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House Swarming 

Injuries plagued the Hornets last year, but now that they're back home, New Orleans' NBA team has something to prove.

Photos courtesy NBA Photos

Talk about star power per square foot. Saints running back Reggie Bush and Hornets point guard Chris Paul both own condos in the same tony building overlooking the Mississippi River. But it's clear to Paul that football-frenzied New Orleans is more in touch with his neighbor's team than his own.

'Everywhere you go, you see Saints things, and I'm a big Saints fan, a big Reggie Bush fan," Paul says. 'But the thing is a lot of people still aren't sure. They're like, so how many games do you guys play here this year?"

The question is a valid one, and the answer is 41, maybe more.

Hurricane Katrina forced the Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City for the last two seasons, with only a handful of games played in New Orleans during that time. This year the team returns to the Crescent City full time, eager to reconnect with the city and hopeful that putting a legitimate playoff contender on the floor will augment fan support.

The Hornets finished the 2006-07 season with a 39-43 record, narrowly missing the playoffs for the second straight year. The team hasn't qualified for the postseason since the 2003-04 schedule. But that's not because the front office hasn't paid the price.

Prior to last season, team owner George Shinn went on an unprecedented spending spree, adding new contracts that totaled nearly $150 million. This year, the Hornets needed to go on a mending spree.

Last season the Hornets suffered a string of injuries that was more befitting a team of rodeo clowns than basketball players. The top six players missed 159 combined regular season games because of ailments so eclectic that this season's media guide should have included a foreword from the team's orthopedic surgeon.

'Was that depressing?" Shinn asks, exasperation creeping into his North Carolina twang. 'You bet it was, but if we can just stay healthy, I think we're going to be right in the hunt this year. I don't think there's any question about it."

Blessed with quintessential point guard quickness and a high-idling motor, Chris Paul is tough to slow down. But if it's going to happen this season, it most likely will be at the hands of airport metal detectors. Four days after last season ended, the 2005-06 NBA Rookie of the Year had a screw inserted into his left foot during surgery to repair a stress reaction.

'It will be there for the rest of my life" Paul says of the hardware. 'It's doing a lot better. The foot is fine. I'll keep doing rehab because you can always get better."

Between his sore foot and an ankle sprain, Paul missed 18 games last season " and his team missed him mightily. The former first-round draft pick from Wake Forest has quickly become one of the most sensational young players in the league. In his second pro season, he averaged 17.3 points and 8.9 assists, which was fourth best in the NBA. His aplomb on the court is equaled only by his poise off it. Personable and affable, he is the willing face of the franchise.

It's a face that is growing weary of the franchise's current drought, however. 'There's not anything I won't do this year for us to make the playoffs, because I'm getting tired of watching them at home," he says.

If time heals all wounds, the Hornets are hoping 10 months is enough time for swingman Peja Stojakovic's wounded back to heal. The three-time All-Star was the team's prized $64-million free-agent signing a year ago. Unfortunately, he played in only 13 games and underwent season-ending surgery to remove a disc fragment. And as dapper as he looks on the bench in bespoke Italian suits, the team would much rather have him in its teal togs, showcasing his slick shooting.

Stojakovic spent the summer at his off-season home in Greece, going through a tedious and painful rehabilitation. 'It wasn't fun," Stojakovic says. 'The toughest thing for every athlete is being injured and not being able to do what he loves to do. That was the first time in my career that I was off the court for so many months."

While Greece may represent an exotic destination to most, Stojakovic sniffs at the suggestion that his time there was some sort of a holiday. 'That's home for me," he says. 'For some other people who come there, it's vacation. It's the same thing for some guys who go back to Alabama, that's their home " it might be vacation for me."

Stojakovic is the Hornets' most potent scorer, a supremely confident shooter whose range is nearly unlimited.

'If he's healthy and he can play upwards of 70 or 80 games, it gives us a real good chance of doing what we want to do, which is make the playoffs," says Head Coach Byron Scott.

By all accounts, Stojakovic's rehab has gone well, but the 10-year veteran recognizes that a serious back injury at this stage of his career will not be easily overcome. 'Perhaps I'll have to manage (the pain) the rest of my career and listen to my body. But I'm going to try not to think about it. When I step on the court, I'm going to try to be myself and play basketball as well as I possibly can."

Power forward David West offers an optimistic axiom to describe the Hornets' injury woes of a season ago: 'The old saying is if you didn't get hurt playing ball then you didn't play it well enough."

West did both. He posted career highs in points (18.3) and rebounds (8.2). He also missed 30 games after he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his elbow. His yearly statistics corroborate his reputation as a tireless worker " his point and rebounding totals have improved in each of his four NBA seasons. He's a tenacious rebounder who has developed a mid-range jump shot with near metronome like precision.

West benefited from the arrival of new frontcourt mate 7-foot-1 center Tyson Chandler. Traded from the Bulls before last season, Chandler had a reputation as a talented player who had insufficiently mined the depths of his prodigious potential.

In his first season with the Hornets, Chandler asserted himself as a dominant force in the paint, compiling career highs in minutes played, points, field goal percentage, rebounds and blocked shots. Few loose balls were outside Chandler's broad wingspan, as he sucked up errant shots with an efficiency that would make David Oreck envious. His 12.8 rebounds per game were second best in the NBA.

Chandler says Byron Scott challenged him to be more aggressive on both ends of the floor. 'From day one, he told me what his expectations were and the role that I would play on the team, and he never went away from that. I think the confidence he had in me, knowing that your coach is always supporting you on the sideline, it makes life easier."

Chandler is one of four Hornets starters who have a legitimate shot to play in the 2008 NBA All-Star Game, which will be held in New Orleans for the first time in February.

'That would be incredible," Chandler gushes. 'That's definitely one of my goals this year, and it would be great to represent my city in my city."

While a holistic health approach may help the Hornets, wholesale changes were not necessary in the off-season. The most noteworthy addition was free-agent shooting guard Morris Peterson.

The 6-foot-7 Peterson spent his first seven NBA seasons with the Toronto Raptors and nearly landed in New Orleans three years ago. In 2004, the Hornets signed the restricted free agent to a three-year, $15 million offer " but Toronto retained him by matching the deal.

While his scoring and playing time dipped last season, he's expected to start at shooting guard for the Hornets, allowing Peja Stojakovic to return to his natural small forward position.

Peterson has career averages of 12 points and nearly four rebounds. He'll help fill the void left by sky-walking swingman Desmond Mason, who rejoined the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent after last season.

The Hornets return a trio of experienced reserves in guards Jannero Pargo and Bobby Jackson and forward Rasual Butler.

With various ailments afflicting Chris Paul and Jackson last season, Pargo played an unexpected key role " seeing action in all 82 games and averaging a career-high 9.2 points. Jackson joined the team prior to last season as one of the top sixth men in the league. The rugged guard is as tough as a Bronx bouncer but still missed 26 games last year with injuries that included cracked ribs. He was the top scorer off the bench at 10.6 points a game.

Forward Rasual Butler was another beneficiary of the team's high casualty rate. The three-point shooting specialist set new career highs in minutes played, scoring and rebounds.

In last year's draft, the Hornets selected a pair of first-round frontcourt players, but that number has been winnowed to one. In September, New Orleans traded forward Cedric Simmons to the Cleveland Cavaliers to free up room under the salary cap.

The Hornets stuck with center Hilton Armstrong, who showed more promise and production in this year's Las Vegas summer league. The lanky 6-foot-11 Armstrong made sporadic contributions as a rookie, highlighted by a 17-point burst against Detroit. Armstrong will provide depth in the frontcourt along with free-agent acquisition Melvin Ely. The 6-foot-11 Ely spent his first five NBA seasons with three different teams, including, most recently, the Spurs.

With the 13th overall pick in this year's draft, the Hornets selected Kansas sophomore Julian Wright, a 6-foot-8 forward who is versatile to the point that he defies simple categorization " sort of a Swiss Army knife: a tool for every situation. While his statistics during his final year at Kansas are modest by lottery pick standards (12 points and 7.8 rebounds), his value isn't easily quantified.

The former high school point guard possesses superb ball-handling ability for a player his size and he's equally comfortable passing the ball as he is blocking shots and delivering thunderous dunks.

Like most rookies, he'll need to bulk up to endure the rigors of an 82-game season, and his jump shooting is suspect, but he should be able to contribute immediately with his all-around game and finishing touch near the rim.

In the second round, the Hornets picked 6-foot-5 Iowa guard Adam Haluska. He led the Big Ten Conference in scoring average as a senior with 20.5 points.

Despite playing in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Hornets appear to have the personnel to become bona fide contenders this season.

'We have guys who are capable of scoring every night," Chris Paul says. 'I think defense has to be a constant. Bringing the rookies and [Morris Peterson] in and having Peja healthy, I think the sky's the limit with this team."

At the beginning of the team's fall training camp, the Hornets had sold nearly 6,000 season tickets. Financially, that's not the most enthusiastic welcome, but Shinn remains bullish on the future.

'Look at the fact that we weren't even here last year," the team's majority owner says. 'We played just a few games here last year. We didn't even have a base. So I think that's great. We're optimistic about everything."

This season will be a litmus test of whether the Hornets can thrive in post-Katrina New Orleans " and a referendum on head coach Byron Scott. In his three seasons guiding the Hornets, the former Lakers great has failed to lead the team to the playoffs. Prior to his arrival, the team made back-to-back postseason appearances with two different head coaches.

'I have this year on my contract, and then I have an option on the next year," he says. 'The bottom line is if you win, everything takes care of itself. That's all I'm used to."

Through free agency, trades and the draft, the Hornets made a desperate effort to bring a playoff team back to New Orleans. It didn't happen. But the players see no reason why they can't author their own comeback story in their first season back home.

'We have all we need," Stojakovic says. 'We have a good team. The front office made good moves in the off-season and they made us even better. It's up to us to step on the court and show it."

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

click to enlarge cover_story-16279.jpeg
click to enlarge David West pops one in at a preseason game at Indiana. Last season he posted career highs with 18.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, although he missed 30 games due to an elbow injury that required surgery.
  • David West pops one in at a preseason game at Indiana. Last season he posted career highs with 18.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, although he missed 30 games due to an elbow injury that required surgery.
click to enlarge This season is sort of a referendum on Coach Byron Scott, who has failed to lead the Hornets to the playoffs in three seasons. He is hopeful that if his players stay healthy, they can achieve that goal.
  • This season is sort of a referendum on Coach Byron Scott, who has failed to lead the Hornets to the playoffs in three seasons. He is hopeful that if his players stay healthy, they can achieve that goal.
click to enlarge Swingman Peja Stojakovic injured his back last year, but Coach Byron Scott believes that if he's healthy and can play 70 to 80 games, the Hornets can make it to the playoffs.
  • Swingman Peja Stojakovic injured his back last year, but Coach Byron Scott believes that if he's healthy and can play 70 to 80 games, the Hornets can make it to the playoffs.
click to enlarge The Hornets acquired free-agent shooting guard Morris Peterson during the offseason and hope his average of 12 points and four rebounds per game will allow Stojakovic to return to his small forward position.
  • The Hornets acquired free-agent shooting guard Morris Peterson during the offseason and hope his average of 12 points and four rebounds per game will allow Stojakovic to return to his small forward position.
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