The Western Conference finally has its playoff picture set, and for the New Orleans Hornets, gloom is inevitably setting in. The Bees face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, a series one squad wanted and the other wanted to avoid like the plague.
Forget the fact that Los Angeles (57-25) has minimal momentum, a questionable Andrew Bynum and a lone positional disadvantage at point guard. Phil Jackson knows how and when to motivate his team, Bynum should be fine for the series and Chris Paul didn’t score in a pivotal game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday.
The problem, which has resonated the 2011 campaign, is the lack of control the Hornets have over their own fates. In a season marked by major front office and roster revamping, ownership uncertainty and flailing attendance, why should anyone expect the Hornets to be able to control their postseason destinies?
Maybe because they overcame all the personnel, ownership and fan support issues. They are not going to overcome the Lakers.
The jockeying for the No. 2 seed by Dallas and Los Angeles was a contest, a stakeout in which the Bees were the prize. Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies purposely tanked to secure the eight seed to face San Antonio and capitalize on its speed and athleticism in the backcourt and length and size up front. Even without leading scorer Rudy Gay this makes sense since San Antonio is old and possibly without Manu Ginobili. And Dallas has tremendous depth across the board and should match up well with the Portland Trail Blazers, who according to ESPN analysts, “nobody wants to play in the first round."
The size factor is the most obvious case for Los Angeles’s domination. Even with a healthy David West, the height discrepancies at four and five are absurd: the 6'9" West (or Carl Landry) and 6'10" Emeka Okafor against seven-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. And 6'10" Lamar Odom off the bench, a guy with perimeter shooting and run-the-floor capacities viable at either of the forward slots.
OK, so regardless of which top three seeds the Hornets drew, they’d be facing a seven-foot power forward with a versatile offensive game and proven playoff experience. But only the Lakers have the truly dominant center in Bynum that can neutralize the Bees fifth-ranked defense, which has been anchored by Okafor’s shot-blocking all season.
The size factor creates a defensive impasse for New Orleans. They can’t go man-to-man against the Lakers’ big men, but they have to stick Trevor Ariza on Kobe Bryant every time No. 24 steps on the court. Which leaves the 6'4" Marco Belinelli, a good swingman but average defender, to guard 6'7" Ron Artest on the wing, another size disadvantage.
So, is there hope at all, maybe just to avoid a sweep? Possibly, depending on which version of CP3 shows up.
At the season’s start, this writer identified defense and depth as essential to the team’s success, but qualified that statement under the assumption that Chris Paul would be the old Chris Paul (before the knee injury). Head coach Monty Williams has done a phenomenal job instilling the defensive mentality and tweaking the rotation, but his superstar has been slightly off-kilter this year.
In terms of steals and dimes, Paul is still amongst the best in the biz, but the former MVP candidate just hasn’t provided the consistent scoring this year. As the heart and soul of the franchise, regulating his minutes post-injury is understandable, but Paul has simply looked hesitant and less confident from mid-range and beyond the arc, even when getting good looks.
Here’s the bottom line: The Hornets aren’t going to win the series, but they can make a case for franchise maintenance by winning a game or two. Even with a potential lockout looming, a straight sweep may convince the league that it isn’t too risky to move the team this offseason.
But giving this series a competitive flavor may have the opposite effect and that will only happen if Chris Paul shows up big. Penetrating to draw double teams, taking open shots from all ranges, getting fouled and opening up the full-court offense against slower big men; Paul has to play to his highest offensive potential. He makes everyone around him better when playing well, and without him doing that, it’s likely to be four and out.
Will any of this matter in the long run? Only time and the inclinations of David Stern will tell. But this team needs lucky breaks to stay alive, both on the court and in the front office, and for now, the luck appears to have run out.