By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Oct 13 2010 2:26PM
Maybe it's only fitting that Emeka Okafor is once more trying to put his best foot forward with the Hornets. After all, last year it was a sprained right big toe that tripped him up from the very start.
"I had to play catch-up in the beginning," he said. "And, well, it was the kind of season where I never really caught up."
Neither, of course, did the Hornets. After their 3-6 start got coach Byron Scott fired, their 37-45 finish brought in an entirely new front office.
After rookie general manager Dell Demps and rookie coach Monty Williams spent this summer trying to put out the fires surrounding Chris Paul, they came into training camp attempting to re-light a defensive spark and that put the focus back onto Okafor.
"He's the starting center, literally the man in the middle, so it's only natural that when people say we have to improve our defense that people would look at Emeka," Williams said. "Your big man is the last line of defense and the team didn't go a very good job last season."
The Hornets tied for a very mediocre 21st in the NBA, giving up 102.7 points per game and ranked a miserable 28th in opponents' field goal percentage, surrendering buckets at a 48.3 percent clip, finishing ahead of only Golden State and New York, a couple of teams that rarely even pretended to be interested in defense.
Considering that the Hornets had swapped out the flamboyant but wildly erratic Tyson Chandler to bring Okafor to New Orleans to anchor their defense, Okafor caught some flak. His individual stats -- 10.4 points and nine rebounds per game -- were the lowest of his six-year NBA career.
"I don't feel that I have to especially prove anything to anybody," Okafor said. "There were a lot of things that happened last year. We had a coaching change. We had injuries. We lost our best player [Paul] for a lot of games ."
Yet from the time that Okafor had to stand forlornly on the sidelines at last year's camp in Lafayette, La. and just watch his teammates, there was always a sense that something was missing.
"I was in pretty good condition, so it didn't set me back condition-wise last year," Okafor said. "It was more about rhythm, learning the plays and getting familiar with my teammates and get out there and match my basketball sense with them.
"Coming to a new team, they already know the system and I don't know the system. I don't know terminology. I'm learning plays and how to run them. It wasn't the most ideal situation for me. This year I'm able to be out there and match my basketball sense and be in from the ground up."
Though they were chosen 1-2 in the 2004 NBA Draft, the gap between Dwight Howard and Okafor will always seem considerably wider, due to Howard's vastly superior offensive skills and his larger than life, outgoing Superman persona.
Okafor's strength has been his consistency and his rebounding ability. When healthy -- he's played all 82 games for three straight seasons -- Okafor has ranked in the top 10 in total rebounding percentage every season.
BasketballReference.com ranks Okafor as the fourth-most productive center in the league over the past four seasons, behind Howard, Al Horford and Marcus Camby and ahead of such notables as Yao Ming, Andrew Bynum, Joakim Noah and, yes, Chandler.
Yet the numbers that draw the most attention are the millions -- $11.8, $12.8, $13.8 and $14.8 -- and the four years remaining on Okafor's contract. The big salary left him open to trade speculation through the offseason, especially when the topic of Paul's unhappiness moved to the front burner.
"I never really put too much stock into anything," Okafor said. "I let things take their course. I never took anything personally. I took that situation the same. What was going to happen was going to happen.
"C.P. was going to do what he feels necessary. Whatever he felt he had to do, he did. And no offense was taken."
Chandler and Paul were good friends and their electrifying connections on lob passes for dunks were favorites of Hornets and sparked the team. While no one expected the same high-flying antics from Okafor, there was supposed to be an upgrade in the defense that never came.
Part of the problem was that power forward David West clearly sagged in his defense and the Hornets' guards, especially in Paul's absence, did not do a good job of keeping opponents from driving into the paint.
"I watched the film and Emeka was pretty good on defense," Williams said. "It's not always the big man's fault when the other team gets to the rim."
Nevertheless, Okafor, traditionally a very good shot blocker, has to be more assertive in the low post and force opponents to think twice about penetrating into the lane.
"I'm glad that we're emphasizing defense. I like Monty's approach," Okafor said. "He's very systematic. He's very organized. He's building trust in everybody. You need trust in one another to play solid team defense.
"Every new season is a clean start. Even if you have the exact same roster, it begins all over with the records going back to zero. But with the new personnel here from coaches to GMs -- and we're even in the process of new ownership -- there's a new vibe and a chance for a lot of things to begin again."
For Okafor, it's another chance to make a good first impression.
1. START FAST
After last season's disappointment, the Hornets need to win early to set a good feeling for Chris Paul and keep the wolves from the door.
2. DEFENSE! DEFENSE! DEFENSE!
After having an open-door policy in the lane last season, the Hornets have to stop opponents from getting to the rim.
3. RUN THE FLOOR
The Hornets need to push the tempo to take advantage of newcomer Trevor Ariza's scoring ability out in the open court.
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LAST YEAR: 37-45, 5th in Southwest
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2009-10 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2009-10 Stats|
CHRIS PAUL, GUARD
18.7 PPG | 10.7 APG | 4.2 RPG
The best point guard in the league says he's healthy and happy and ready to lead the Hornets back into the playoff picture.
MARCO BELINELLI, GUARD
7.1 PPG | 1.3 APG | 38 3-PT%
Entering fourth NBA season, the Italian sharpshooter is still trying to find the comfort zone that made him a dead-eye in Europe.
TREVOR ARIZA, FORWARD
14.9 PPG | 5.6 RPG | 3.8 APG
He can run the floor like a gazelle to get easy baskets in transition, slash to the hoop and play solid defense on the perimeter.
DAVID WEST, FORWARD
19 PPG | 7.5 RPG | 50.5 FG%
The one-time Western Conference All-Star needs to get his mojo back at both ends of the floor to make the Hornets a playoff team again.
EMEKA OKAFOR, CENTER
10.4 PPG | 9 RPG | 1.6 BPG
He'll never be a big-time scorer in the middle, but needs to re-assert himself as a defensive force in middle of the lineup.
|Peja Stojakovic||6-10||229||F||Veteran shooter might be on last legs.|
|Marcus Thornton||6-4||205||G||Second-year guard can fill it up.|
|Willie Green||6-3||201||G||Valuable backup can play both guard spots.|
ADDED: Cole Aldrich, Mustafa Shakur, Jannero Pargo, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Quincy Pondexter, Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, Willie Green, Jason Smith
LOST: Morris Peterson, Cole Aldrich, Darren Collison, James Posey, Julian Wright, Darius Songaila, Craig Brackins
CHRIS PAUL, GUARD
Three seasons ago he was the runner-up in the MVP balloting behind Kobe Bryant and led the Hornets to the No. 2 seed in the West. Now he's coming off knee surgery and a summer of speculation about whether he wants to stay in New Orleans. It's his team and it's his time to lead the Hornets back.
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