Sitting in the locker room after the Hornets' embarrassing 108-94 loss to the Utah Jazz — a loss in which the Hornets gave up a team-worst 41 first-quarter points — All-Star power forward David West tried to make sense of what had just happened.
"It just felt like we were in a gun fight with a knife," West said. "We just didn't have enough firepower."
The Hornets are indeed lacking firepower this season. Part of that is due to injuries — their roster has not been completely healthy all season. — But another part is that the team's biggest weakness, depth, is much bigger than fans anticipated when they picked it to possibly win an NBA title. Those same people are now probably asking just how in the world this Hornets team even made the playoffs to begin with.
The answer, of course, is Chris Paul and David West. Paul is arguably the best point guard in the league and West ranks among the top five in his position. Unfortunately, as the Hornets have found out time and again all season, it takes five players to make a basketball team, and, according to head coach Byron Scott, more to win a championship.
"It's just disappointing that we aren't getting the help we need," he said after April 8's 105-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns. "To win, we have to have six or seven guys come out and play hard, especially in the Western Confernce."
On a good day, the Hornets have maybe four to six high-level players. After Paul and West, Peja Stojakovic can score in bunches and Tyson Chandler's sheer size forces players to go around him if they intend to score. After them, Rasual Butler has shown his knack for scoring and hitting clutch buzzer beaters (he's got two in the last month) and James Posey brings championship experience off the bench.
Then again, when was the last time the Hornets had a good day?
Seemingly taking a page out of the Saints playbook, the Hornets haven't had a completely healthy lineup all season. And while the Hornets' key players may see court time in the playoffs, there's no guarantee they'll be 100 percent. More often than not, New Orleans has had to depend on its bench to win games, with mixed results.
Take the Hornets' Jan. 28 victory over the Denver Nuggets. With West and Chandler missing, conventional wisdom dictated that Chris Paul, James Posey and Peja Stojakovic would all need big nights in order for the Hornets to win. Paul had 12 points and 10 assists and Posey had six points and made just one field goal all night. Stojakovic did his part, leading the team with 26 points, but it was the bench — which outscored the Nuggets' reserves 42-13 — that paved the path to victory. After the game, Scott said his "bench is getting stronger" and that they would need "contributions from a little bit of everybody."
So what happened the very next game, two days later? The Hornets lost 91-87 to the-then 15-32 Golden State Warriors. In that game, Paul scored 31 points but none of his teammates managed to score more than 12. Just two days after praising his reserve players' growth, Scott said, "we can't just expect C.P. or David to get the job done themselves."
Coming off a franchise-record 56 wins last season, the team added veteran depth in Posey — who just came off winning a championship ring with the Boston Celtics — and Devin Brown and Sean Marks, both of whom had significant playoff experience throughout the league. On paper, this seemed like a recipe for a sure-fire championship contender. On the court, though, the Hornets have been anything but.
After starting the season on a three-game winning streak, the Hornets lost their first home game to the upstart Atlanta Hawks. Afterward, the general consensus in the Hornets locker room was they were just out-hustled and that they would've won if the effort was there. Scott said his team "got what [it] deserved," and Chandler said, "We came out too flat to beat a young, energetic team like this."
At the time, the Hornets just seemed like they were caught off guard by a team we now know is a legitimate up-and-coming contender in the Eastern Conference. New Orleans got a wake-up call that day. Unfortunately, no one was around to answer.
What happened next is well known by Hornets fans. New Orleans followed up their loss against Atlanta with a three-point loss to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. The Bees would win just two of their next five games capped off by an embarrassing 105–96 loss to the worst team in the Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings. Supposedly, this was a turning point. Scott, in a not-so-rare moment of clairvoyance, made a bold prediction about his team after that game.
"If we're going to play in spurts like that, guys, we're probably gonna win 41, 42 games," he said. "It's going to be that type of season. We're going to be so up and down because you can't play in this Western Conference like that."
But for all Scott's emphasis on consistency, his team has not responded. It took the Hornets until March to win as much as five games in a row. That seven-game streak — which began with an 112-105 win against the Kings on Feb. 23 and ended with a 108-90 win against Oklahoma City on March 7 — was followed by a stretch where the Hornets have been playing .500 basketball. Even when this team seems on the verge of greatness, somehow they fall back to mediocrity.
If the Hornets' problems are a mystery to fans, they should at least take solace in Scott's admission that he doesn't know what it takes to motivate his players any more. While that's not the most encouraging thing you can hear about a team leading into the playoffs, it speaks to the fact that the Hornets lack certain intangibles that separate the good teams from the great ones — not to mention New Orleans just lacks consistently good players. What will ultimately determine the Hornets' fate won't be who they play, but how the 12 players not named Chris Paul or David West will play.
All season, New Orleans has looked for the team that resembled last year's miracle squad: that group of underrated but overachieving players that made all the right plays at all the right times. So far, we've only caught glimpses of that championship contender we all thought this group of Hornets could be. Now, with the playoffs underway, we have to hope the Hornets find it in themselves to play up to our expectations.