It may not seem like it, judging from their last three games, but it's true: the New Orleans Hornets are indeed a playoff team.
A little more than a year ago, the Hornets had no coach and a lame-duck general manager. Then they hired Monty Williams to lead the team, right around the time general manager Jeff Bower abruptly left the organization. For eight days — during the height of the summer free-agency period, no less — the team didn't have a GM at all. Then the team hired Dell Demps and, somehow, he and Williams convinced superstar Chris Paul that they have a viable plan for the franchise while managing to put a lid on the trade rumors swirling around the All-Star point guard. In the process, Demps and Williams somehow pulled together a franchise that once seemed on the brink of falling apart.
That's been the story of the Hornets' 2010-2011 season: one unexpected turn after another.
Who would have predicted that this team would start a franchise-best 11-1? Or that, just when the franchise seemed to be returning to stability, the NBA would be forced to buy the team when Gary Chouest, the billionaire businessman who had been flirting with ownership, suddenly had second thoughts? Or that, under the ownership of the league's 31 other teams, Demps would be able to make moves that involved spending extra money, like the trade for forward Carl Landry (which carried with it the bonus of ticking off Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban)? In the meantime, the Hornets established themselves on the court as a top-tier defensive team with a sneaky offense; before David West went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Hornets had six players averaging double figures in points.
The Hornets, it seems, have embraced the uncertainty that seems to constantly surround them, though the last few games have been painful (22-, 11- and 32-point losses). With a matchup against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, it's still anybody's guess as to whether the Hornets will bounce out of the first round or make a surprising run.
All the ups and downs have taken their toll and as the season wound down, it was clear the Hornets were losing games due to tired legs and an overall lack of depth. If this team was completely healthy, it would probably be a pick to win the Western Conference — but as of press time, Las Vegas bookmakers put the odds of the Hornets winning the NBA title this year at 50-to-1.
But even with a three-game losing streak, who can rule out the improbable? No one thought this team would even be decent this year — not with a rookie coach, a disgruntled point guard, lagging attendance and an uncertain ownership situation. At this point, we're allowed to imagine whatever we want.
With that in mind, let's look at four hypothetical situations in which the Hornets win the Western Conference and find themselves in the NBA finals. Hey, stranger things have happened.
Monty Williams rallies his troops, becomes the next Red Auerbach
It's definitely too soon to compare Williams to the man who may have been the greatest NBA coach ever, but let's not lose sight of what Williams was able to accomplish this season. He has turned the Hornets into a stingy defensive squad that rarely takes off plays. The argument could be made that the team put too much effort into the season and that's why they've seemed tired of late — Exhibit A: the April 11 spanking they received from the Utah Jazz — but we'd take tired but hardworking over fresh and lackadaisical any day.
Most important, Williams was the steadying force this team has often lacked. During the Byron Scott/Jeff Bower years, you had a coach and GM that stubbornly stayed on message even when it conflicted with reality and — more often than not — each other.
Williams, on the other hand, has proved adept at adjusting on the fly. His in-game adjustments have fueled many a Hornets comeback (most recently against the Houston Rockets where New Orleans rallied from an 18-point deficit). The last few games wouldn't suggest it, but those lopsided losses belie the team's effort and Williams' game-planning. Even after the painful 121-89 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Paul said his coach's preparation is second to none.
Remember, this is a team that last year could barely function when Paul and West went down with injuries at different points in the season. This is also a team that two seasons ago all but gave up while tying an NBA record for the worst playoff loss in history (the Denver Nuggets beat the Bees by 58 points in the New Orleans Arena).
If nothing else, Williams has his players believing in him and his system and the Hornets are playing with the ambition of a top-seeded team. Sometimes, that's enough.
Chris Paul's all-around game stabilizes Hornets, destroys other teams
Here's a reality all Hornets fans need to accept: Chris Paul is not the player he was before his knee injury. He's not going to average more than 22 points and 11 assists a game (Paul finished with career lows in points per game this season).
But here's another reality: Chris Paul is still one of, if not the, best point guards in the game today. How can both things be true? For one thing, Paul's otherworldly stretch from the 2007 to the 2009 season, in which he averaged more than 21 points, 11 assists and nearly three steals per game, is not likely to be repeated by anyone soon.
Another reason is that Paul is, by all accounts, recovered from his knee injury and, as anyone who's been watching him this season would agree, is still playing at an elite level. The reason it may not appear that way is because he's taken on a different role. Two seasons ago, Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler were primary scorers for the Hornets and the team had just four players who averaged double-digit points. The Hornets now do a better job of spreading the ball around. That's what led to the six players averaging double digits before West's injury. It's also what's led to massive scoring outputs by Landry, Trevor Ariza and Willie Green.
This is a good thing. As a small point guard in the NBA, there is no way Paul could sustain a one-on-five mentality against teams in the playoffs. Paul has adjusted his game. He's in the Top 5 for assists-per-game this season and his 4.47 assist-to-turnover ratio is the best in the Western Conference. For opposing teams, that's a scary record. For the Hornets, it could be what takes them to the NBA's promised land.
The Hornets don't end up missing David West
The evidence against this seems overwhelming. Since losing West, the Hornets have allowed opponents to score just over 99 points per game, six points more than their season average. West is also an emotional and physical leader for the Hornets, often being matched up against the opposing team's best big man and carrying the offensive burden. No matter how well anyone plays to make up for his absence, West not being on the floor is a huge blow.
But it all comes back to Demps and Williams. It was at the trading deadline that Demps made the controversial move of trading fan favorite Marcus Thornton to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Landry. At the time, Hornets fans had mixed feelings about sending a local with a knack for scoring and electrifying the crowd for a largely unknown forward from one of the league's worst teams.
Now Landry has proved to be a more-than-suitable replacement for the injured West and acquiring him back the smartest move Demps has made in his short tenure in the Big Easy. Sure, Landry's 12 points per game (ppg) isn't as good as the 20 points West averaged, but since West went down, Landry has averaged nearly 15 ppg and has scored 17 or more points during six games. Landry also has been able to mesh quickly with his new teammates and, most important, Williams has found a way to fit him into his current system. Now, with the Hornets second-most-valuable player out for the season, Landry has stepped up in a way that makes you almost forget about West.
Scenario 4: All of the above
There's one constant that has defined the season: When this team plays together, it wins together.
Overall, the Hornets are not as talented as teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. On paper, the Hornets roster is actually one of the weakest when it comes to playoff-bound teams; to many NBA fans, the Hornets are Chris Paul, Emeka Okafor, and Trevor Ariza — and 10 other guys.
On the other hand, so what? All season long, Williams has said his team is not the flashy type that scores 110-points a night. This is a team that realizes its limitations and — instead of trying to be something they're not — plays within those limitations to the best of each player's ability.
It's worked, to some extent. The Hornets are leaders in defense and haven't dropped out of the playoff picture all season. They don't need their players to score 25 points apiece. But if Willie Green decides to hit 12 straight shots and score 31 points against an opponent — as he proved capable of doing against the Phoenix Suns on April 6 — well, then you have that, too.
The Hornets are a team forced to rely on everyone bringing 100 percent effort to the floor every night to eke out a victory. This can lead to magical moments, like the two extended winning streaks we saw this season, and horrendous ones, like when Paul failed to score a single point for the first time in his career.
The Hornets have been alternately one of the best teams in the league and one of the worst at various points in Williams' first year of coaching. But none of that matters now. Now the Hornets have a chance — for the second time in one season — to do the unexpected and surprise everyone once again.