All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Jim Eichenhofer of Hornets.com helped build this format with his own "Rival Reports," and I answered some questions for their site while Jim was kind enough to return the favor. Also see Hornets.com's preview and be sure to check out the fine Hornets 24/7 blog.
This game kicks off a five-game homestand for the Hornets. How important is this stretch in the battle for playoff position in the tight Western Conference?
It’s important for several reasons. On paper, this five-game stretch includes four opponents with losing records. Although the Hornets have done an excellent job overall of beating the teams they “should” beat this season, they’ve had a couple surprising stumbles at home. On Nov. 26, New Orleans lost to Minnesota here – still the Timberwolves only road win of the season. A week earlier, the Hornets lost to Indiana. The Pacers are definitely no pushover, but they’re below .500.
Secondly, New Orleans is only 10-7 at home and needs to play better here, regardless of the opponent. At 25-12 overall, the Hornets have exceeded just about all outside expectations, but they need to establish more of a homecourt advantage. As everyone knows, you can’t be very successful in the NBA if you can’t take care of business at home. This group has not been to the playoffs yet, but if they qualify in 2008, they’re going to need to be a better home team to have a chance to advance.
Lastly, this stretch could be a memorable one for Byron Scott, who will coach the All-Star team if the Hornets finish with the best record in the Western Conference at the Feb. 3 cut-off date. It looks like Chris Paul will be in that game; I’d love to see Scott join him, especially since NBA All-Star Weekend is being held here in New Orleans.
How much has it helped the Hornets to have the bench step up the last couple of games?
The starting five has played so well this season that it has compensated for a lot of inconsistency from the bench. But I think everyone realizes that the starters can’t be expected to carry the load and play 40-plus minutes all season, so any contribution from the reserves is encouraging. Bobby Jackson, a Sixth Man of the Year winner with Sacramento, has had a below-average season by his standards, but went 9-for-9 from the field (7-for-7 on treys) vs. Miami on ESPN last week. Jannero Pargo has also played better recently. Those guys, combined with recent returns from injury by Ryan Bowen (sprained knee) and Melvin Ely (fractured eye socket) have people optimistic that we’ll see noticeable improvements from the second unit soon.
Is buzz building in the Big Easy for next month's All-Star Game, especially with Chris Paul likely to make an appearance?
Our fans are excited about getting to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host All-Star Weekend. It’s the first time the NBA’s midseason showcase event has been held in New Orleans, so I think a lot of people are looking forward to being the focus of the basketball world. From the team’s standpoint, the chance for there to be an international spotlight on the city of New Orleans for several days will be tremendous, as we continue to emphasize the need for people to contribute to the Gulf South region’s revitalization.
Has David West's play been overshadowed to some extent by the spotlight on Paul?
The short answer to that is “yes,” but I think West actually prefers it that way. Many have tried, but many have failed to get West to talk about himself and his individual success. He’s one of those players who is described as “underrated” so frequently by opposing team broadcasters that I can’t imagine he will remain that way much longer. The main thing that will make West more of a well-known name around the NBA is a playoff appearance. He has been in the postseason only once in his previous four years, but that was as a second-string rookie on a 2003-04 Hornets club filled with veterans. Other than avid NBA fans, there are a lot of people out there who haven’t had a chance to see West since his breakout 2005-06 season, when he was second in the Most Improved Player voting. In addition to a three-year absence from the playoffs, the Hornets haven’t been on national TV much during the regular season.
What don't we know about the Hornets but should?
I don’t know if you “should” know this, but Hornets veterans have come up with a very creative way to introduce the club’s two rookies to the NBA. Like many rooks, at the beginning of the season Julian Wright and Adam Haluska were assigned the important task of bringing donuts to practice. Unfortunately for Wright and Haluska, they were not carrying out this duty to the satisfaction of some of the older players – occasionally forgetting to bring the tasty baked goods – so punishment was in order. Earlier in the season, Wright and Haluska were carrying pink “My Little Princess” backpacks around with them on the road as part of their rookie initiation. After their donut-related slip-ups, however, you can now occasionally spot them in the New Orleans Arena pushing around pink strollers, with baby dolls in the seats. Haluska, who has been sidelined with a sprained ankle, was asked about his stroller during halftime of a recent game. The good-natured Haluska laughed about it, telling Hornets TV host Jordy Hultberg that “(Hornets veterans) even gave me a baby for the stroller!”
Just to clarify: Adam was talking about a doll, not a real infant.