A LOOK BACK AT JANUARY

February 1, 2008 –With all this talk about Boston’s Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, it is an Underappreciated Four of Chris Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic that has led a surprising team to the top of the heap in the West.

The All-Star Game is headed to New Orleans later this month so there is a lot of excitement in the Crescent City and most of it has to do with the Hornets rising to unprecedented heights.

The team came within one of tying the franchise record for consecutive wins when it had a nine-game run ended on Jan. 30, and New Orleans has won 17 of its last 20 games to put itself atop the Western Conference heading into February.

Led by Paul - a third-year point guard who was named an All-Star on Thursday and is garnering strong consideration for the MVP - there is a buzz around the Hornets that hasn’t been there since Larry Johnson was better known as Grandma-ma, Alonzo Mourning was manning the pivot, Muggsy Bogues was running the point and Dell Curry was burying treys way back in the mid-90s.

Paul has his own stellar supporting cast. In fact, it is three Hornets, not Celtics, that can accomplish something that hasn’t been done in the league in almost 40 years.

Stojakovic is one of the most dangerous 3-point shooters in the game and is starting to resemble the two-time Three-Point Shootout winner they hoped they had when the Hornets signed him to a five-year contract in the summer of 2006. After an injury-plagued 2006-07 season that limited him to 13 games, Stojakovic is averaging more than 15 points a game and is leading the league in 3-pointers made per game (2.8) – giving the Hornets one of their best long-range threats since Curry hovered around the perimeter.

With Stojakovic lighting it up from outside, Chandler has been ruling the inside. He is fourth in the league in rebounding at over 12 a game, is third in field goal percentage, while leading the way in offensive rebounding. He has had at least 21 rebounds in a game three times and has 25 double-doubles.

West continues to be one of the league’s most underrated players, averaging career bests in points (19.5) a game and rebounds (9.4). If West , who was rewarded with an All-Star nod on Thursday, can get his rebounding average into double figures and Paul and Chandler can maintain their current pace, it will make the Hornets the first team since 1969-70 to have three players average a double-double for an entire season (minimum 40 games). The San Francisco Warriors were the last team to achieve the feat with Nate Thurmond, Clyde Lee and Jerry Lucas, according to STATS LLC.

The Hornets have a strong cast of role players as well, with proven veterans Morris Peterson and Bobby Jackson along with Jannero Pargo, Rasual Butler and Melvin Ely.

Despite the strong supporting cast, it is clear that Paul is the heart and soul of the Hornets. The 2006 Rookie of the Year is the engine that drives New Orleans, averaging over 20 points and 10 assists a game. He has recorded at least 10 assists in 14 of his last 15 games, including a magnificent 23-point, 17-assist, nine-rebound effort against the Nuggets on Jan. 28.

But the offensive numbers are just part of Paul’s arsenal. He is a pest on the defensive end, leading the league with 2.56 steals a game. His all-around package have some people calling him in the best point guard in the game and others anointing him a viable MVP candidate.

"I am not ready to jump on their bandwagon, but they're pretty good and I'm not sure what weakness they have,'' Nuggets coach George Karl said after the Jan. 28 game. "Chris Paul is a great point guard. He can go anywhere he wants to go. They have size, they have shooters, they play as a team, they have a good bench ... . One can argue that they have an All-Star player at four positions.''

The Hornets made a late run last year, but didn’t reach the playoffs and finished with 39 wins. They are just seven victories away from matching that mark, and if January is any indication, the team record of 54 wins is in serious jeopardy.

Let's take a look back at some of the other teams and players making news in January.

Are the Hornets for real? Drop me a line and tell me what you think.

The Best of the Rest

All-Star Fever

The buzz in New Orleans is not just about the Hornets and Mardi Gras. The 57th NBA All-Star Game will be held in the city this year on Feb. 17th and there will be plenty of stars on hand. Kevin Garnett was picked as a starter in his first season with Boston and led all players in voting. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Yao Ming were among the starters. Paul, West and Portland second-year sensation Brandon Roy were the first-timers named to the reserves on Thursday. One notable exception was Shaquille O'Neal, who will not play in the event for the first time after matching a record held by Karl Malone and Jerry West with 14 straight appearances.

Teams Begin Roster Shuffling

The Feb. 21 trade deadline is still weeks away, but teams are already starting to reshape their squads for the stretch run. The Warriors brought back a blast from the past when they signed Chris Webber, who played his rookie season in Golden State in 1993-94 before departing on less than harmonious terms. Webber sparked the Pistons when they signed him last season in mid-January and the Warriors are hoping for a similar effect. The only question is how Webber, who excels in the halfcourt and will turn 35 on March 1, will mesh with the run-and-gun Warriors. The Grizzlies added another valuable free agent to the market when they released Damon Stoudamire on Jan. 28. Earl Boykins was picked up by the Bobcats on Jan. 31. And there may be another point guard available if the Nets decide to trade Jason Kidd. Stay tuned to Player Movement 2008 for all the action.

Winds of Change Chill Spurs

Things have changed a lot in the past month and a half. The Spurs were 19-6 on Dec. 18 and atop the Western Conference while the Cavaliers, who the Spurs swept in last year’s Finals, were struggling at 11-14. A rematch in June hardly seemed likely. But LeBron James bounced back from a finger injury and picked up the torrid pace he left off in November. Led by King James, Cleveland has gone 14-6 since and looks poised for another deep run. Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic will likely miss all of February, but should be back for the stretch run. The Spurs, meanwhile, have gone 11-10 since Dec. 18 and dropped to the middle of the pack in the West. Even with Tony Parker hurting, it is hard to count the Spurs out as they usually use their annual Rodeo Road Trip to gear up for a postseason push.

Story Continues to Change in Hollywood

Just a few weeks ago, the Lakers were the talk of the league. They were in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, Kobe Bryant was being mentioned as a frontrunner for the MVP and Andrew Bynum was a strong candidate for Most Improved Player. But since Bynum went down with a knee injury, that talk has quieted considerably. The 20-year-old center was averaging 13.1 points and 10.1 rebounds a game before suffering the injury that is expected to sideline him for up to two months. Los Angeles has gone 3-5 without Bynum and also lost reserve Trevor Ariza to a broken right foot. So once again it is up to Kobe to carry the load in Tinseltown.

Race to the Finish Out West

The Hornets are not the only team playing well in the very competitive West heading into February. Utah has won six straight and nine of its last 10. The Mavericks bounced back from a slow start by their standards by winning 12 of their last 15. Phoenix has heated up as well, recording triumphs in seven of its last nine. The results are a very muddled playoff picture, with the two teams tied for the last two playoff spots only trailing the conference leaders by five games. In fact, the pair of teams just out of the playoff mix right now – Portland and Houston – are only one and two games, respectively behind the Nuggets and Warriors. Would calling it the Wild, Wild West be too cliché?

Have your own thoughts on the month that was? Disagree with my picks? Send an e-mail and let me know.