It's crunch time.
Time to put up or shut up—win or go home.
No, unlike the rest of the country, I’m not discussing March Madness while I furiously rush to fill out a bracket and find an affordable pool. I’m talking about the big boys, the impending sweepstakes that is the NBA playoffs.
It’s no secret that basketball, whether college or professional, is still cultivating an endearing relationship with New Orleans. That could change next year when the Final Four comes to town, but for now, the future of hoops rests entirely in the fragmented, limbo-resting franchise that is the New Orleans Hornets.
To call the past year turbulent for the Hornets (39-29) would be akin to calling Charlie Sheen a moderate party-goer; it just doesn’t cut it.
Under a new general manager and head coach, the Hornets have been challenged all season to recreate a team identity predicated on Williams’s penchant for defense. The pick-and-roll offense, previously New Orleans’s bread and butter, went out the door in favor of the drive-and-kick, launch three-pointers system. Role players became more centralized offensively, while size hindered the team until the waning moments of the trade deadline.
That’s all par for the course on the pro circuit, but when you combine those challenges with a debt and ownership crisis that results in league subsidization, relocation speculation and diminished fan morale, the Bees’ accomplishments seem even more impressive.
Of course, they haven’t accomplished anything until they make the playoffs. But I speak of accomplishments with prescience, foresight and the unshakable belief that they will be fulfilled. With 14 games left, the Hornets are sixth in the Western Conference, though only four and a half games separates them and five other teams competing for four playoff spots (Denver, Portland, Utah, Phoenix and Memphis).
The kicker? Nine of those 14 games come against teams from that group.
New Orleans is a combined 6-2 against these bubble teams. Both losses came on the road, one a blowout (Utah) and the other a two point thriller (Phoenix) that included center Emeka Okafor’s untimely strained oblique injury.
But for the Bees, who are 23-9 at home and currently on a nine game streak, having six of those nine games (and nine of 14 total) at the New Orleans Arena is invaluable, especially considering other remaining games on the docket—Boston, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas.
Home court advantage aside, though, finishing sixth in the West is not only laudable, it's preferable—if it means drawing Dallas in the first round. The Hornets have the Mavs’ number after last Wednesday’s thrilling come from behind victory, which was their ninth consecutive home victory against their divisional rivals. Finishing fifth would have the Hornets likely drawing Oklahoma City, whose pace is simply too much for a Hornets team that struggles in transition.
And let’s not understate the significance of that first round opponent. If the NBA really does not want to keep the Hornets in New Orleans as espoused, then winning a playoff series would create justifiable grounds for keeping them here, making it less about the money and more about the accomplishments on the court. The Hornets have beaten Dallas in the playoffs before, albeit with a higher seeding, but the Mavs are undoubtedly the best first round option.
Having Jarrett Jack behind him has been vital. Jack proved he can run the offense and pick up the scoring slack in Paul’s stead, but they’re even better in tandem. Having two ball handlers who are both latent shooting threats stretches perimeter defenses and spreads the floor for the swingmen, which has become essential to the Hornets’ offensive scheme. With Trevor Ariza now carrying the team title of “slumping shooter”, creating good looks for Marco Belinelli and Willie Green is now twice as important.
Underneath, the Carl Landry trade seems to be working, although having an extra big man doesn’t excuse Okafor for constantly getting in foul trouble and scoring fewer points. But when David West shows up, the Hornets have consistent offensive production in the low post that is actually sustained off the bench.
Putting all these factors into one offensive equation yields the inescapable conclusion that New Orleans, barring a key injury or rapid home slump, is playoff bound. They have made the necessary moves, built an offense fueled by stellar point guard play that finally has both low post and perimeter shooting threats and maintained a standard of outstanding defense all season.
The home stretch is always the toughest, and the Hornets’ schedule is no exception. But for the next few weeks, the team, not the NBA, controls its own fate.