When Monty Williams took over as head coach of the New Orleans Hornets, the consensus was that he was stepping into a rather tricky situation. Not only did the organization completely lack a front office, but its best player was allegedly giving troubling toasts. And yet, if Williams' situation in July 2010 can be compared to the much clichéd "frying pan," the events of the past 10 months do not so much represent a subsequent move into the "fire" as they do a journey to the inner core of Eta Carinae.
Indeed, the New Orleans Hornets are experiencing a season for the ages.
Winning (A Lot), Losing (A Lot)
In their first 11 games, the Hornets faced the league's fourth-best defense (Milwaukee) twice, a Carmelo Anthony-led Nuggets team, the Dallas Mavericks twice, the Spurs and the Rockets on the road, and the Miami Heat. They lost once in that stretch.
For the next month, the team struggled to play barely .500 basketball, losing 12 times in 22 games. Featured in that stretch were a 25-point demolition at the hands of the Spurs, a 15-point loss to the Timberwolves, and an 18-point loss to the Sixers, a game in which the Hornets posted the second lowest team assist total of the last 26 years.
Right as the calendar flipped to 2011 though, the Hornets somehow found their rhythm, winning thirteen of fifteen, including a 10-game win streak. Naturally, New Orleans followed that stretch up by losing 12 of their next 16. Consistency is an overused term, but the Hornets' lack thereof has been staggering.
Additionally, the way New Orleans has clawed its way to 42 wins is stunning in and of itself. Various analysts -- most notably Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton -- projected that the 2010-2011 Hornets would be an elite offensive team, hampered by substandard defense. On paper, such a prediction certainly made sense. The return of a healthy Chris Paul, coupled with the continued development of Marcus Thornton, and with the addition of a slasher in Trevor Ariza figured to at least lift the team back to healthy offensive efficiency.
But the 2011 Hornets have won almost exclusively with defense; even with a recent surge in offensive production, the team barely edges out the Clippers for the third-worst offensive efficiency mark in the conference. On the defensive side of the ball, no Western team has played better than the Hornets. Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor deserve plaudits, but the majority of the credit is due to Williams, who has designed a highly effective, help and rotation-heavy system around his players. Under Williams, New Orleans has jumped 15 ranks on the defensive charts this year, an improvement absolutely nobody predicted.
Saga of Marcus Thornton
Marcus Thornton was born in Baton Rouge. Marcus Thornton attended, for two years, Louisiana State University. Marcus Thornton, as an NBA rookie, played in New Orleans. If dictionaries included weird phrases like "cabbage night" or "local hero," then their publishers might consider including a picture of Marcus Thornton's face next to the latter. That Thornton proved to be an exceptionally proficient rookie scorer certainly seemed adequate grounds to keep him a Hornet for the foreseeable future.
Of course, as Thornton's 32-point effort Sunday as a Sacramento King attests to, that did not happen. Williams benched Thornton in favor of Willie Green (the proud owner of the fifth lowest offensive efficiency among all NBA guards) and Marco Belinelli (according to Synergy data, one of the top 20 worst defenders in the league), and the rest is history.
There is a case to be made that Thornton needs a higher paced offense to succeed, similar to New Orleans' in 2009-2010, or Sacramento's currently. But the fact that Williams wrote Thornton off so quickly and so consistently is immensely troubling. The Hornets received a great player back in Carl Landry, but they traded away a local fan favorite and, more importantly, an excellent basketball player without seeming to understand his true value.
In 2007, the Hornets franchise extended its lease on New Orleans Arena through 2014; the deal was agreed upon, contingent on the fact that attendance would never drop below 14,735 per game over a two-year period. In late November, reports surfaced that if the Hornets failed to meet the mark, the team would have the option relocate as early as the 2011-2012 season.
In a sense, the difficulty of meeting the benchmark was somewhat overstated. Through November, the team averaged 14,214 fans per game; at the time, they needed to average 14,213 through the end of January. But those are easy statements to make in hindsight; the consequences of missing the benchmark could indeed have been fatal to the future of basketball in New Orleans. Through the support of local businesses and organizations that bought tickets in bulk, the team managed to meet the mark with relative ease.
But the mere existence of the benchmark in the first place granted a sense of extreme urgency to fans for much of the first half of the season.
David Stern's takeover of the Hornets was an unprecedented (in basketball) move at the time, and as many predicted, the effects would be longer term, rather than immediate.
The takeover has already been passive aggressively mocked at various turns by the Lakers' Phil Jackson, and aggressive aggressively derided by Dallas' Mark Cuban; while both men's critiques are tinted by their own team's colors, their arguments are ultimately rooted in reality. How much money should the Hornets be allowed to spend to re-sign David West? How much should NBA ownership impact their potential to keep Chris Paul?
Stern promised in his December press conference that the league would find local ownership well before financial and salary cap concerns became a serious issue. Gary Chouest still remains a candidate to invest in the team, but there hasn't been much news on the minority ownership front for quite a while. In the meanwhile, summer 2011 draws ever nearer, and Stern's flippant December proclamation will almost certainly need to be revisited soon.
That's Chris Paul on a stretcher. He suffered a concussion three weeks ago, and missed a few games. And scared many fans.
That's David West in immense pain. He tore his ACL last week, and will not play again this season.
Few rookie coaches in any sport have been given the sort of introduction to their sport Monty Williams has endured. The Hornets still remain in the thick of the Western playoff chase, and outside of his curious decisions in terms of Willie Green and Marcus Thornton, Williams has done an outstanding job of navigating his team through an amazingly trying season. The stretch run and potentially the playoffs still await, but for the 2010-11 Hornets, it's already been a long, long year.