The photo to the right shows Chris Paul in a position that the 2008-09 edition of the Hornets could ill-afford him to be in—sitting on the bench.
Last season, when Paul or All-Star teammate David West were either on the bench or having an off-night, the odds were better than even that the Hornets were going to have a rough night.
Coach Byron Scott, being no fool, understood this quite well. As a consequence, Paul averaged 38.5 minutes per game. West averaged about 15 seconds per game fewer than Paul.
Early last season, the Hornets reaped the benefits of the play of Paul and West, but also paid the price. With less than a month to go in the season, New Orleans appeared to be a strong contender for the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference.
However, starting with a loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 3, the Hornets dropped six of their last eight regular-season games, finishing in fourth place in their division. The Hornets looked too old and too tired to finish games in the home stretch.
Following the season-end collapse, was an embarrassing playoff series against the Denver Nuggets. Winning in five games, the Nuggets average point differential was plus-20, including a humiliating 121-63 loss in Game Four.
Coach Scott and general manager Jeff Bower performed some major roster surgery in the offseason. The roster at the end of last season was:
Gone now are Bowen, Butler, Chandler, Daniels, Ely, and James. When healthy, Chandler added some defense and dunks. Butler was a well-liked player but was a small forward trying to play shooting guard. Other than that, the rest of these players were non-contributors.
In place of the old Hornets, new players in the backcourt are Bobby Brown, Marcus Thornton, and Darren Collison. In the frontcourt, the Hornets have added Emeka Okafor, Darius Songaila, and Ike Diogu.
On this eve of the Hornets' season opener, all Hornets fans want to know: Are the 2009 Hornets better than the 2008 Hornets?
Without a doubt. There is no question that, as a group, the additions to the roster are better than the subtractions.
The Hornets have what appears to be a legitimate backup point guard in Collison. This should allow Paul to shave a few minutes of playing time each game. Thornton, who right now is a defensive liability, is a fearless slasher that the Hornets have not had since relocating to the Big Easy.
Okafor, Songaila, and Diogu will certainly be more productive than Bowen, Chandler, and Ely. This will provide West with some needed time to catch his breath.
New Orleans is carrying two rookies on its season-opening roster.
This is significant, as no rookie has made the Hornets in the past two seasons. The personnel changes have moved the average age of the Hornets from 29 years, 10 months down to 28 years.
Scott has been accused in the past of not having the patience to develop young, raw talent. Hence the early exit of the likes of players such as Brandon Bass and JR Smith. Hornets fans should keep an eye out for the development of rookies Collison and Thornton.
The Hornets are improved. Will the new team gel and play like a team? That is up to Scott.
Will they have an improved record and go deep into the playoffs? Probably not.
The competition in the Western Conference has not been sitting still watching the Hornets remake its roster. Assuming that he behaves himself, Ron Artest should be a boost for the Lakers.
With the addition of Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, and DeJuan Blair, the San Antonio Spurs could challenge the Lakers for first seed in the conference.
Portland is an enigma but is probably solid as the third-place team in the West.
As shown in the playoffs, the Nuggets are better than the Hornets.
The hairline fracture in his kneecap suffered in the last preseason game is supposed to keep him out six weeks. Don't bet on seeing much from Griffin until January, at the earliest.
In my next column, I will take a detailed player-by-player look at the Hornets' new roster and make some evaluations and projections. Stay tuned.
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