The New Orleans Hornets enter the 2010-11 season at a crossroads, more than any other franchise in the NBA (except for maybe the Denver Nuggets). They really have nobody else but themselves to blame for the way a contender built around superstar point guard Chris Paul stagnated the past couple of years. Now, they have to somehow convince Paul to stay, all while staying under a budget and keeping one eye to the future.
The need for that balancing act became clear last season. The Hornets got off to a slow start with Paul healthy, which cost Byron Scott his job. They then improved in December and Janaury under new coach Jeff Bower, getting to five games over .500 at one point before Paul's season-ending knee injury. Finally, the Hornets actually managed to stay somewhat competitive without Paul, as rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton emerged from Scott's doghouse to provide some hope for the future.
Truth be told, this summer could have been as good a time as any to rebuild without Paul, especially after Paul's public-but-not-really-public trade demand. However, the Hornets instead tried to toe all the aforementioned lines. Bower was fired as coach and GM, and he was replaced by two newcomers: Dell Demps at GM and Monty Williams at head coach. Demps successfully convinced Paul to cool off for now, then was aggressive in changing the roster. He dealt Collison, Paul's insurance policy, in a four-team trade to acquire Trevor Ariza, an athletic swingman that the Hornets hope bounces back after a tough year in Houston. He then acquired Willie Green from Philadelphia, then trade a first-round pick to Portland for talented guard Jerryd Bayless.
Meanwhile, Williams enters as the youngest head coach in the NBA. He rose the ranks quickly as an assistant coach in Portland, but ultimately, he's a guy renown for player development. Does that make him the best fit with Paul and the other veterans on the roster? It's an interesting question to think about.
Regardless, outside of Chris Paul, the Hornets have two potential strengths on paper: shooting and interior depth, writes SB Nation's Hornets blog At the Hive.
The front court- much maligned, heading into the offseason- is now reasonably deep. Aaron Gray, a solid rebounder, backups up Okafor. Pops Mensah-Bonsu will hopefully get a chance to grab boards behind David West, a very poor rebounder. D.J. Mbenga should provide some situational defense (or just situational fouls) off the bench. If Jason Smith can even come close to replicating his preseason activity levels, the front court will have taken a major step forward from 2009-2010.
Looking at the names on that frontcourt, I'm not sure I'd call it a strength. But there are a lot of bodies, and if one emerges, New Orleans' poor depth looks better. That's good, because a top five of Paul, David West, Emeka Okafor, Ariza and Thornton is actually pretty intriguing.
Beyond that, the hope is that Williams provides a fresh voice and culture that will lift everyone on the team to new heights. As Hornets 24/7 writes:
Hiring a first year coach who is the youngest in the NBA might not look like a great move on paper, but the culture change was long overdue for this team. After the Hornets gave up on Byron Scott in the 2009 playoffs, he was brought back for a lame duck year, only to be fired 6 games into the season. The Bower/Floyd combo took over and the Hornets plodded their way through the rest of the year with no real direction.
Enter Monty Williams and a well-rounded staff, made up of veteran coaches like Randy Ayers and bright minds like Mike Malone. Each member of the staff will bring something different to the table, and above all, they will hold the players accountable- continually challenging them, which is something we did not see a lot of from Bower or Scott.
The biggest thing Williams must change is the Hornets' interior defense, which took a major step back last year despite the offseason trade for Emeka Okafor. As At the Hive writes:
The team played very, very poor interior defense last season. While that did start with poor perimeter defense, Emeka Okafor and David West must shoulder much of the blame. West struggled especially, and it seems foolish to expect drastic changes from him this year.
Hornets 24/7 took it a step further with its analysis of the problem.
Last year, the Hornets allowed 28% of the opposing teams shots at the rim, which was the fifth worst in the league. They then compounded the problem by allowing opposing teams to finish those shots 65% of the time, which was the third worst in the league. While it can be blamed on the perimeter defenders not keeping people out of the lane, that ignores the fact that David West and Emeka Okafor struggled to lock down the paint together. This off-season did nothing to address those defensive issues in the paint.
Those are two veteran players that must pick it up, which is difficult for any coach, much less a first-timer like Williams, to fix. New Orleans' success depends on it, and neither preview expresses much confidence that it'll get done.
So what does that mean for Paul's future? That's obviously the most important question on everyone's mind. Even a disgruntled Paul has the ability to carry undermanned teams to the playoffs, and he's too competitive to mail it in. But the Hornets' roster doesn't really stack up to the other top teams in the West, and they're also working in a first-time coach and general manager. What happens if the Hornets get off to a slow start? What happens if Williams is unable to reach Paul? What happens if Thornton and Bayless don't improve? Will Paul once again demand a trade through back channels?
The uncertainty makes New Orleans tough to predict. At the Hive doesn't even try to guess their record, saying "I dunno" when asked. Hornets 24/7's three authors predict 47-35, 47-35 and 40-42, respectively. I'm pessimistic about New Orleans' chances with so many new pieces in the fold, and will predict a 38-44 record, which certainly won't be enough to appease Paul.