November 4, 2010

The schedule didnt favor the Hornets. Theyve played four consecutive winning teams to start the season. Theyve played three playoff teams from the 2009-10 campaign. Theyve played two tough Southwest Division road games. They played all of this within the first eight days of the 2010-2011 season. Theyve played all of this with a first-year head coach steering the ship.

And theyve won a franchise-tying four straight season-opening games to start the Monty Williams-Dell Demps Era!

How did they accomplish this feat after skeptics predicted gloom and doom for this reconfigured (9 new players) Hornets roster? Theres no one answer any more than theres no one word to describe the fabulous first week of play for the men in Creole Blue. So lets compile the list and see how consistent this team is throughout the season at carrying out Montys Mantraa.k.a. No excuses.

I. DEFENSE (or BEE-FENCE for those who chant the chant @ the Hive)
The Hornets have held their first four opponents to an average of 93.7 points per game. That is the third-lowest total in the entire Western Conference and fourth overall in the Association. Williams has been preaching defense as the route to consistent play and, ultimately, the playoffs. Hes obviously onto something here. But, the Hornets arent just preventing the opposition from reaching 100 points. Theyre converting their takeaways into scores. During the winning streak they have produced 58 turnovers for 77 points. Thats 19.3 points per gamejust on the opponents turnovers! Trevor Arizas presence is already being felt on this team. His ability to defend key offensive personnel so far has allowed Williams to either zone or single cover the other four on the floor. This helps build confidence throughout the roster in terms of ability and desire to defend. Think back to Emeka Okafors help defense on Brandon Jennings in the closing moments of the opener against Milwaukee. Its a potential game-saving play that never appears in the box score. Or as assistant coach Michael Malone told CSTs Victor Howell at halftime of the Denver game, we need to defend without fouling to win the game in the second half The Hornets put the Nuggets to the line ONE TIME in the entire second half and not a single time in the fourth quarter. That theme was nearly duplicated @ Houston on Wednesday night when the Rockets visited the line once in the fourth quarter and just five times total in the second half!

I have this cool Halloween prop called Marcus the Carcass, basically a scary dead guy who looks like hes trying to rise from the grave with lights all around him. Well, in the preseason it seemed like this prop had actually overtaken my favorite Marcus (Thornton). The Hornets wildly successful rookie out of LSU shot 18% during the exhibition season. That is not a typo. He finished at 18% on 11-of-59 shooting from the field. Maybe Thornton was concentrating on defense and the new system Monty is putting in because once the regular season bell rang he shed the carcass and became The Point Per Minute Man once again. He has led the reserves in scoring in three of four victories, once again displaying his ability to slash to the bucket as well as bury deep jumpers. Willie Green is the #2 scorer off the bench and has been referred to as our greatest asset off the bench by Williams. His versatility is what makes Green so good in this system. He can guard point guards and shooting guards as well as play both of those positions. In his first 49 minutes of play this season he had exactly ONE turnover. The big men off the pine have also done a tremendous job of tag teaming for starters West and Okafor. Jason Smith gave the Hornets an enormous lift in Houston with a career high 14 point effort, while D.J. MBenga and Pops Mensah-Bonsu have not only been hard for me to pronounce but even more difficult for teams to score on. D.J. has six blocks in four games, while Pops has six rebounds in his first 19 minutes of action. Jerryd Bayless is still adjusting to his new team but has shown tremendous versatility and speed, and made three key baskets in the fourth quarter of the Bees most recent victory. Peja Stojakovic has been very subtle in his early season contributions. In the opener, he played just seven minutes but produced a key three off the bench (in a four point Hornets win). Against Denver he came in late in a close contest and produced a pair of clutch free throws to help ice the victory.

When I was asked prior to the start of this season how I thought this team would perform in light of all the changes my answer was easy. Better than most critics are predicting, because of two people: Chris Paul and David West.

I have been saying since the 07-08 season that any team with CP3 is going to be very good. Any team with Paul and West is going to be superb. What those two all stars bring to the table each night cannot be taught. They are talented, intelligent, team-oriented players. In two of the past three seasons they have led the Bees to an average of 52 wins per season. The aberration was last season when Paul missed 37 games due to injuries. Add the sharpshooting Marco Belinelli, cat-quick Trevor Ariza, and more consistent Emeka Okafor to the starting lineup and the Hornets may very well have the most underrated starting five in the western conference.

Granted, its still very early. But, Paul has already set a franchise record for assists in the opener (16), has already hit his first buzzer beater (against Denver), and has already taken over the fourth quarter twice in one week. Against Houston he scored 13 of his game-high 25 points in the final frame to ice the fourth win. As for West, he showed Milwaukee what being in the zone is all about with a lightening quick 10 point, 5-for-5 shooting, third quarter. DW has also become the 3rd all-time leading scorer in franchise history, and made over 56% of his shot during the season opening streak. Paul and West are the leaders of this team. Theyre a pair of stars in the prime of their NBA careers willing this new collaboration of talent to follow their professional lead. And, unlike so many multi-talented stars in major league sports today, they make the players around them better.

Monty Williams early season mantra, No excuses, has been taken to heart. The Hornets play hard, play defense, play smart, and so far have played to win. Fans are beginning to embrace this new philosophy as Dell Demps and Monty Williams begin the process of a culture change for this franchise.

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