By Ben Fisher
There’s an old saying in sports that sometimes the best trade is the one you didn’t make.
Now, only a few people in the New Orleans Hornets organization know how close – if at all – the team came to moving franchise point guard Chris Paul after the 25-year old’s trade demand this summer (heck, few really know for sure whether he made one in the first place). But here we are about a week into the 2010-11 season, and not only is Paul still in New Orleans, but he is healthy and producing for the franchise record-tying 4-0 club and – more significantly – has plenty of help around him.
Over the team’s first four games, Paul has led the Hornets’ unbeaten charge with averages of 21points and 9.0 assists per game, including a 16-dime performance in the season opener against Milwaukee. It’s the kind of start he needed after a forgettable, injury-marred 2009-10 campaign that saw him miss 37 games.
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One of just four undefeated teams thus far (the Lakers and Hawks are the others), the Hornets have hardly benefitted from a cream puff schedule early. Their wins have come against three teams that reached last year’s postseason – Milwaukee, Denver and San Antonio – and a Houston Rockets squad with a healthy Yao Ming.
Ironically, the Hornets seem to have transformed into the team Paul was hoping to find when he reportedly asked out. He’s the star of the show as a scorer and a playmaker, but he also boasts a strong supporting cast featuring some surprise standouts, a pair of big men regaining their swagger, a rising youngster and a new head coach focused on keeping his team motivated.
Faced with the daunting task of rescuing a 37-win team that somehow finished dead last in the Southwest Division and risked alienating their star point guard, new GM Dell Demps opted to resist the panic button and simply added complementary pieces to what he felt was already a strong foundation.
“We’re not starting over from scratch, we’re adding to the core,” says Demps, “and we want to put ourselves in the best situation to be successful.’’
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With that outlook, he brought Trevor Ariza aboard in a four-team trade that cost the Hornets Darren Collison. While Ariza is fitting in well with his new team (averaging 9.0 points through four games), it has been the less-heralded additions of Marco Belinelli (11.0 points), Jason Smith (8.5) and Willie Green (7.5) that has Demps looking savvy early.
It doesn’t hurt that the players surrendered for the trio (Julian Wright, Darius Songaila and Craig Brackins) have yet to collect a point for their new teams.
That’s not to say that Paul isn’t getting help from some ’09-10 holdovers. Emeka Okafor has spent the better part of the first four games banging down low with elite big men such as Tim Duncan, Nene and Yao. Meanwhile, fellow frontcourt presence David West continues to be a strong rebounder and mid-range scorer, leading the team with 6.5 boards per game and sitting second with 17.5 points per game.
Another aspect of the Hornets’ future is coming clearer into view with the emergence of local product Marcus Thornton. The LSU alum opened eyes by averaging 13.7 points as a rookie, but most figured it his numbers were a product of a scoring vacuum left by Paul’s injuries. Now, on a completely healthy squad, Thornton’s scoring average has dropped slightly (9.8 per game), but he is getting crunch time minutes and developing chemistry with his backcourt mate.
Change in New Orleans has also encompassed the bench, where first-year head coach Monty Williams has initiated a change in team culture based around staying driven and keeping potential distractions out.
Before Wednesday’s game in Houston, Williams asked his players how they would feel if they were in the shoes of the winless Rockets. Once he got them to understand the kind of desperation they’d be facing, they had the focused mindset needed to keep things close in the first half before pulling away in the second for a 107-99.
Now, four games is hardly a long enough time frame to get a strong read on a team, much less project where they will be come April. But for a squad facing so many questions at the season’s outset, they sure seem to have plenty of answers right now.