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Championship Destination 

The Hornets look to build on last year's breakout season with some key off-season acquisitions and hungry returning veterans

Photos Courtesy NBA Photos

I am excited to be a Hornet. It was a coveted destination for me."

Those words came from James Posey on July 23, the day he signed a four-year, $25 million contract with the New Orleans Hornets. It's safe to say that Posey would have been unlikely to utter those words in 2007, and it would have been nearly unthinkable in 2006.

For Posey to refer to New Orleans as a coveted destination is a testament to the Hornets' rapid ascent from vagabond also-rans to members of the NBA's upper crust.

The nine-year veteran is no superstar, but he is a well-regarded role player known for his diverse skill set and championship pedigree. He's won two NBA titles, including one last season with the Boston Celtics.

The tradition-rich Celtics tried to retain the services of Posey, who became a free agent at the end of last season. His hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, wanted him, too. But he chose New Orleans.

Posey's view is one that is now widely held among NBA players: The Hornets are a team with a respected head coach, a superstar point guard, a talented, selfless roster and an energized fan base in a city where championship aspirations can be fulfilled.

Last season, the Hornets won a franchise-best 56 games, claimed their first Southwest Division title and advanced farther in the postseason than ever before; they came within one victory of playing in the Western Conference finals.

The expectations for 2008-09 represent a high-water mark in the two-decade history of the Hornets. With a young nucleus " the team's three top players have an average age of 25 " and all of their starters returning, the Hornets should be well-positioned to compete for a conference, and possibly an NBA title.

The team will open training camp on Sept. 27 at the Alario Center in Westwego and will play its regular season opener on the road against Golden State on Oct. 29. The Hornets will play their first home game at the New Orleans Arena on Saturday, Nov. 1.

The Hornets' lofty prospects have not gone unnoticed by fans. After a two-year Katrina-induced hiatus in Oklahoma City, the franchise's long-term viability in New Orleans appeared tenuous. But last season's unprecedented success fomented rabid fan support that continued into the off-season. For the first time since the team moved from Charlotte, N.C., in 2002, the Hornets crossed the magical threshold of 10,000 season tickets sold.

The primary reason the Hornets are such a hot ticket can be pared down to a pair of rhyming consonants: CP.

Last season, point guard Chris Paul established himself as one of the top players in the NBA, hinting that he could become one of the most dynamic performers ever to play the position. In his third pro season, the former Rookie of the Year adopted a more aggressive offensive posture, looking to create his own shot, but not at the expense of involving his teammates. The results were staggering.

He led the team in scoring at 21.1 points per game and ranked first in the NBA in assists (11.6 per game). Though he's probably not much taller than your accountant, his influence on defense was immense as well. He was tops in the league in steals (2.7 per game) and registered a steal in every regular season game he played. Paul became the first player in NBA history to score at least 20 points per game and lead the league in assists and steals.

The inevitable accolades followed.

Paul made the All-Star team for the first time in his career, was named to the prestigious All-NBA First Team and was runner-up to the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant for the league's Most Valuable Player award.

And he's only 23.

Unwilling to consider the prospect of a future without Chris Paul, the Hornets signed him to a three-year contract extension, with a player option for a fourth year that could make the new deal worth $68 million.

Fortunately for the Hornets, Paul is in good company.

Power forward David West, who has improved his scoring and rebounding averages in each of his five NBA seasons, took the biggest leap last season. West remained healthy and his 20.6 points and 8.9 rebounds were plenty robust. Like Paul, he also made his All-Star Game debut (fittingly in the New Orleans Arena).

West, the longest-tenured member of the team, has a smoldering intensity that fuels his play. He has developed the most consistent mid-range jump shot in the league and expanded his repertoire of offensive maneuvers in the low post. On most nights, he is the Hornets' No. 1 scoring option.

The third member of the Hornets' core that represents both the team's present and future is Tyson Chandler. The 7-foot-1 center has blossomed into one of the NBA's most ferocious rebounders. For the first time in his career, Chandler averaged a double-double (11.8 points and 11.7 rebounds) in 2007-08.

With his huge wingspan and shot-blocking prowess, he single-handedly changes the complexion of the Hornets' defense when he's in the lineup. On the other end of the floor, he's an underrated commodity. Last season, Chandler led the league in offensive rebounding, a skill that leads to untold second-chance points.

But Chandler's most jaw-dropping moves take place when he's on the receiving end of a patented Chris Paul alley-oop. The two have honed a telepathic ability to sense each other's place on the court, resulting in a pinpoint pass and a devastating dunk. No duo in the NBA does it better.

The best news about Peja Stojakovic is his back didn't hold him back last season. The sharp-shooting small forward, who missed nearly the entire 2006-07 season with major back surgery, played in 77 regular-season games, the most in the last five years of his career.

Though the 31-year-old may be entering the dusk of his prolific career, he still retains his legendary long-range accuracy, and his presence demands that opposing teams keep a defender on him at all times.

Stojakovic averaged 16.4 points and finished first in the NBA in free throw percentage (.929) and second in three-pointers made (231). If he can remain healthy again this season, the Serbian marksman gives the Hornets a dimension that few teams can match.

The team's fifth returning starter is shooting guard Morris Peterson, who joined the Hornets last year after seven seasons in Toronto.

Peterson averaged 8 points, the lowest output of his career. That's hardly problematic, however. The Hornets already have enough players to hoist up shots; they rely on Peterson for supplemental scoring. He's most comfortable drifting around the 3-point line awaiting a drive and dish from Chris Paul.

But Peterson's starting spot is not assured, especially with the arrival of the 6-foot-8 Posey, who plays both shooting guard and small forward.

Peterson says he's not threatened.

'I think having him on the team is a big plus," Peterson says. 'I don't look at it as a competition between us. He's a great player and a great guy. I've known him for years. I look forward to having him on the team."

Posey has career averages of 9.2 points and 4.9 rebounds for five different NBA teams. But what made him such a sought-after commodity in free agency is his skill as a defender.

'It's all about understanding your role and being receptive to it," Posey says. 'And doing the best you can, it's hard work."

Upon Posey's signing, head coach Byron Scott made this bold pronouncement: 'If we had (Posey) this year, our bench would have been 10 times better."

Hyperbole?

Unquestionably.

But Scott prizes Posey's toughness, postseason resumé " he's played in 60 career playoff games " and his ability to play multiple positions. The comment also underscores Scott's dissatisfaction with his reserves.

For the bench to improve this season, the Hornets are hoping for a breakout season from second-year forward Julian Wright.

During the course of his rookie season, Wright incrementally earned grudging doses of respect from Scott, who is loath to depend on first-year players.

While the 6-foot-8 Wright is unquestionably raw and inconsistent, he has the full complement of skills to be a future star: superb leaping ability, great court vision, spectacular finishing skills and a lanky frame ideal for blanketing opposing players.

Single-game highs of 20 points, nine rebounds and four steals demonstrate Wright's potential, and it is clear Scott will lean on him more heavily as an offensive catalyst and a defensive agitator. If Wright can become a more consistent jump shooter, he'll greatly enhance his standing in the rotation.

As the Hornets enter this season, their most glaring deficiency is a lack of depth at the point guard and center positions.

The team's best reserve of a season ago is gone. Guard Jannero Pargo could not resist the lure of the ruble. After opting out of his contract with the Hornets, he shopped the free agent market before signing a one-year $3.5 million contract with Russian club team Dynamo Moscow.

Pargo, perhaps the least bashful shooter on the team, was a dynamite scorer who could provide an immediate lift off the bench. His three-point shooting and energetic style of play made him exhausting to defend, and his defection to Russia leaves a sizeable void to be filled.

'Losing J.P. is a big loss," Morris Peterson says. 'He's been a great guy for this team and it's unfortunate we weren't able to get him back."

After Pargo departed, New Orleans signed versatile reserve Devin Brown, who played last season in Cleveland but was a member of the Hornets two years ago.

At 6-foot-5, Brown can play guard as well as both forward positions. Last season he averaged 7.5 points for the Cavaliers.

Also battling for minutes to back up point guard Chris Paul is veteran Mike James.

The 6-foot-2 James came to New Orleans in February as part of the Bonzi Wells trade. He played sparingly, participating in just 21 games and averaging only eight minutes. But with Pargo out of the picture, the 33-year-old James will at least have an opportunity to earn more playing time.

The Hornets also lack an impact reserve in the post. Veterans Melvin Ely and the newly signed Sean Marks will come off the bench to relieve Tyson Chandler. But the only way for the situation to drastically improve is for third-year player Hilton Armstrong to have some sort of epiphany.

Armstrong is an athletic 6-foot-11, but he has yet to develop into the player the Hornets thought he would be when they drafted him in the first round out of Connecticut. He possesses enviable agility and leaping ability for a center, but often plays passively and doesn't maximize his physical gifts. Armstrong is under contract through the 2008-09 season, and the team has the option to keep him for an additional season. But unless he becomes more dependable and assertive, his tryout in New Orleans has likely timed out.

The Hornets also will have stability on the sideline for the foreseeable future.

Byron Scott, now in his fifth season as head coach, needed a playoff run to cement his place in the team's plans. He delivered in splendid fashion and was rewarded for it. After being named the NBA's Coach of the Year last season, the Hornets signed Scott to a lucrative two-year contract extension.

Scott has said in the past that he would like to coach Chris Paul until Paul retires from the NBA. Such a feat would mean monumental mutual success.

The chemistry the two men have built is undeniable. They share more than a point guard predilection. Both are fierce competitors who demand much from themselves and those around them.

But the teacher sets himself apart from the pupil in one obvious way. Scott has won three NBA titles while Paul is looking for his first. Both believe they can win titles together, which would make New Orleans not just a coveted destination " but also a championship one.

Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans

click to enlarge PHOTOS COURTESY NBA PHOTOS
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