Widely predicted to miss the playoffs, the New Orleans Hornets are one of the biggest surprises of the young NBA season.
With a 10-1 record (tied for best in the league) and a +7.4 point differential (the sixth best), Hornets fans have every reason to be excited. The Chris Paul sweepstakes have been canceled for the time being.
Leading the league with a 29.06 PER (player efficiency rating, a semi-useful catch-all statistic that tries to encapsulate a player's offensive value in one number), three points higher than his nearest competitor, Paul is a front-runner for the MVP award.
In the team's starting five, the only other player who can create his own shot is power forward David West. But at only 6'9" and with poor lateral mobility, he can be shut down by longer, athletic forwards. The Nuggets' Kenyon Martin frustrated him into shooting 40% over five games in New Orleans' first-round implosion two years ago.
The other three starters—Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor —all depend on Paul to spoon-feed them open shots, usually off back picks and pick and rolls. Primarily jump-shooters, Belinelli and Ariza are assisted on an astounding 85% and 83% of their shots outside of the paint, while 78% of Okafor's baskets come off of assists.
Quick-footed and aggressive, all three earn their keep on their defensive end. Most of the Hornets' success can be attributed to their improvement on that side of the ball, from 21st in defensive rating last season to 3rd this year. There isn't a weak link an offense can really attack in their starting five.
The story changes when they go to their bench. It consists mainly of undersized shoot-first guards Jerryd Bayless and Willie Green (both valuable because of the team's scarcity of shot-creators) and Jason Smith, a jump-shooting seven footer acquired in a trade from Philly.
All of their starters average over 30 minutes a game except Belinelli, who checks in at 27.5. New Orleans' lack of depth is one of the reasons they play the third slowest pace in the NBA, despite having one of the great open-court point guards in the game. With a great half-court defense and a scarcity of offensive options, it's to the Hornets advantage to slow the game down to a crawl.
New coach Monty Williams has done a great job of creating a style of play that maximizes his team's advantages and minimizes their deficiencies. He's clearly been the Coach of the Year so far.
But despite their sterling record, the Hornets have quite a few flaws.
The most glaring is their lack of size up front. At 6'10", Okafor is undersized for the center position and doesn't have much lift in his legs to make up for it. In a game against Dallas, a cutting Ariza dished the ball to a wide-open Okafor under the basket. Instead of dunking it, he gently laid the ball into the basket.
West is similarly undersized. Smith, their first big off the bench, is an anemic rebounder (he has a 12.2% rebound rate; a typical center is in the 18-23 range) and not much of a shot-blocker.
Ironically, the answer to their problems is the player they got rid of for Okafor, current Maverick Tyson Chandler. At 7'1" and 235 with springs for legs, his low-post defense and shot-blocking were crucial to New Orleans' run to Game 7 of the second round three years ago.
The first play of the Mavericks-Hornets game on Wednesday was a perfect illustration of New Orleans' lack of athleticism and size up front: Okafor could only watch helplessly as Chandler soared for a dunk on a perfectly thrown alley-oop pass from Jason Kidd.
In the Western Conference, the road to the NBA Finals goes through the two-time defending champion Lakers. There's simply no way the Hornets can handle Los Angeles' height. If they so desire, Gasol, Odom and Bynum can throw passes to each other with impunity, plucking the ball out of the air and shooting it over the heads of New Orleans' under-sized big men.
Not being able to beat the Lakers is no mark against a team, and after last year's disaster, a playoff appearance and a possible second-round birth (depending on the match-ups) has to be considered a successful season in New Orleans.
But while their surprising start has erased the specter of their franchise player's trade demand, there are still dark clouds looming over the Hornets' long-term prospects.
Listed generously at 6'0", Paul has used blinding speed and played with a fierce edge (which he has often walked over—see punching Julius Hodges in the groin during the '05 ACC Tourney) to make himself into one of the league's best players. But after tearing the meniscus in his left knee and missing about half of last season, Paul has been forced to play with a bulky knee brace.
It has clearly affected his game. In 2008/2009, 26% of his shots were in the paint. This season only 16% are.
He's not nearly as aggressive on offense as he was that season, averaging a full four points less. In two games against the Mavericks' trio of defense-less point guards—Kidd, Terry and Barea—he averaged only 21 points.
Compare that with the 39 he dropped on them in the team's first meeting last year and the 24.6 he averaged (which includes games of 32 and 35 points) against them in their first-round series three years ago.
The Mavs began crowding Paul, a once unheard of proposition, frustrating him enough that he threw a wild elbow at the pesky Barea to create some space on a drive to the basket.
Going forward, Paul's recovery from knee surgery, and his ability to score in the paint, will be an important storyline to track.
As for the Hornets, their undersized front-line and reliance on jump-shooting will derail them at some point in the Western Conference Playoffs. But as long as they avoid teams with multiple seven-footers, like LA, Dallas, Portland and San Antonio, their tough-nosed defense and Paul's brilliant game-management will make them a tough out.
Note: Article written before this morning's trade of Bayless and Peja to Toronto for Jarrett Jack and David Anderson. Jack is a better fit in New Orleans because he has the size to play with Paul, but Peja's expirer was their only chance to acquire a big man to compete in the West -- Anderson is not going to cut it.