBA career. Not having to be the primary option, despite the fact he's paid like one, suits him perfectly.
Jackson, Pargo and new arrival Morris Peterson supply additional veteran voices. Melvin Ely didn't play much for the Spurs during last summer's championship run, but did learn a thing or two while along for the ride. Word is that they're looking for another player capable of creating his own shot, someone like a Cuttino Mobley or Wally Szczerbiak they can plug in and have as insurance in case the injury bug comes back around.
At this point, that's the only thing that could derail their progress.
This isn't 2006. Paul isn't a banged-up rookie; he's actually the only floor general in the league averaging more than 20 points and 10 assists, not to mention leading the NBA in steals. West isn't in the midst of a breakout season; he's a nightly double-double threat. So is Chandler. Neither is a flash in the pan.
Same goes for the Hornets. By week's end, they might own the top record in the Western Conference. When it happens, don't say you're surprised.
|Monday||Detroit at Orlando|
|Monday||Denver at L.A. Lakers|
|Tuesday||New Jersey at Sacramento|
|Wednesday||Toronto at Boston|
|Wednesday||Portland at New Orleans|
|Wednesday||L.A. Lakers at San Antonio|
|Thursday||San Antonio at Miami|
|Friday||Orlando at Detroit|
|Friday||Phoenix at Cleveland|
|Friday||L.A. Lakers at Dallas|
|Saturday||New Orleans at San Antonio|
|Sunday||Phoenix at Chicago|
|Sunday||Boston at Orlando|
|Sunday||Cleveland at L.A. Lakers|
|Sunday||Denver at Dallas|
Team of the week: One sure way to tell a great team from a good one is to monitor how they do on road trips. Golden State has been on four excursions of three games or longer this season and returned to the Bay Area with winning records every time. It scored 119 points in weekend wins in Chicago and Milwaukee on consecutive nights to improve to eight games over the .500 mark for the first time this season. Don't forget, the Warriors started 0-6. With the Timberwolves, Nets and Knicks visiting Oracle Arena this week, expect their prosperity to continue.
Team of the weak: Minnesota has been winning games at a rate of two per month and got halfway to filling January's quota by beating woeful Miami eight days into '08. Despite inspired efforts at Phoenix and Denver this weekend -- Randy Wittman felt the refs cost his team a game -- it's hard to imagine a breakthrough during this week's demoralizing stretch, the toughest the Timberwolves have yet to go through this season. It starts in Oakland against the Warriors, continues at home against the Suns on Wednesday and ends in Boston on Friday. Take the rest of the weekend off. No, really, for sanity's sake. The 1991-92 Wolves ended January with seven wins; this year's version looks like it might play a little limbo with that total.
Player to watch: Chauncey Billups has one of his favorite opponents on the schedule twice this week, hoping to guide his Pistons to consecutive wins Nos. 10 and 11 over the Magic. Stan Van Gundy put a great big No. 8 to remind his team that they had lost to Detroit all eight times they played last season, but it did little to prevent a 116-92 loss on Nov. 2, with Billups once again having his way with Orlando's smaller guards.
Jameer Nelson is trying to work his way back from a strained tendon in his foot, so it might just be Keyon Dooling and Carlos Arroyo pulling Billups duty. Arroyo was pulled from the final 15 minutes of Saturday night's win over Portland in part because Van Gundy felt he failed to get teammates involved. Dooling, at 6-foot-2, wiry and active, might be the Magic's best bet against Billups as it is. Billups has been Detroit's most consistent performer for most of the season and has cemented shoo-in status as far as the Eastern Conference All-Star team is concerned.
• The league has 13 games on its Martin Luther King Day slate, highlighted by another holiday meeting between Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the two players the NBA most keyed on as torch bearers entering this season. Miami's inconceivable struggles have put a damper on the anticipated drama between two teams that were projected to be among the East's best and are now currently marching in opposite directions. The Cavs are looking to start solidifying their hold on the No. 4 position in the conference, while the Heat are hoping to keep what is already the longest losing streak of Pat Riley's coaching career from reaching 14 games.
• Kobe Bryant has an interesting week ahead of him, trying to guide the short-handed Lakers through a challenging schedule that features Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson coming into Staples Center on Monday, a Texas trek through San Antonio and Dallas on Wednesday and Friday, and culminates back at home Sunday for a rare visit from LeBron. I'm setting the over/under on Kobe's points scored in the four games at 150 and taking the over. Shots taken? 110. Over, too
• While D-Wade has James, Shaquille O'Neal has Tim Duncan as an adversary, sharing the distinction of the most decorated big man of his time with San Antonio's 7-footer, since both have won four rings. As the two get together Thursday night in Miami, it's hard not to notice how much more likely Duncan is to win one for the thumb. Along those same lines, we're probably not going to get an NBA Finals featuring them, either. That would've been something.
• Friday night features Al Jefferson's return to Boston. The man who ultimately revived the Celtics' championship aspirations, albeit in a roundabout way, actually has more double-doubles than Kevin Garnett, starting the week second only to Orlando's Dwight Howard. Much like O'Neal's situation in Miami, where some felt the Heat mortgaged their future to win a championship, expect there to be critics down the road if K.G. can't lead Boston back to the promised land, because big men like Jefferson are hard to come by, and guys like Ryan Gomes and Gerald Green were also considered promising building blocks.