The New Orleans Hornets are no longer a team on the rise. They are a team that has risen.
Though it has been only two seasons since the Hornets were in the lottery and only four since they lost 64 games, they are now one of a few teams that have a legit chance to win the 2009 NBA Championship. Prodigies of the NBA, the Hornets have gone from freshmen to seniors faster than Doogie Howser.
They've followed the ascension of their point guard, Chris Paul, from Rookie of the Year to MVP runner-up, adding complementary pieces along the way to form a balanced squad that is strong on both ends of the floor. The Hornets ranked fifth offensively and eighth defensively when it comes to points (scored or allowed) per possession last season.
That propelled them to a 56-26 record and a trip to the Conference Semifinals, where they had the defending champs on the ropes. But they couldn't put the Spurs away, losing Game 7 at home. Still, they were right there in the fourth quarter, with Jannero Pargo missing a shot that would have tied the game with a minute to go.
This summer, the Hornets' new addition was James Posey, who helps them in the leadership and experience departments, where they were lacking in that Game 7. Posey is coming off his second NBA title, providing big shots and big stops for the Celtics. The Hornets may have overpaid for his services (he'll be 35 in the last year of his deal), but the acquisition was a clear sign that GM Jeff Bower believes his team is a title contender.
And why not?
In Paul, they've got the best point guard (and one of the three or four best players) in the league. In David West, they've got a go-to low post force. In Tyson Chandler, they've got a big man to clean up the boards and patrol the paint. In Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson, they have shooters to keep defenses honest.
Of course, after Posey, there are questions on the bench. Julian Wright showed promise last season and will certainly provide energy. But he's another wing. At the point and up front, Byron Scott may be grasping for straws when he needs a reserve (more on that below).
Fortunately, his starting lineup is as good as it gets in this league, his three best players are relatively young and Paul still has room to grow as a player. He's already drawing comparisons to the best point guards in NBA history and is only 23 years old. And while he's a media and fan favorite off the court, he's a fiery competitor on it. And he's got his eyes on the prize.
He was the runner-up for MVP last season and his stock is still rising considerably. More important, he believes that his supporting cast is capable of coming along with him.
"I'm a little biased," Paul said at media day, "but I think this team has what it takes to get to the next level."
Who can argue with him?
Nothing is guaranteed in this league. A team can show a world of promise one year and book a ticket to Secaucus the next in today's NBA. But by hitching their wagon to the star of Chris Paul, the Hornets are closer to their destination than they ever thought they'd be.
-- John Schuhmann