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Perfect start illustrates Hornets' growth spurt

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Think Kevin Bacon screaming "All is well!" when the Deltas ruined the homecoming parade in Animal House, knowing damn well he's about to be mauled by the charging, panicked mob.

That's what first-time head coach Monty Williams and first-time general manager Dell Demps were up against when New Orleans Hornets star point guard Chris Paul and his new associates tried to force Paul's exit during the guard's summer of discontent. Smartly, Williams and Demps held their ground regardless of the trade rumors and the potential for a disgruntled superstar on their hands.

Then David West, the team's longest-tenured player, spoke with about as much honesty as maybe he ever has during Hornets media day a little more than a month ago.

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"We're not in that discussion [of the top NBA teams]. ... We've got to get ourselves in the top 10 in the West discussion. ... There's no need to lie or live in this kind of fantasy world of who and what we are. ... Last year, we started the season and we weren't honest about who we were," West said. "Expectations we had on ourselves weren't realistic."

This was before the Hornets went 1-7 in the preseason, their only win against a Miami Heat team playing without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. West's baby-step goals of reaching the top 10 in the West sounded like words of a delusional madman.

So it's no wonder why the Hornets' 6-0 start is the biggest surprise of the early NBA season, with the Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers the last of the undefeated.

It's not like the Hornets have been beating up on doormats. They've beaten six teams that finished last season above .500. Five of the six wins have come against playoff teams. Two wins have come against perennial New Orleans pests Denver and San Antonio.

Then came the signature win against the NBA's gift to basketball last Friday night as the Hornets stunned the Miami Heat 96-93 at a star-studded and jam-packed New Orleans Arena.

Paul yucked it up with his buddies James and Wade at an Emeril Lagasse restaurant in the French Quarter the night before the game. Paul left his pals in the dust the next night with 13 points, 19 assists and five steals and showed the Heat what happens when you have a bona-fide point guard running the show.

Paul made his teammates better, while James, Wade and Chris Bosh couldn't do the same. It led James to write on Twitter after the Hornets beat Milwaukee on Saturday, "All this talk need(s) to stop people! @Oneandonlycp3 [Paul] is BACK and is the BEST point guard in the league."

'I'm growing up minute by minute,' Monty Williams says of his Big Easy gig. (Getty Images)  
'I'm growing up minute by minute,' Monty Williams says of his Big Easy gig. (Getty Images)  
Demps and Williams started this process with a facelift. A facelift that was two-fold: revamp a cash-strapped roster with some shrewd and creative moves, while lifting the face of the franchise back to prominence.

Paul has one-upped the biggest NBA free-agent story in league history en route to the 6-0 start. Paul will never acknowledge how much he needed a win like that for him to believe in the reconstruction of the Hornets.

He needed it. Badly.

"We just got to keep playing, man," Paul said of the win over the Heat. "I'm not surprised just because we're all professionals. It doesn't matter what it looks like on paper, you just have to go out and play the game and that's what we're doing."

Paul isn't the only reason, though.

A well-known NBA pundit said on my New Orleans-based radio show that the Hornets needed to be drug tested for hiring Williams shortly after the hire. Well, give me what the Hornets are having.

Williams has brought a calm demeanor off the court and a rabid defensive mentality to his players on the court. The team that allowed 102.7 points per game last season is now a team that ranks third in the NBA, giving up only 91.5 points per game. Only Miami and Orlando have allowed fewer points per game going into Monday's games.

"I don't want to make light of it, but at the same time it's nice to be part of a group who plays hard every night," Williams said. "Different guys are stepping up each night. I don't want to sit here and babble about something that doesn't mean anything, but I know we are a together group."

And Williams is still learning on the job.

"I'm growing up minute by minute. ... Over the long haul, I'll get better at it," Williams said.

Veterans West and Emeka Okafor are buying in. West remains a consistent scorer, and though he has never been known for his defense, he has been active on that end of the floor. Okafor has been the real surprise. After stealing his wealthy paycheck with a mask and toy gun last season, Okafor is earning every penny this year. His scoring is up, his rebounding is up and he has been a solid defender.

Enter the creative personnel decisions by Demps.

Demps dealt away former Hornets first-round picks Darren Collison and Julian Wright along with James Posey and brought back starters Trevor Ariza and Marco Belinelli. Both have been noticeable upgrades, with Belinelli giving a scoring punch at the two-spot and Ariza bringing defense and clutch shooting at small forward.

The Hornets still have Marcus Thornton and also added reserves like Jason Smith, Jerryd Bayless, D.J. Mbenga and Willie Green through trades and free agency. The offseason has given the Hornets the depth it desperately lacked the past couple of seasons.

"Nobody knew what to expect," Ariza said. "We had a new coach, a lot of new players -- whatever the situation was. When we got in here, the first day of training camp, we got together and we knew what we wanted to do. We knew we had goals and we knew if we all came together, we could do something special. Not saying we are a championship team, but we're working towards that. ... That's the key. Taking steps in the right direction."

Baby steps might be what West and the Hornets anticipated. But you know what they say. Kids grow up so fast.

Six wins against no losses is definitely fast.

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