New Orleans Hornets: 10 Questions

Complete Lakers – Hornets First Round Series preview.

If you’re looking to go a bit deeper into the New Orleans Hornets, we’re here for you.

Two days away from the start of LAL’s quest for a three-peat, we enlisted writer Jim Eichenhofer to answer 10 questions about the Hornets ranging from Chris Paul’s health, David West’s absence, how the Hornets plan on dealing with L.A.’s size, the mindset of coach Monty Williams and more:

1) Chris Paul appears to be moving better now than he was earlier in the season, but how is his knee and what can we expect from Paul in the playoffs?
Eichenhofer: Chris has said periodically throughout the season that he realizes he’s not 100 percent, but he’s always been the kind of player who is averse to acknowledging the presence of injuries. He says that if he’s healthy enough to be on the court, he won’t use injury as an excuse. Certainly though, he hasn’t shown as much explosiveness or been able to take over games individually as frequently as in the past. There have been glimpses of vintage Paul, as the Lakers witnessed Feb. 5 during a dominant stretch when the four-time All-Star drilled three straight three-pointers in rapid succession at the end of the third quarter. He also had a three-game stretch in March in which he averaged 28.7 points, one of the best scoring weeks of his career.

2) What’s the net effect of losing David West, with Carl Landry sliding into the starting line up and the obvious weakening of the bench? Also, how has center Emeka Okafor’s game developed this season?
Eichenhofer: Monty Williams said on multiple occasions that his biggest concern after West’s injury wasn’t Landry’s production as a new starter, but what the Hornets would get from their backup frontcourt players, so that definitely was a significant question mark. Though the reserve unit certainly was hurt by losing the offensive punch Landry provided, the bench has benefited from a pair of positive developments. Jarrett Jack has been the Hornets’ most effective reserve in recent weeks, averaging double-digit points in March and April. Specifically at the 4, Jason Smith suddenly began playing more over the last five games of the regular season and played well in about 19 minutes per outing.

After a self-described disappointing 2009-10 debut with the Hornets, Okafor has been one of the team’s most improved players. His numbers have always been there, but the impact he’s made this season has been significant. Perhaps the biggest evidence of Okafor’s value to New Orleans took place when he was was sidelined by injury for 10 midseason games. The Hornets went 3-7. Prior to Okafor’s injury, they had put together a 10-game winning streak that tied a franchise record.

3) Former Laker Trevor Ariza has really struggled with his shooting this season, hitting 39 percent from the field and 30 percent from three. Has he made up for it with defense and glue-type activity?
Eichenhofer: The most concrete evidence of Ariza’s impact on the defensive end is in New Orleans’ improvement from 21st in the league in points allowed per game last season to fifth. Williams has praised Ariza since early in the season for accepting the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s top wing scorers. Many people believed the Hornets were the least athletic team in the NBA last season, with older players logging substantial minutes at the 2 and 3 spots. Ariza helped greatly in that area. To his credit, he recently acknowledged that it’s been a frustrating time for him offensively. “Fans here have been great to me, even though I’ve had kind of a rough year,” he said. “They are still telling me to keep playing hard and have been very supportive.”

4) Who guards Kobe? We saw both Belinelli and Ariza on him in spots, and maybe even some Willie Green, with Bryant averaging 26.8 points on 48.8 percent shooting from the field.
Eichenhofer: I’m not sure. Williams has always avoided answering specific media questions about defensive assignments, so we’ll have to wait and see. Like many observers, I had expected to see Ariza defend Kobe almost exclusively during the regular season, so it was surprising when Belinelli guarded Kobe so often. Overall, I thought the Hornets did a commendable job against Kobe, but Bryant always seemed to drain that back-breaking mid-range jumper whenever the Lakers needed it most. I guess that made New Orleans just like every other frustrated Kobe/Lakers opponent in the league.

5) Do the Hornets believe they can beat the Lakers four times?
Eichenhofer: Great question. I imagine you’ve seen Monty Williams’ quotes before the Dec. 29 game, when he wondered out loud if the Hornets truly had the confidence to compete with a Lakers team that has won back-to-back titles. It’s impossible to get inside the players’ heads and know if they’re more confident vs. the Lakers now than they were at midseason, but one thing’s for sure: no one outside of New Orleans believes they can beat the Lakers four times.

6) What can Williams do to try and make L.A.’s major advantage in length dissipate a bit?
Eichenhofer: My first reaction is to say the Hornets should speed up the tempo, but there are at least two problems with that approach. For one, I’m not sure that playing a faster pace with more possessions wouldn’t actually play right into the athletic Lakers’ hands. Two, the Hornets haven’t pushed the ball much all season, playing at the second-slowest pace among 30 NBA teams. It’s difficult to imagine a team playing the 82-game schedule one way and then diverting from the style that got them to the postseason. Other than that, it’s probably a matter of the Hornets taking as many high-percentage shots as possible to prevent the long misses that lead to fast-break run-outs. New Orleans also could emphasis a gang defensive rebounding mentality.

7) What stands out to you most about the current Hornets’ bench? Jarrett Jack appears the best player on paper.
Eichenhofer: Without a doubt, during the second half of the season, Jack has been the bench’s best player. He struggled big-time in the first month or two after being traded here. I kept telling anyone around here who would listen “Be patient. I’ve watched him play with other teams. He’s a better NBA player than what he’s shown so far.” Right around when many fans were convinced that he wasn’t going to help, Jack put together an outstanding stretch of performances. His valuable contributions helped him reach the playoffs for the first time in his six-year NBA career. The bench in general has adjusted fairly well to the forced rotation changes that resulted from David West’s season-ending injury.

8) Who gets the most bench minutes in the front court in this series? Jason Smith? Aaron Gray? Is Smith willing to mix it up in the paint, or does he mostly settle for jumpers?
Eichenhofer: Gray’s playing time has often been based on the matchups that are presented by the opposing team. Since the Lakers possess one of the biggest frontcourts in the league, they’re a club that could cause the 7-foot, 270-pounder to log substantial minutes. Not that I’m comparing the two – and there certainly is no physical resemblance to the clean-cut Smith – but Smith is kind of a Dennis Rodman-type rebounder who tracks down misses and outhustles people for boards. He’s definitely not a bruiser who pushes guys out of the way or gets position rebounds. Smith gets most of his points away from the hoop, though he can finish too, as he showed in the paint during a 20-point game vs. Washington in February.

9) From afar, Monty Williams seems like a really good coach whose players respect what he’s trying to do. Is that a reason for N.O.’s improved defense this year, ranking fourth in points allowed (aided by a slow pace, obviously) and 12th in FG defense?
Eichenhofer: Without a doubt. During the Hornets’ surprising 11-1 start and their emergence as one of the NBA’s most improved teams, players have often been asked how their first-year coach managed to make such a rapid impact. The players have repeatedly cited three things: A defense-first mentality; an emphasis on preparation; and a consistent message from the coaching staff. Emeka Okafor: “I attribute all of the success we’ve had to (Williams) and his way. He’s very organized and methodical. He’s been very consistent – he says something and sticks to it. His game plan was ‘ We’re going to be a defensive team, and this is how we’re going to do it.’ For him to do that in his first year, that’s amazing.”

10) What else should we know about the Hornets?
Eichenhofer: The March 24 season-ending injury to West has made the Hornets less conventional in their lineup usage, forcing Williams to often alternate between big and small lineups late in the regular season. This might make the Hornets a bit more unpredictable and difficult to prepare for, but without West as a go-to option, offensive production is at a premium. “To say that we can (implement any major style change) post-David West, it’s hard,” Williams said recently. “I think we’re going to be re-inventing ourselves on a night-in, night-out basis, because of the situation. Some nights we’re going to be able to go small, some nights we’ll go big. Because of David’s (absence), we have to. If we can be good at different facets of our scheme, it may give teams one or two more things to prepare for.”