By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Hornets guards Chris Paul and Jannero Pargo were engaging in a post-practice game of H-O-R-S-E recently, when their ambition to raise the degree of difficulty made Coach Byron Scott shake his head and chuckle. Paul bounced shots off the top of the backboard. Pargo fired from behind the front-row seats at New Orleans Arena.
"That's a shame," Scott said, as the game dragged on as the shot attempts became more and more outlandish. Their teammates went from enthused to bored, and slowly started leaving the court.
Paul and Pargo appeared to settle for a draw, but as Paul walked through the tunnel toward the locker room, he decided to take one last shot. About 20 feet behind the basket, Paul slid left so that he could get a better angle and heaved the ball in the air. It splashed through the net to the amusement of the remaining spectators.
"That," Paul said beaming, "was easily the best shot that I've ever hit -- in my life!"
It may have been a lucky shot, but luck doesn't explain the Hornets' success this season. New Orleans (37-17) is tied with defending champion San Antonio for first place in the Southwest Division, has the most wins against Western Conference opponents (26) and also has the conference's best road record.
"The one thing we've been talking about, especially once we drafted C.P. three years ago, was trying to close the gap with Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio," forward David West said recently. "We feel that we've done that."
The Hornets have a very favorable schedule remaining, with 15 of their final 28 games against Eastern Conference teams. They are 11-4 against the East this season, with the Washington Wizards visiting tonight.
Paul, the all-star point guard, has justifiably received most of the attention, as he leads the Hornets in scoring and assists, and the league in steals. In his third season, Paul has the Hornets on pace to win 56 games, which would break the franchise record of 54, set in 1996-97, when the team played in Charlotte. "We were so blessed to be able to pick Chris Paul," Hornets owner George Shinn said. "Not only him, the fact that David West has come into his own. We were considering trading him [a few years ago]. Thank God we didn't. He's been playing like a Trojan. I couldn't be more proud of any team that I've had."
West, the longest-tenured player with the Hornets, has increased his scoring and rebounding averages through his first five seasons in the NBA. He joined Paul on the all-star team this month, and is one of just nine players in the league averaging at least 19 points and nine rebounds.
West and Paul have formed a dangerous trio with 7-foot-1 center Tyson Chandler, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft. He ranks fourth in the league in rebounding (12.3 per game). After failing to develop any semblance of an offensive game his first five seasons in Chicago, he is averaging a career-high 11.9 points in his second season with the Hornets. Many of his points have come as the result of lob passes from Paul. Paul and Chandler lead the league in alley-oops with (47).
"Those three guys have been relentless every single game," Scott said of Paul, Chandler and West. "If they continue the way they've been playing, and we continue to get the help we've been getting from the other guys, we should be tough to beat. There may be people waiting to see us fall on our face. It's not going to happen. "
When he isn't connecting with Chandler or setting up West, Paul can also kick the ball out to veteran shooter Peja Stojakovic, who ranks third in the league in three-point percentage (47.6) and three-pointers made (144). Stojakovic likens the Hornets to the high-scoring, free-flowing Sacramento Kings teams he played for in the early part of this decade. "It's similar basketball -- up and down," Stojakovic said. "We get along well on and off the floor. Always when you're winning, it's easy to have fun."
The Hornets didn't have much fun last season, as they dealt with serious injuries to most of their top players. Stojakovic missed 69 games with a bad back, West missed 30 with an elbow injury and Paul missed 18 with an ankle injury. They still finished with 39 wins and were in playoff contention until the final month.
With a talented and healthy team for the first time since he took over the Hornets, Scott has helped silence questions about his coaching acumen. His reputation took some hits after he led New Jersey to NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. The following season, he fell out with Jason Kidd and was fired after 42 games. He then won just 18 games his first season in New Orleans in 2004-05. Now, Scott is one of the leading candidates for coach of the year.
"Byron's been great," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's doing the same thing he did in New Jersey when he took them to the finals. He deserves a lot of credit."
The Hornets made a deal with Houston at the trade deadline to shore up their bench, adding Bonzi Wells and Mike James, but they won't get ahead of themselves. "We understand this can be short-lived. It's still a lot of season left," Paul said. "Once we get toward the end of the season and it's the same way, it'll be something to celebrate."
Paul added that the team will have to stay healthy the rest of the season, and then he paused to knock on his wooden locker.
A little luck can't hurt.