Scott Has Hornets Playing Inspired Ball

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; 2:39 PM

With the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets exceeding the expectations of the city they left behind, the city in which they temporarily dwell, and people throughout the NBA (including the team's owner George Shinn), Coach Byron Scott could easily gloat. He could wag his finger in the face of those who criticized him on the way out of New Jersey for being too lazy and overmatched, and to those who privately giggled at his dismal 18-64 record in New Orleans last season.

But Scott keeps his feelings to himself -- and he isn't in the mood to accept pats on a back after leading his team to the sixth-best record in the Western Conference (28-23), and having already won 10 more games than last season. The Hornets, a team that was displaced last September because of Hurricane Katrina, are the most inspiring story as the NBA reaches the all-star break -- not the Detroit Pistons, the Los Angeles Clippers or the Amare Stoudemire-less Phoenix Suns. And while much of the credit has to go to the frontrunner for the league's rookie of the year award, Chris Paul, it's about time people started to take notice of the job Scott has done. "I don't know. Don't care, to be honest with you," Scott said when asked if people are finally beginning to recognize his abilities as a head coach. "I'm having fun. That's the bottom line. I'm enjoying these guys. I've got a young group of guys that play hard every night for me. It doesn't matter. The thing that matters to me is that these guys continue to learn and grow, continue to get better as a team."

Scott has been ridiculed perhaps more than any coach with two trips to the NBA Finals on his resume. While helping to turn around what used to be the mess called the New Jersey Nets, Scott certainly benefited from having Jason Kidd in his prime and relied heavily on the wisdom and hard work of his staff -- including Wizards Coach and former Nets assistant Eddie Jordan, who implemented the Princeton offense that was instrumental to their back-to-back Eastern Conference titles from 2002-03.

But Scott had to do something more than just show up in a nifty suit, pace along the sidelines and fold his arms, which some would have you believe is all he did in 3½ seasons with the Nets. Should the Hornets -- with a lineup of mostly young, unproven talent that doesn't intimidate anyone -- keep up this incredible pace and advance to the playoffs, that discussion should cease for awhile. He should also receive a few votes for NBA coach of the year. "I'm just happy he got the chance to redeem himself and show people that he can coach," said Hornets forward Aaron Williams, who played for Scott in New Jersey. "I think things in New Jersey kind of got blown out of proportion. It was like a snowball effect. Once somebody says one little thing, everybody takes it and runs with it, and makes it something that it really isn't."

Scott didn't do himself any favors last season when he took over a Hornets team that lost 19 of their first 20 games and became a league-wide laughingstock after years of being a perennial playoff team. In tight games, the Hornets had to rely on the likes of Dan Dickau and Lee Nailon, players who are barely playing for their teams this season. "I wouldn't say it was the roughest. I went through another rough one in New Jersey when we first started there as well," said Scott, who went 25-57 in his first season in New Jersey. "But last year, it was a lot of injuries, trades and everything involved. Our expectations obviously had to be lower. It's always frustrating to lose but it wasn't that frustrating."

The season was disastrous, to put it lightly, with injuries sidelining all-stars Baron Davis and Jamaal Magloire, who never hid their displeasure with Scott or being in New Orleans. Magloire missed almost all of last season with a broken finger and Davis missed most of the first half with an assortment of injuries, including a bad back and a bruised right Achilles. Davis didn't even train in New Orleans, staying back to workout in Los Angeles before he returned one game before the trade deadline -- just in time to get dealt to Golden State in exchange for Speedy Claxton, Dale Davis and first-round draft pick. Magloire was dealt in the offseason to the Milwaukee Bucks for Desmond Mason and another first-round pick.

Surprisingly, the Hornets have more wins than Davis's Warriors and Magloire's Bucks. The Hornets have benefited from those trades, but no move has had the impact of drafting Paul with the fourth pick last June. Paul is averaging 16.2 points, 7.7 assists and 5.6 rebounds this season and has given the Hornets and attitude on the floor that they lacked last season. "When we drafted him, we felt we had the best player in the draft. We had somebody we thought could come in and be an impact player. He's been more than we expected," Scott said. "He's one of those guys, just like football, when you tag franchise players, he's a franchise player. He's the face of the organization. He's fearless, a warrior, one of those guys you're just happy to have on your team."

The situation for Scott and the Hornets appeared helpless in September when Hurricane Katrina forced the team to seek refuge in Oklahoma City, with the New Orleans Arena unfit to host NBA games. The Hornets will play three games in New Orleans this season -- the first game will be March 8 against the Los Angeles Lakers -- but Oklahoma City has embraced the team, providing sellout crowds and a college-like atmosphere that has made Ford Center one of the toughest places to play. Scott said the adversity has helped his team forge a bond unlike any in the league. "I think with all of the negative things that happened to New Orleans, we had to rely on each other. This was a safe haven, a place where we could come and talk and get some work done."

In addition to Paul, the Hornets have also been aided by the emergence of third-year forward David West, who spent most of this first two seasons saddled behind Magloire before breaking out this season. West, who provided the game-winning basket in the Hornets' 97-96 win against the Wizards on Monday, is averaging a team-high 17 points and 7.8 rebounds and is also a candidate for the league's most improved player. In his 13th season, forward P.J. Brown, the last remnant of the Hornets' days in Charlotte, has been a steadying force on both ends of the floor. And, Speedy Claxton has been one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year.

"I never look at it and think, 'Man, I can't believe we're doing this good because we're professionals, just like other teams," Paul said. "I think we just have a bunch of different guys who really want to be here. Guys have bought into the system and we have confidence. Everybody is playing with confidence. I realize it's real. I think it can only get better."

Scott is pleased with the results just far. "When we got Chris, we knew we were going to be so much better as a basketball team and that was my main goal, to get these guys better," Scott said. "Did we know we'd be at this point at this particular stage of the season? No, we didn't. But again, the chemistry and the camaraderie in that locker room has helped those guys develop the kind of relationship that has allowed them to play as well as they have played. It's always good when you got guys who want to be here. I think it makes a much happier environment."

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