By Nick Peruffo
The thoroughly unexpected 9-1 start by the New Orleans Hornets has left many NBA pundits struggling with exactly where to rank the team among the league’s premier clubs. Unlike Atlanta, who has recently come back to earth after a 6-0 start, the Hornets haven’t simply been taking advantage of bad teams.
Last season, the Hornets 2010-11 opponents had a combined winning percentage of just under 60 percent (373 of 820), which doesn’t take into account the beginning of the Big Three era in Miami. The most promising stat for Hornets fans revolves around the teams indisputably-improved defense, as New Orleans is allowing the second fewest points per game (91.3) in the entire league.
Needless to say, the new Hornets brain trust of Dell Demps and Monty Williams have done a masterful job of acquiring and integrating the correct pieces into the New Orleans lineup. Marco Belinelli, enjoying the best start of his career, is an infinite upgrade over the intriguing but maddening Julian Wright. Trevor Ariza adds the long, versatile defender they thought they were getting when they overpaid James Posey, and a bench nucleus revolving around Jason Smith, Willie Green, Jarryd Bayless and (recently) Peja Stojakovic has bought into Williams’ message by consistently out-hustling their counterpart.
Perhaps most importantly, the team’s familiar faces also seem to have embraced the new culture in the Big Easy. Though the numbers for David West and Emeka Okafor have been consistent with their career averages, they are both playing with what appears to be a new level of defensive intensity. Chris Paul has reminded the world that he is still Chris Paul, putting up Rondo-like assist numbers while still leading the team in scoring. Everything for the Hornets sounds terrific.
The only problem for New Orleans is the date on the calendar. While a 9-1 start is certainly promising, by no means does it automatically make your team a legitimate championship contender. The Hornets recent hard-fought home and away split (two games decided by a total of five points) makes one wonder if the Hornets are really only just about as good as the Mavericks. While this, admittedly, would have been fantastic news at the beginning of the season, few see the Mavericks as a legitimate threat to Laker supremacy. The Hornets now have to deal with lofty comparisons to the Lakers and Celtics, teams built for postseason play.
The truth is, shutting down Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge does not equate to shutting down Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in a best-of-seven series. While the Hornets do appear to have the pieces and the system in place, regular season victories only add up to so much, no matter how many you have. Williams and Demps, both former players, know this.
The start has been extremely exciting for basketball in southeastern Louisiana, but without perspective even the best 82-game season can go for naught. Just ask the 2006-07 Mavericks.