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2010-2011 has certainly been one of ups and downs for the New Orleans Hornets. They started off the season 8-0, then regressed back to the middle of the pack of the Western Conference and with a recent 9-0 winning streak they are right back in third place of the standings.
And this isn’t one of those nine game winning streaks with a pair of games against the Warriors, a trip to New Jersey and home games against the Pacers, Pistons and Bucks. No, the Hornets have played against some of the league’s very best teams during this streak. They have three overtime victories in this stretch (over the Magic, Rockets and Grizzlies), a 41-point win over the Atlanta Hawks, a 24-point demolition of the division rival Spurs and close wins over the Bobcats, Raptors and Thunder.
Their most recent victory over the Thunder was a thriller. Not to say this was a very entertaining game from start to finish, because, frankly, the first quarter of this game was nearly unwatchable. But the Hornets and Thunder went toe-to-toe for 48 minutes, with no team creating more than a five point lead after the first period. New Orleans, who lead the NBA in points allowed per game, gave up just 89 points to Oklahoma City. During the nine game stretch, the Hornets have allowed just 96.5 points per 100 possessions, which would be the number one mark in the NBA if kept up for an entire year. What’s more impressive is that, on the entire year, the Hornets have the third best defensive efficiency in the league, trailing only the Bulls and Celtics.
The Hornets played stifling defense for most of the game against the Thunder, forcing Kevin Durant to take 18 shots to score 16 points from the field while holding Russell Westbrook to just 18 points. In crunch time, we saw what we have for many years. Chris Paul and David West took over the game. First it was Paul, knocking down a hero three to tie the ballgame and then it was West, raining in impossible jumpshots with the defense right in his face. With a minute left, following a Westbrook putback to give the Thunder a two-point lead, Paul orchestrated a beautiful play, resulting in a pinpoint behind-the-back pass to West, who promptly knocked down the 19-footer to tie it back up.
Oklahoma City actually had a chance to hold the ball for the game-winning shot but their inbounds pass with 15 seconds left was stolen by Paul. On a set inbounds play, the Hornets put the ball in David West’s hands with nine seconds left and let him isolate. He wasn’t given any room but he still managed to hit a jumper in the face of Serge Ibaka with .5 seconds left. The Thunder threw away the ball on the last play of the game and the Hornets captured yet another victory. Paul finished the game with 24 points, nine assists, four rebounds and three steals (two of which came in the final half of the fourth quarter) and West overcame early foul trouble to add 20 hard earned points of his own, eight of which came in the final four minutes of the game.
More on the Hornets and their play so far this season after the break…
The fact that the Hornets are 30-16 at this juncture in the season should not surprise considering their impressive start. But what gets lost in-between is that the Hornets have gotten themselves into third place in the Western Conference despite a rather unspectacular season from Chris Paul. Now, I am not saying he is not having a good season, he’s still the best point guard in the NBA, but he hasn’t been scoring 30 a night during this nine game winning streak. Instead, Paul is averaging the lowest points per game of his career (technically, this is false, as he averaged 16.1 in his rookie year, but for the sake of the argument, there’s little to no difference between that and 16.2 points per game, which is his current mark). Here are Chris Paul’s stats over the last nine games.
As you can see, Paul has not had one totally dominant performance during this winning streak. Just a year ago, Paul was averaging 14.2 shot attempts per game. During this stretch, Paul hasn’t topped 14 field goal attempts in any game and only met that mark twice. Paul’s assist numbers are also down this season, though not by much (he’s averaging 9.6 per game on the year).
This dip in numbers leads me to believe something is not 100% right with Paul’s health. He can still get by his man at will and his shooting form and release hasn’t changed, but he’s simply doing a lot less of it. Paul is starting to pick his spots a lot more than in year’s past, letting the offense run through his teammates more often than taking over a possession on his lonesome. Paul’s contributions as a leader and a motivator seem to be having just as much of an impact on his team’s play as his actual basketball contributions, which speaks a lot to CP3′s value to his team not only as a player but also as a human being.
Despite the decline in his per game numbers, Paul remains one of the league’s two best players. Only LeBron James owns a higher PER and (26.12 to Paul’s 25.78) and there are no point guards within a point of Paul. Among those point guards, Paul has the fifth best assist rate, the third best true shooting percentage and an invisible turnover rate. According to Basketball Value, the Hornets score 13.01 more points per 100 possessions when Paul is on the floor, which is the eighth best mark in basketball.
One could argue the fact that Paul has taken a lesser offensive role and the Hornets have still succeeded is a testament to the abilities of his teammates and that’s certainly plausible. If a team is getting less production from its star player but continues to win anyway, someone must be picking up the slack. That being said, this Hornets team is not overflowing with offensive talents. David West is still there, and he’s one of the most consistent 19/7 guys in the league and his perfect chemistry with Paul makes him a deadly threat on any night. But other than West and Paul, this is a team filled with below average players that are succeeding because of how fell they fit a specific role.
Emeka Okafor is the only player outside of Paul and West that has a PER above 15, which is considered the threshold for “average.” Okafor is a solid rebounder and a tough, gritty defender but his offensive capabilities are limited and a lot of his points come off of excellent feeds from Paul. Marcus Thornton is just starting to get consistent playing time and he’s played well as an offensive spark for the second unit but we still have yet to see him find his niche this season (is he a better slasher/scorer or a spot-up shooter?). Trevor Ariza and Marco Belinelli are the two most used offense options outside of Paul and West. Belinelli has been pretty solid this season as a spot-up shooter for the Hornets but has been a liability on the defensive end while Ariza has been atrocious offensively (FG%/3PT%/FT% = 39%/28%/69%), though he has played some pretty darn good defense on the wing for the Hornets for stretches.
The Hornets still haven’t found a back-up point guard for Chris Paul, either, as Jarret Jack has been extremely disappointing thus far into his New Orleans career. That’s what makes this nine-game winning streak so odd. Paul hasn’t been playing his greatest basketball (though defining his play in recent weeks as “solid” would be an understatement), their role players haven’t had any breakout games and they have been playing some of the best teams in the league. West has been the only player playing really well of late and you’d have to think it’d be hard to win basketball games with just one player excelling.
All that being said, the Hornets find themselves in third place because of a commitment to defense. First year head coach Monty Williams continues to do an excellent job of preparing his team defensively and Paul is equally Williams’ effort in pushing his teammates to play their hardest. Trevor Ariza may be having a tough time finding his offensive rhythm, but he’s hustling on defense every night, always drawing the toughest defensive assignment. And when Paul knows his team needs a spark from the outside, he’s not afraid to give it to Ariza on the wing for three despite his overall ineffectiveness from deep. That supreme trust in his teammates on the offensive end has paid of for Paul and Williams, as everybody on the team has bought into the defensive sermon they have both been preaching.
Because of their tough as nails defensive mindset, there’s a good chance that the Hornets can keep this streak going well into double digits. Their next four games are against the Warriors, Kings, Suns and Wizards, none of which are playoff teams, before matching up against the Thunder again (this time, at Oklahoma City). If they can pick up a win their, the Hornets will head back home with a 14-game winning streak and a game against the Lakers coming up. The Lakers dismantled the Hornets the last time they played but New Orleans sits just two and a half games back of Los Angeles in the standings and by the time they meet up again on February 5th,the Hornets may have a chance to take over the Lakers for the second seed in the conference.
But even if this streak ends before then, rest assured that the Hornets are going to keep at it no matter who they match-up against. Though a glance at their roster may yield a different perceived record than the one they currently hold, this group of role players has one of the best ring leaders in the business and despite the lack of sexy numbers, Chris Paul will never go down without a fight.