It's time for one last look at the 2007-2008 New Orleans Hornets. Over the next few weeks, I'll be going over, player by player, how the team fared this year from a statistical standpoint. But for now, it's time to look at the big picture.
In the beginning...
... there was darkness. Not necessarily because of the players themselves, but there was darkness. Ignorance of what the season would bring in terms of their home- "No one knows for sure what sort of support awaits the Hornets in their full-time return to the Crescent City." Ignorance of whether various past injuries would rear up again- "[Peja] can hit 30-footers in his sleep … but not in traction." And of course, fear of the bigger Western powers- "[New Orleans]... was impressive. Problem is, the rest of the division got better this year." Early season attendance reflected this; after 15,188 showed for the season opener, attendance wouldn't exceed that for nearly two entire months. A mere 8,302 showed up to see the Hornets wallop the Sixers by 19. Therein lay the one constant, though- New Orleans was playing some stellar basketball.
CP3 with 21 Dimes
Even some Lakers' fans couldn't stop raving about Chris Paul on this November night. It was the first sign that the CP3-Peja combination could lead to something special and that this team was headed places. Paul turned in 19 points along with his franchise record 21 assists, all with just 2 turnovers. Stojakovic, recipient of many of those dimes, hit a franchise record 10 trifectas. "Chris Paul, he's a fantastic player. He's really something," said the man CP would eventually tangle with down the stretch of an intense MVP race. Watch the assist madness. Then watch Peja ride the downtown express.
The Dallas Game
I know many consider the Cavs game the turning point of the year as far as attendance and such things go. I consider the Dallas game the biggest turning point as far as getting fans on the bandwagon, and generally creating the feeling that this team was here to stay. It was the 18th game of the year, and the Hornets were 11-6. But up until that point, the team lacked a win against a top tier opponent, a win they could point to and say "There! Ha! Told you we're good!" Dallas was it, and the AP recap summed up how Hornets' fans felt about the win: "The New Orleans Hornets' tireless, scrappy effort to put eight years of losing to the Dallas Mavericks behind them came down to one shot -- and Peja Stojakovic nailed it."
Tireless and scrappy indeed. The victory reflected CP's offseason proclamation of "Playoffs with no excuses." No blaming injuries, or bad luck for missing the playoffs a third straight year (for him). Everyone and their pet okapi knew the Hornets would be looking for a Peja 3 to tie the game. That didn't deter Byron Scott from drawing up a play for the best shooter on the floor. The scheme worked to perfection with Predrag getting free in his favorite spot on the floor. Watch the video. Remember the awesomeness of Bob Licht's call (Did someone say Peja was the first option?!?) Then store this game in your memory banks as the night the Hornets' dynasty was born.
Paul Double Trouble Versus Memphis
On December 7th, CP3 established a career high in points, dropping 43 on the Memphis Grizzlies. Just a couple weeks later, he poured in 40 against the same team. These two games were the perfect complement to his 21 assist night. Not only could he pass the ball like no other, he could put up the big scoring numbers like the Deron Williamses and Baron Davises of the world. While we fans already knew his greatness, the pair of games validated him to a media that was and still is obsessed with individual scoring.
The first game was a throwback to the past, as we witnessed David West make the clutch jumpers he had become known for in his early years. The overtime game solidified an NBA record streak of OT wins the Hornets would go on (and actually still are on). Most importantly, we were introduced to the Chris Paul "We're not losing this game" face. With his shooters in the dumps, CP3 made sure to take over the scoring load and will his team to the victory; we'd see this again and again as the season went on- the Knicks game, the Bulls game, and on and on. Chris Paul's Career Night.
In the Middle...
... it happened. Somewhere between the beginning and the end, the media and the fans both began to take note. This team was really, really good. It all came together as the old year wound down, and on the night the defending Eastern Conference champs visited. "The 17,623 fans who showed up perhaps noticed there was something else worth watching. Namely, their own team," noted the Associated Press. " With five W's in a row by an average of 18 points, Paul's Hornets have tied the best 30-game start in club history. So we presume that the schedule makers are already resolving to get him on national TV more in 2008," declared Marc Stein. The League Pass Legends- Chris Paul and David West- were finally beginning to get some well-deserved attention. Which brings us to...
The Cleveland game was one of his most stellar outings of the year, but it wasn't his first, nor was it his last. Prior to defeating the LeBrons, DX had already put up 40, 27, and 34 on the year. He followed the Cavs game with a 33 point night versus Toronto. Try 29 the game after that. They were all part of a 7 game 20+ stretch. He put up 26, 28, and 32 a few nights down the road. It was easy to say this was the same, underrated David West we'd seen for a couple years now. But this wasn't.
DX raised his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) from 41 to nearly 44% on his jumpshots. He was finishing plays strong down low, upping his dunk percentage from 2% to 5%. There was an aggressiveness about him his prior campaigns lacked. Sure, he had led the team in scoring the last two years. This year, carrying scoring responsibilities meant so much more. West was shooting the ball almost two more times per game than the year before. Western Conference teams took note of the Hornets and tried to shut them down. Fantastic nicknames for the PF were aplenty. In January, he ripped the Spurs for 32 on 15-19. And yet, his best was still to come.
The Emergence of TC aka the Ceiling Fan Repair Man
It's too easy to write off Tyson Chandler's season as Chris Paul's doing. CP3 definitely contributed. To say Tyson would be nothing without CP, though, is to disrespect the amount of work Chandler put into his game this year. For starters, the man cut his turnover rate from 18.5% to a career best 15.6%. To make such a huge improvement seven years into a career is a monumental task. TC led the NBA in offensive rebounding for the second straight year even with opponents keying in on him due to his teammates' inability to OREB. And of course, he improved his free throw stroke by nearly 70 points.
I put the "emergence of TC" in the middle section, because he played perhaps his best game of the year at Golden State on January 6th. 22 points, 22 boards, 8 OREB's. This was his defining moment, the night on which he could not be stopped. Oh, and TC pulled off the Swagger of the Season (after connecting on the best CP-TC alley-oop of the year). I remember NBA.com had a Tyson-specific video package for this game, but I guess it's been removed. You'll have to settle for game highlights instead. But don't worry, you can still catch the Swagger!
A recurring theme of the '07-'08 campaign was the Hornets defeating the Suns, and Chris Paul dominating Steve Nash. New Orleans defeated the Marion version of the Suns, the Shaq version of the Suns, and the Marion-Shaq-less version at least once. The season series (4-0 New O) was symbolic of the best PG crown being passed from Nash to Paul and a spot among the Western elite being passed from the Suns to the Hornets.
Along the way, we saw the Chris Paul Show in full effect: 44 assists versus 4 turnovers. 42 points in one game. 15 assists in another. 8 steals in one game. 4 made threes in another. It was a good matchup for the rest of the Hornets too. We saw Peja nail a difficult game winner in double overtime, every starter score at least 19 points in one game in Phoenix, Pargo total 63 points in the series, and even Rasual Butler's best game of the year (4-6 from three). It's hard to say whether the guys had more fun playing Memphis or Phoenix.
Recognition At Last
With the wins freely flowing, the accolades soon followed.
The Stretch Run...
As the All-Star Break came and passed, many were thinking it but few said it. When was this Hornets team going to fade? Yeah, yeah, they'd had a good run. Now it was time for the big boys to reclaim their turf. Analysts were still picking Golden State to make the playoffs over the Hornets. Quoth M. Stein, "Even if it's not really the case, whispers are bound to circulate anew that the Hornets are about to make their annual stretch-run fade..." Teams began swinging blockbuster trades at a moment's notice. Those that found the KG to Beantown deal a little, ahem, suspicious, blew a gasket when P. Gasol went to L.A. for Kwame Brown and a bag of pita chips. Shawn Marion moved from the desert to the beach, enabling the Space Cadet to come down to earth in the form of Big Cactus. Ashton Kutcher moved to Salt Lake. Jason Kidd returned to Big D. Kurt Thomas moved to San Antonio. It was enough to make your head spin. The Hornets came out of the break getting clobbered by Houston. They proceeded to lose to the Spurs. Then came the the Washington home and away...
DeShawn Takes No Prisoners, the Hornets Take No Wins
Other than the ugly Utah losses, these two games were possibly the lowest points of the season. The Hornets significantly outshot and outrebounded the Wizards in Game One, only to make multiple boneheaded mistakes. CP and DX combined for 9 turns. Peja went 4-16. Nobody could guard DeShawn Stevenson, who scored 33 and buried the game winning trifecta as time expired. I, like most Hornet fans, was disgusted at the end of the game. It was our third straight loss in a game we needed to have in the competitive West. DX simply wasn't aggressive enough (11 FGA), and changes had to be made. At the time, I felt it was a good thing that New Orleans played Washington again the next week. The guys would be mad and itching for revenge. Right?
Unfortunately, no. The Caron Butler-less, Gilbert Arenas-less Wizards put a 17 point beat down on the Hornets. We were outhustled- barely a 65% DREB rate, fouled too much- Washington took 31 free throws, and turned the ball over far too often- 18% TOR. CP and DX combined for 10 turns this time. All in all, this wasn't how a playoff contender responded to a tough loss. Watch it if you so dare.
Houston Takes B-Jax, the Hornets Take James and Wells
The trade actually took place before the Washington games, before the three game losing stretch. Nobody really expected much out of James- he was to be the insurance man sitting behind Pargo and CP3. Wells, though, had higher expectations- he was to be the tough guy that committed the hard fouls, gave our bench some punch, and played physical against the Spurs of the world. His first few games with us were flat-out awful. 2 points (1-7) in a loss against the Spurs. 5 points (2-6) in the 1st Wizards loss. 2 points (1-3) in the 2nd Wizards loss. He missed four or five games due to what the team deemed "injury," but what seemed like Byron's dog house. He failed to bring proper game attire to one contest, and was banished to the locker room.
Wells snapped out of the funk in style. His 8 and 7 in March wins against S.A. and L.A. were only preliminary signs of him heating up. He delivered 19 against Chicago, 25 against Houston, 12 against Boston, all in a row, all wins. He scored 6 or more in 17 straight games. That doesn't sound too impressive, but given the sorry state of our bench, it wasn't just impressive. It was essential. Bonzi's March is the reason I can forgive him for his subpar Spurs' series. Obviously, his disappearance against San Antonio will be what fans and analysts remember in the offseason. I'm not advocating bringing him back, but without Wells in that crucial stretch of the season, there's a good chance this team doesn't gain home court advantage for its first two rounds. Bonzi impacted this team far more than Bobby Jackson ever could, and based solely on that, Jeff Bower needs to be commended for pulling the trigger.
Flight 32 Cleared for Take-Off
Ironically enough, the acquisition of Wells coincided with the emergence of rookie Julian Wright. Based off the second half of the season alone, I think it's safe to say that we got the steal of the 2007 NBA Draft. The kid showed he could play fantastic defense. I took this video of him forcing Ginobili right during an S.A. game. We found he could dunk like few others. This YouTube video captures some of his college exploits. (As a side note: one of the arenas shown is the Hornets' home floor in OKC). Wright showed signs of a potentially deadly midrange game, connecting on 42% of his jumpshots. Had he played all year, he could've contended for ROY honors. Finally, there's the thing I mention to every person that watches a Hornets game with me- Julian Wright's game is eerily similar to a young Kobe Bryant's.
The Boston Game
Ah, the Boston Game. The Boston Game was the second half version of the Dallas Game. Hornets' fans had recently been infuriated by Rafer Alston's "David West is no Superstar" comments, and this game refuted such allegations. Boston had successfully navigated the Texas Triangle, but they weren't messing with Louisiana. They'd messed with the West, but they couldn't mess with West. DX poured in 37 points with Paul taking a back seat (19 and 7). Bonzi Wells and Jannero Pargo combined for 27 points with Wells making 8 thefts off the bench. The Hornets hung 113 points on the best defense in the league. A season high 18,250 showed up to watch New Orleans trounce Boston. Watch it again.
"MVP! MVP! MVP!"
To the people that had watched Chris Paul play all year, his MVP candidacy was a foregone conclusion. Virtually every statistic pointed to him as the #1 or #2 best player in the league with a small forward who had drawn comparisons to MJ throughout his career. And yet, somehow, inexplicably, Kobe Bryant snuck into the conversation. Well, "snuck" is probably a bad word. KB24 was the front-runner throughout the season, despite putting up his worst season in three years. He now had a terrific defensive team behind him, the services of a top-flight PF, and "oh look! He's passing the ball." That last thing wasn't exactly true either, as Mr. MVP registered his lowest AST% since 2001.
On the other hand, many analysts couldn't wrap their minds around the fact that CP was having probably the greatest season by any point guard ever. Better than Magic, better than Oscar, better than Stockton. Bloggers understood CP's year, given the Blogger MVP Voting and our successful CP Blog Day on his 23rd birthday. Mainstream media, however, simply couldn't. Kobe ended up winning the MVP in a blowout, KG won the DPOY, and the two best players of the year (CP and LBJ) walked away empty handed. Was it fair? No. Was it expected? Yes. At the end of the day, Hornets' fans understood better than anyone else what Chris Paul did not only for his team, but for the city of New Orleans.
In the End...
... there was light, even if there wasn't enough of it. The Hornets turned away Dallas handily before losing to the defending champs but, statistically speaking, an inferior team. In sum, I couldn't have asked for a better season. Everybody stayed healthy. Chris Paul played out of his mind. David West, ditto. Byron Scott was honored with the Coach of the Year award. Jeff Bower proved willing to take a risk to better the team. Numerous sports news networks- most of which shunned the Hornets all year long- jumped on the New Orleans bandwagon. Our lottery pick proved a return to the good drafting days of B-Davis, CP, DX, et al. The fans embraced the team, making George Shinn's "out-clause" virtually moot.
The next days, weeks, and months will see question after question- who to cut? who to keep? who to sign? There will be many long playoff runs to come. If you're a believer like me, there will be multiple championship trophies to look forward to. But for now, let's take one last chance to remember a team that gave us so much to cheer about. One final look at the year when it all started. One closing thank you to the 2007-2008 New Orleans Hornets.