Ask Monty Williams (or any other representative of the New Orleans Hornets) whether they would expect to be 31-18 at this stage of the season. I doubt many would have answered 'yes'. But thanks largely to the Hornets' outstanding defensive play, as well as the MVP-calibre season of All-Star guard Chris Paul, New Orleans have found themselves fifth in the stacked Western Conference. Despite losing two in a row, the Hornets have definitely over-achieved this year, all this after there was talk of the team re-locating due to poor attendance. Now, with more than acceptable attendance records, and a win-loss record to match, New Orleans will look to sustain their cutthroat defensive play and progress into the deeper rounds of the playoffs.
As it stands, the Hornets are set to face Oklahoma City in the first round (although that isn't worth thinking about with just under half the season remaining). New Orleans boast a very strong home record (19-5), but their performances on the road (12-13) could do with some improvement, especially after their most recent road losses to the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns. Nevertheless, the Hornets can be proud with some impressive victories over elite NBA opposition such as the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the NBA-leading San Antonio Spurs. After New Orleans had won their 10th game in a row (112-103 @ Golden State) last Wednesday, Chris Paul said that while it was good to be on a winning streak, the most important thing is keeping that momentum going for as long as possible.
“Right now, we just feel like we’re in a good place and we just want to play consistent basketball,” Paul said.
Consistent is what they have been so far. If there is one thing that you can keep consistent on a night-to-night basis, it's defense. New Orleans' defense is the main reason for their current predicament. They rank 2nd in the NBA in defensive points per game at a scarily low 91.7. The Hornets are 6th in defensive field goal percentage at just 44.2% The Hornets are even better when it comes to defending at the three-point line, holding opponents to just 33.3% shooting from beyond the arc.
Offensively, New Orleans could do with some more firepower. They rank in the mid-teens with regards to FG% and 3pt%, and are one of the worst teams at putting up points on the board. Their offensive struggles could be seriously exposed when they play against respectable defensive teams who fare better offensively than they do. Looking at the roster, the Hornets have three starters, Ariza, Paul and Okafor, who are well-renowned for their defensive capabilities. Offensively however, Chris Paul and David West—one of the most lethal one-two punches in the NBA—are the only consistent threats. Marco Belinelli is a very hot-and-cold player, while Ariza has been very inconsistent as well. The bench offers no real threats, with Jarrett Jack and out of favour Marcus Thornton are perhaps the best available scorers.
Is the Hornets defense enough to make them a serious title contender?
New Orleans have nine games before All-Star weekend, four at home and the remaining away. Five of the teams they will play currently occupy a playoff spot (LA Lakers, @ Oklahoma City, @ Orlando, @ Portland and Chicago). These last few games will give the Hornets a true indication of just how good they really are. If they can achieve a 7-2 or 6-3 record, New Orleans can be satisfied that they are in good stead to lead a strong charge to the playoffs with a possible 39-20 record before the All-Star break.
"Defense wins championships", but that is not on the mind of New Orleans right now. "Defense wins games" certainly is, as they look to propel themselves higher up the Western Conference rankings.
“I think we’re paying more attention to detail now,” said Hornets forward Trevor Ariza, obtained specifically in an off-season trade to help with establishing a new identity and culture as a defensive-oriented team. “I think we know what we have to do, who we are as a team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s what we try to do: play defense.”
“We’re really trying to focus on the defensive end and get better,’’ he added. “We’re learning and getting better as the days go, but only time will tell.’’
If the Hornets are to be considered true contenders, they need offense as well. They have the franchise point-guard, the secondary star, the stingy defensive identity, and the blend of youth and the vets, but now they need an offensive improvement.
At the moment, defense is the only thing that keeps them buzzing.