What a difference a year makes. Two seasons ago this team was an injured wreck, with Chris Paul, David West and Peja Stojakovic missing a combined 117 games and the team missing the post-season by three games. There was a benefit to that time missed though, and that was Tyson Chandler was relied on to be the team's anchor when those guys were all out and it did wonders to expand not only his reliability but his confidence. So when everyone was healthy last season they had a thoroughly effective attack that saw the team blitz into the Playoffs and right through Dallas before eventually succumbing to San Antonio in seven games. Going into this season the team is now regarded as one of the league's favorites with a shot at making it all the way through the Western Conference and into the Finals.
Before one starts paving that road with gold, however, there are still some issues to be addressed on this still-developing roster. The first is the least controllable and that's health. While it's often foolhardy to try and predict injuries or other ailments, before last season this was a team that had no shortage of injuries to deal with. In the three seasons before '07-'08 West averaged just 52 games and Stojakovic just 28. If either of those two go down for any stretch of time this season it could put a great strain on New Orleans' thin bench.
It's not that the bench is unusable in such a scenario, but outside of James Posey and Hilton Armstrong there isn't a ton of proven reliability there. Devin Brown is a journeyman of questionable consistency, Melvin Ely is a still-raw-but-developing big and Julian Wright certainly showed flashes last year in his rookie season, but is that enough? More than anything, though, the loss of Jannero Pargo to European powerhouse Dynamo Moscow is going to send reverberations throughout this roster. He was not only their best and most reliable sixth-man last year, but he was able to create offense for the team when their starters sat down and he allowed the team to rest Paul without a dramatic fall-off in production. While he wasn't the playmaker Paul is, he was able to keep the offense humming while Paul was on the bench. Now there is no player on the second unit who can be counted on to score consistently and there isn't even a guaranteed backup point guard with Mike James having fallen off miserably since leaving Toronto and Devin Brown being a shooting guard with some passing ability and court vision.
The hope, then, is that the team stays healthy enough to not have to overextend the bench and that James Posey provides enough of a spark to keep the reserve unit humming. It's tough to see, though, because as great as Posey is as a defender - which is very great - he's a marginal offensive talent that needs to be set-up and is far better and launching threes than attacking the rim or pulling up or even passing off of the dribble. He's a welcome addition to any club, but it's uncertain if he puts this team over the top, especially in light of them losing Pargo. It may have been a relatively anonymous departure to the majority of NBA fans, but those in New Orleans know exactly what they have lost.
Keep in mind, though, that this is only meant to serve as fodder for the brain as it applies to this team looking to win it all this year. New Orleans is a wonderful, multi-faceted team that is led by one of, if not the, best point guard in the NBA. They run a deadly motion offense that allows Paul to pick apart opposing teams with his penetration and passing skills while the rest of the team cuts and screens off of the ball to free up options for Paul's passes. Chandler and West are afforded the opportunity to play exactly where they are most effective (low and high post, respectively) while Stojakovic and Morris Peterson are available to knock down open threes when the defenses collapse in the paint.
New Orleans probably should be a top-four Western team this season if they can stay healthy and there is no reason to expect that they can't advance a round or two in the Playoffs. However, another meeting with San Antonio or a matchup with the Lakers and they are going to have to play above their heads to get out of the series. They are about a year away from being title contenders but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be shooting for it now.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - Chris Paul
Chris Paul is so good it's distracting. He makes it hard to watch a basketball game because all one wants to do it watch him. The way he sees the floor and makes decisions evokes images of some of guys like Cousey, Isiah and Archibald. He single-handedly picks apart opposing defenses and mesmerizes the viewer while doing it. The trick for Paul now is to not get caught up in the expectations and pressures applied to guys with his talent. For him to belong on a list of players like those above he's going to have to keep producing and keep winning, but to anyone watching the way that Paul plays the game each night it's pretty easy to see that he has his own drive for producing and winning that goes above simple stardom and that is what could ultimately make him one of the greats.
SG - Morris Peterson
Some feel that perhaps James Posey should be slotted here, but if he is then the bench becomes even thinner and Peterson, while not statistically impressive, played his role quite nicely in New Orleans last year. Peterson is at his best when he's not called upon to do too much. As him to produce big numbers each night and you'll be disappointed by his inconstancy. Ask him to play some defense while knocking down open threes and you've got the right man for the job. Peterson only managed a meager 41.7% shooting last year but he nailed 39.4% from behind the arc. His percentages improved in the Playoffs and for a role player in your starting lineup that's really all you can ask for.
SF - Peja Stojakovic
Peja is the perfect weapon for a guy like Paul. Paul is a point guard who likes to barrel into the paint and suck in defenses and Peja is a guy who likes to knock down open threes (44% last season). Peja is also a solid rebounder at his position and like Peterson saw his production and percentages increase in the post-season; a nice development for a player who has been notoriously anti-clutch throughout his career. Health is going to be a concern going into any season for a team with Peja in their ranks but, as they say, 'if he can stay healthy…' he's the perfect weapon at the three for this team.
PF - David West
West is a thoroughly fascinating player. He's not nearly as skilled or multifaceted as the other players who put up his kind of numbers (20.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg) but he is so hyper-aware of what his skills are and how to maximize them that he catapults himself into the forefront of NBA power forwards - even earning an All-Star berth last season. So much emphasis is put on what players cannot do these days, about how once they've worked out one part of their game it becomes about what other parts can they fix, that the league has forgotten how useful a player like West is. He just knows what he needs to do at his position on his team to be successful. He understands himself and his skills and he just gets the most out of himself every game. In an era where so many guys are criticized for underutilizing their prodigious gifts it's a treat to see a player who so diligently maximizes his.
C - Tyson Chandler
There have been some great alley-oop combos in the last few years in the NBA; from Damon and Rasheed to Kidd and Kenyon to Nash and Amare, but perhaps none are as effective as Paul and Chandler. That is because not only is the Paul-to-Chandler alley-oop successful around 90% of the time but it's also a design to get two-points first and be flashy second. Head Coach Byron Scott was also the man in charge of the Kidd and Kenyon combo and like those two Paul and Chandler simply 'get' each other on the court. For them an alley-oop is as routine a play as a pick-and-roll and for the Hornets it's equally efficient. Having played for the Showtime Lakers Scott understands how sometimes the flashy plays can be the most useful if you have the personnel to pull it off. Even with all of his remarkable production as a Hornet, Chandler's ability to grab the ball inches from the basket and place in inside might be his most valuable asset.