Five Observations: Hornets 106, Heat 77

Wednesday, April 2, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

New Orleans (52-22) maintained the best record in the Western Conference and moved closer to wrapping up its first playoff appearance since 2004, pulling away from a shorthanded Miami squad in the second half. The Heat trailed only 74-66 through three quarters, but the Hornets put together a hot-shooting stretch to secure a convincing victory. New Orleans enjoyed a 32-11 edge in the final period.

New Orleans finished its longest road jaunt of the setting at a stellar 5-1, setting a franchise record for the most victories on a single trip. The Hornets grabbed a half-game lead atop the Southwest Division and West standings over idle San Antonio (52-23).

Tyson Chandler paced New Orleans on Wednesday with a 20-point, 10-rebound effort, including making all 10 of his field-goal attempts. Chandler scored five times on alley oop passes.

“In the second half we came out a little sluggish,” Chandler said. “They came out and jumped on us and made some shots, but we were able to pull away and get the win.”

With New Orleans continuing to hold on to its lofty perch atop the conference after being projected by some analysts to miss the playoffs this season, why has this team been able to surprise so many? Here are a handful of potentially overlooked factors behind New Orleans’ campaign, which is likely to soon become officially the best in team history:

1) Defense.
Whenever an NBA team greatly exceeds outside expectations and performs better than its talent appears to indicate on paper, you can almost always point to the defensive end of the floor. Fans and media obviously spend a majority of their time analyzing a club’s offensive talent, but you rarely hear discussion of defense. That’s understandable: For one, defense is nowhere near as exciting or glamorous as offense. For another, probably about 90 percent of basketball statistics are offense-related, making it difficult to quantify defensive achievements, both individually and team-wise.

New Orleans entered Wednesday’s games ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed per game (95.7). Combine that with the Hornets’ 19th-place ranking in scoring average (100.6) and you have an average margin of plus 4.9, sixth-best in the league.

2) Taking care of the ball.
At just 11.4 turnovers per game, New Orleans is the NBA’s third-most careful offensive team. As a result, the Hornets get relatively more shots in a game than their opponents. Of course, Chris Paul has a lot to do with this. One other stat that demonstrates New Orleans’ excellent floor game is its 1.89 assist-to-turnover ratio, No. 4 in the league behind only Toronto, Detroit and Phoenix. It’s no coincidence that those teams are led by heady point guards Jose Calderon, Chauncey Billups and Steve Nash, respectively.

3) Free-throw shooting.
This skill never makes the highlight shows – when was the last time you saw footage of a free throw on SportsCenter, other than a game-winner? – but over the course of a long 82-game NBA season, it can be a huge factor. New Orleans has actually dipped somewhat in the league statistics recently, now ranking 10th as a team, after residing in the top five early in the regular season.

However, the Hornets are somewhat top-heavy in this department, which is actually a good thing in close games, because it means they can rely on several outstanding free throwers when the outcome is at stake. Despite a couple games where he’s missed key late tosses, including Tuesday at Orlando, Chris Paul is shooting 85.2 percent from the stripe. Peja Stojakovic’s 92.8 percent is one of the best rates you’ll ever see. Jannero Pargo is shooting a career-best 88.9 percent, while David West is at 84.3 percent, a particularly outstanding rate for his position of power forward. In general, big guys don’t show free throws as well as guards, another reason why West has become a unique player.

4) Three-point shooting.
It’s debatable whether this category can be included on the “overlooked” list – I’m pretty sure most opponents are aware by now of the Hornets’ array of dangerous three-point shooters, headed by Peja Stojakovic. Still, as number-crunchers such as ESPN.com’s John Hollinger have proven, three-point shooting is often an underrated factor to team success. If a team shoots 33 percent from the three-point line (to use an example, 4-for-12), it is equivalent to shooting 50 percent from two-point range (example: 6-for-12). Both of those scenarios equal 12 points.

Based on this math, Stojakovic (45.6 percent on treys), Morris Peterson (39.1) and Chris Paul (36.8) have each added value to the team’s offensive production by shooting above the league average of roughly 36 percent. In limited attempts, Bonzi Wells (4-for-8 from the arc as a Hornet) and Julian Wright (6-for-14) have also recently contributed.

5) Blog question of the night: Which player deserves the backup center role?
We’re 74 games into the season, but the minutes behind Tyson Chandler at the center position appear to still be up for grabs. Melvin Ely, Hilton Armstrong and Chris Andersen have each been given chances to solidify the role at various stages of the season, yet none have cemented the job. Whom do you believe should be Chandler’s primary backup during the playoffs?



Hornets rise to No. 1 in Sporting News poll


Time for our weekly glance at where national media entities rank the Hornets among the 30 NBA teams. Comments are from the respective websites:

SportingNews.com (1st, up four spots from 5th the previous week): “If in October you predicted the Hornets would be leading the Power Poll on March 28, please share with us the secret to your analytical magic. From what the Poll remembers – admittedly, its memory is fading with age – no one had the Hornets finishing ahead of any team in its own division except the Grizzlies.

But the Hornets are No. 1 in the entire league. And don't whine for even a second that they don't deserve to be. Check their credentials: They are back to first in the incredibly rugged and tight Western Conference. They are 10-3 in March. Their latest five-game winning streak includes victories over the Celtics, Rockets and Cavaliers. Their point guard, Chris Paul, has arguably been the best in the league since the All-Star break: 24.3 points, a league-best 12.5 assists, a league-best 3.1 steals, 5.8 assist-to-turnover ratio, and 53.9 field-goal percentage. Paul could make the Poll's Top 10 all by himself. But like many, the Poll remains unconvinced the Hornets will win the title or even be No. 1 come April 16 (stubbornness comes with age, too, doesn't it?). Heck, they might not be No. 1 on Saturday morning after playing at No. 2 Boston on Friday night. Eight of their final 12 games are on the road, and the Lakers, Rockets and Spurs are just one game back in the West. But for now, As good as Paul has been, he has had plenty of help from David West, especially lately (30.7 ppg in past three games).

SI.com (2nd, same as previous week): “They bounced back from that defeat in Boston by spanking the Raptors on Sunday in Morris Peterson’s return to Toronto. Mo Pete finished with eight points (complementing Chris Paul's 20 points and 16 assists) as they won for sixth time in seven outings and reached the 50-win plateau for the first time since 1997-98.”

ESPN.com (2nd, same as previous week): “Since they were inexplicably swept for the season by Washington on March 2, Paul and his Hornets are a mere 11-3 ... and the only losses were at Boston, at Detroit and at Houston during the Rockets' 22-game win streak.”

Dime Magazine (2nd, same as previous week): “In his first four games back, Chris Andersen has averaged less than a point, less than a rebound and less than a block in only about seven minutes per night. So far his most memorable moments include getting crammed on by Chris Bosh, then nearly shook out of his headband by LeBron. For that kind of production, wouldn’t it have made more sense for the Hornets to sign a less-risky veteran? What’s Tony Massenburg doing these days?”

NBA.com (3rd, down 1 spot): "Chris Paul is certainly deserving of the MVP love (I've got him and KG as my top two right now), but let's not dismiss the impact of David West this year. His game-winner in Cleveland on Wednesday and 24 points in the first half in Toronto on Sunday have helped the Hornets start their six-game trip 3-1 and hold on to the top spot in the West."

CBS Sportsline (4th, same as previous week): “After sitting five times in a seven-game span, David West is healthy again and averaging 26.8 points in the past six games.”