Sunday, December 9, 2007

Opposing View: Dec. 9 at New Orleans

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Jim Eichenhofer does a great job of covering New Orleans for and answered our five questions. I returned the favor, answering five questions on the Sonics. Also see Jim's preview of today's game. In addition, see the fine blog for more on the Hornets.

What is the mood around the Hornets given their strong start?
The team is very encouraged by the way the season has started. The Hornets essentially had to incorporate two new starters into their lineup this season, shooting guard Morris Peterson and small forward Peja Stojakovic. Peterson signed as a free agent from Toronto, while Stojakovic was on the roster last season, but missed the final 69 games due to a back injury. If you add in a couple new pieces off the bench, most people didn’t expect New Orleans to start so quickly, but a 9-2 start was the best-ever in franchise history. On the flip side, right now we’re awaiting word on the injury status of both players, who left Friday’s game vs. Memphis early. Peterson (strained back muscle) and Stojakovic (strained groin muscle) were critical to the team’s impressive November.

How good is Chris Paul? How good can he become?
Paul has drawn rave reviews throughout his three-year career for his all-around play, but there was one part of his game that had seemed to lag a little bit. His perimeter shooting has been questioned, especially after he shot just 28 percent from the three-point line as a rookie. Well, I’m sure SuperSonics fans who watched SportsCenter on Friday saw what Chris did against the Grizzlies: He poured in a career-high 43 points, including a career-best five three-pointers on seven attempts. Paul scored 29 points after halftime in what was easily the best offensive game as a pro.

He was already one of the best passing point guards in the league, but he’s now shown an even greater ability to take over games offensively when warranted. With Peterson and Stojakovic out, he put the game on his shoulders. He appears to be on his way to an All-Star season and if you look at his shooting percentages, he has been almost Steve Nash-like, at 48 percent from the field, 42 percent from three-point range and 92 percent from the foul line.

What kind of difference has a healthy Stojakovic made?
He and Peterson have given Paul two more options to rely on in the halfcourt offense. The Hornets lost several close games in 2006-07 on the road when they came up empty during crunch time and struggled to find a reliable shooter. This season, Stojakovic has already made a game-saving three-pointer vs. Dallas and connected on a franchise-record 10 three-pointers in a victory at the Lakers. New Orleans ranked 22nd in the league in three-pointers made last season, but is up to seventh this season.

The Hornets defense hasn't necessarily gotten a lot of attention, but ranks in the NBA's top five. What's the key to the D?
I think it starts with Tyson Chandler, who uses his 7-foot-1 frame and wingspan to alter and block shots on a regular basis. Several of our guards have remarked that it’s much easier to play defense when they know they have Tyson watching their backs. Two seasons ago, prior to Chandler’s arrival, the Hornets had no legitimate shot-blockers, which was evident when opposing teams got to the basket with little resistance. Plus, Paul has been very disruptive, leading the league in steals per game and steals per 48 minutes.

From a team standpoint, the Hornets seem to have quickly meshed and have rotated very well to open shooters.

What don't we know but should about the Hornets?
That this is a quality group of guys who handled the forced relocation of the team to Oklahoma City over incredibly well. They also continue to “get it” in terms of understanding their role in helping the city of New Orleans revitalize itself two years after Hurricane Katrina.

As an organization, we have devoted an extraordinary amount of time to making our full-time return to New Orleans a successful one, including participating in a staggering number of community events and “grassroots marketing” initiatives that I believe may be unprecedented in the NBA. The great thing is, as we try to re-establish ourselves in the Big Easy, we have a group of players who are very good-natured and down-to-earth people. Add that to the fact that the club is off to a 13-7 start, and we feel there are a lot of reasons to like this team.