What We Learned from Chris Paul's Absence

19 games into the season: we've fired a coach, hired a GM, hired a "fired" college coach, had the media call out our city as not befitting of our star player, been linked with a trade wherein we'd essentially give away our starting center for free, lost our best player "indefinitely," had our second best player utterly fail to step up in his absence, and seen a newly minted starter perform so poorly he no longer cracks the bench rotation. 

Even your average, full season gone horrifically wrong does not include such a plethora of pitfalls.

The Hornets started out the gate, stumbled, fell on their faces, and the race looked over just as it began. But as the dust finally settles, nobody is actually that far ahead. Yes, we're 12th in the conference, but the 8th place Spurs are a mere 2 games ahead. Two of the teams between us and the playoff chase are the Clippers and the Kings, which needs no further comment. The obvious parallel to two seasons ago is probably worth mentioning at this point, with the Hornets in possession of an injury ridden, but talented roster (2006-2007 and November 2009) and subsequent explosion with good health (2007-2008 and December-???? 2010).

There is reason to believe that not only has the nadir passed, but also that the team is better off for having lost Chris Paul to injury.

The "Ewing Theory" was one of those things that has a small cult following for years and years before it explodes and goes mainstream, not unlike the Rick Roll. If you've never heard of it, more information can be found here; at its essence, the Ewing Theory postulates that teams often perform well in the absence of a superstar because minutes or shots are allocated inefficiently with him on the floor. For a while there, it looked like possibly, maybe, potentially, such a thing was happening with Chris Paul. The team was playing decent ball against decent teams. After a while though, it became clear this was more a result of stellar play from M. Thornton and D. Collison. Still, the Ewing Theory contributes to the first lesson we learned:

Lesson #1: Off-the-ball movement is back.

Byron Scott's philosophies have often been described as Princeton-based; ironically, his New Orleans offenses were perhaps more bereft of off-ball motion than any other in the league. Too often, the gameplan latched on to a single successful play (see: Roll, Pick and). The primary offensive change under Bower has been the implementation of repeated off-ball cuts on every play. The loss of Chris Paul allowed the team to explore different types of movement in far more depth than otherwise possible. The acclimation of the Chris Paul Offense to this new, true Princeton style will be gradual (see: Game, Crappy Minnesota). But the end product will be "easier" assists for Chris Paul. As the team was previously constructed, a Chris Paul assist occured in essentially one way: (1) Chris Paul shakes man, (2) Chris Paul attracts second defender/causes teammate to become open, (3) Chris Paul passes to open teammate. With increased off the ball movement, steps 1 and 2 aren't necessary on every single play.

The additional bonus is that all the pieces are there for this to work. 99% of Peja Stojakovic's game is screen navigation. Marcus Thornton has been a revelation off the ball. David West is one of the more underrated passing big men in the league, a central asset to any motion offense.This all leads to..

Lesson #2: The Hornets have more than two competent players.

I know PER is more a catch-all statistic than anything else, but it comes in handy for this simple exercise. Recall that the league average PER is 15. Last year, the Hornets had exactly two players above league average: Chris Paul at 30.0 and David West at 18.9. The next closest player was Tyson Chandler at a woeful 13.4, and most of his offense was CP created anyway.

Now consider our 2007-2008 season. The number of league average or above players we had was much, much higher. There were Paul and West of course (28.3 and 19.9), there was a healthy Chandler (17.5), a healthy Peja (15.7), a pretty confident JuJu (15.4), and late-season, but competent contributor Bonzi Wells (15.1). That's six, compared to a mere two in our pathetic 08-09 campaign.

This year marks a return to 07-08 in this regard, and it's taken Paul's injury to show us this fact. We have Paul at a ridiculous 32.4, and while West has been poor, he's still been around league average at 15.5; Darren Collison is at 17.6, Emeka Okafor at 17.4, and Marcus Thornton at 15.2. Forget the numbers themselves for a second; they're unimportant. The take-home message is that we once more have players not named West and Paul that can create and finish plays. Balance has returned to this team, in large part due to a terrific draft, but it took an injury to open our eyes to it.

Lesson #3: This team, at long last, has a bench.

James Posey is the third, or even fourth, best player off our bench, and that's all that really needs to be said. I don't mean that as a shot at Posey; in fact, Posey probably is at his best when he's in that sort of supporting starter, but not really go-to bench player, role.

In Paul's absence, Thornton and Collison have both shown what they can contribute from the backcourt. Up front, Darius Songaila has proven he's still a league average player that can, as a bonus, stretch a defense. Between Ike Diogu's mysterious injury, Sean Marks' neck issues, and Hilton Armstrong's existence, there are still glaring holes up front. But the rest of the second unit is clicking right now, something the Byron Scott era never witnessed.

***

This team still has serious, serious work to do. The introduction of Tim Floyd hasn't improved the defense nearly the way I thought it would; the Hornets are only out-sucked defensively by Memphis and Golden State in the conference. Defensive rebounding and opponent eFG% are two areas New Orleans desperately needs to work on. The offense has its own issues. But as the dust settles, things don't look so awful any more. The team gets its best offensive and defensive player back in Paul. David West can only go up from here, and that applies to team defense too.

Almost 20 games into the year, the Hornets' season finally looks ready to begin.

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