New Orleans Hornets: Is the New and Improved Team Ready To Join League's Elite?

Yaneek SmithContributor IIIJanuary 24, 2011

Paul is having another great season, averaging 16.2 PPG and 9.6 APG thus far.
Paul is having another great season, averaging 16.2 PPG and 9.6 APG thus far.

It's pretty hard to figure out the New Orleans Hornets.

They start the season out 11-1, then proceed to go 10-15 over the next 25 games before going on an eight-game winning streak, punctuated with Saturday's 96-72 victory over San Antonio, owners of the NBA's best record at 37-7.

As it currently stands, the Hornets are tied for third-place in the Western Conference with a 29-16 record. They trail the Spurs by 8.5 games and are tied with Dallas for second place in the Southwest Division.

On top of that, there are issues as to whether or not the Hornets will remain in New Orleans for the long-term.

Let me explain how the Hornets got here.

Since winning 56 games and taking the Spurs to seven games in the conference semifinals in 2008, the Hornets were eliminated 4-1 in the first round by Denver the next season. And just nine games into the following season, 2009-10, head coach Byron Scott was fired and the team finished the 37-45, failing to make the playoffs.

Heading into the offseason, there were questions about whether point guard Chris Paul would remain with the team, who the new coach would be and whether or not the Hornets would be in New Orleans for the long-haul.

So, after going 37-45 last season and dealing with a number of issues in the offseason, it begs the question: How did New Orleans come to find themselves at 29-16 just after the midway-point of the season?

It started with, first and foremost, the hiring of Monty Williams as head coach.

Williams, 39, served as an assistant to Nate McMillan in Portland for the past five years before bringing a newfound commitment to defense with him to The Big Easy.

That, as well as some of the offseason additions to the team, has made have helped lead them to success thus far.

Since being named general manager on July 21, Dell Demps has been busy.

In the offseason, New Orleans acquired several players in trades, including starting small forward Trevor Ariza and starting shooting guard Marco Belinelli, as well as reserve guard Willie Green and power forward Jason Smith, all while giving up very little.

About a month into the season, Demps traded for backup point guard Jarrett Jack, who is averaging 6.9 PPG off the bench since coming to New Orleans.

Ariza has helped defensively and Belinelli is averaging 10.7 PPG on 41.9% shooting, including 39.7% from three-point range.

Green, Smith and Jack, all bench players, have helped to provide depth, Smith in the interior and Green and Jack in the backcourt with Jack serving as a capable backup to Paul.

I know, I know, I know. You're probably thinking, How did adding these role players help the team so much? Trust me, I haven't forgotten about Paul, Emeka Okafor and David West.

The principal reason for the Hornets' winning ways this season is because of their commitment to defense, a tribute to Williams and what he has gotten the team to do, as well as the play of Paul, Okafor and West. 

Defensively, the Hornets are allowing 91.0 PPG, best in the league. They are also tied for third in field goal percentage defense (43.8%).

That is a stark contrast to last season, when they finished 21st in the league, allowing 102.7 PPG and were 28th in field goal percentage defense (48.3%).

By helping to provide quality role players for the team, Demps has helped to take some of the pressure off Paul, Okafor and West.

This season, West is averaging 18.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG and shooting 51.6% from the floor. Paul's numbers are quite impressive as well: 16.2 PPG, 9.6 APG and 47.8% shooting from the floor.

Okafor is doing his part defensively, helping to clog up the middle and make life difficult for the opposition. On top of that, he is averaging 11.0 PPG, 10.4 RPG and is shooting 58.8% from the floor, good for second in the league.

Williams seems to have convinced the team, including its leader and star player, just how important defense is to winning.

"It's fun to play defense," said Paul, who is averaging 14.4 PPG and 8.5 APG during the winning streak. "It's great to score, but it's better to shut teams down (and) see guys sort of frustrated."

During their 8-0 run, the Hornets have won in Atlanta, Denver, Orlando and San Antonio. The combined record of their opponents during the run is 191-160 (.544).

They're also 5-4 against the league's top-six teams, having won in San Antonio and Boston.

In addition to playing great team defense, Paul has done a fine job of distributing the ball, helping to create a balanced scoring attack.

"When you know you're playing team basketball," said Paul, "it's pretty special."

Despite the poor attendance numbers all season, New Orleans sports an 18-5 record at home, amongst the best in the league.

Their road record is 11-11, which is serviceable, but not good enough if they want to become a member of the league's elite.

In the end, the Hornets will advance in the playoffs if they (a) continue to play well defensively; and (b) are able to win away from home.

"We're committed to doing what's necessary on the defensive end," said Green. "We're starting to understand that defense is going to help us be the best team we can be. As long as we're playing defense, we're in every game."

In the meantime, for them to continue to have success, they must maintain their focus.

"We can't be satisfied," Williams said. "I know everybody is going to be talking about how the Hornets beat the best team in the league and making a lot out of that. We have to maintain our focus and our discipline."