Tuesday February 19th, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- The best team in the Western Conference happens to be generating one of the happier surprises in the league. But for Hornets coach Byron Scott, who won three championships while playing for the Lakers and reached two NBA Finals while coaching the Nets, this is no time to be dwelling on happiness or surprises.

"It's too early,'' he said. "We're playing the way we thought we could play, but we're not satisfied with where we are. We really think we should be 39-12; we gave away some games. But that's the sign of a good team [that the Hornets lead the West despite those losses].''

Too early indeed: With four months still to play through the end of the NBA Finals, the season isn't half old yet. As well as the Hornets have played to their West-leading 36-15 record, they're also five games clear of missing the playoffs altogether in their top-heavy conference.

That's why this week in particular is so important to the Hornets. First they enjoyed a terrific All-Star weekend that raised their profile in New Orleans. Now they'll spend the ensuing 48 hours trying to pick up another useful player before Thursday afternoon's trade deadline. If successful, they may look back on their next roster move as the tipping-point week that converted them from an astonishment into a team to beat.

Scott rates the Hornets' chances of making a trade at 50-50. "I'm a little concerned about our bench play,'' he admitted, "and that's why we've been trying to do some things the last month or so as far as upgrading our bench. But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.''

Rebuilding teams like Sacramento and Memphis are being vetted by contenders in what has turned into the most ambitious month of midseason trading in recent memory. While the Lakers, Suns and Mavericks have reinvented their core with blockbuster deals, the good news for New Orleans general manager Jeff Bower is that his objectives are far more limited. He has already done the hardest work of assembling a cohesive starting five.

Scott claims to have known before training camp that the Hornets had the makings of a contender. Forward Peja Stojakovic was returning from back surgery, Morris Peterson was arriving from Toronto and power forward David West and center Tyson Chandler were hungry to improve on their excellent performances of last year. And then there was point guard Chris Paul.

"It was totally different from what it was the last two years,'' Scott said of Paul's approach to this season. "His rookie year obviously he didn't want to step on anybody's toes. He didn't want to take that leadership role because we had P.J. Brown and some other guys. Last year he enjoyed himself a little bit more, but this year he's been phenomenal. His focus this year was totally different from the start -- and the same with David. Last year we had our season-ending meetings and both those guys were adamant: There's no way we miss the playoffs again this year.''

Paul is averaging an MVP-worthy 20.5 points, 10.9 assists and 2.6 steals in 37.5 minutes; his fellow All-Star West is producing 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds. The only concern on the court in New Orleans is the frontcourt bench, and the lack of deep postseason experience from everyone but Stojakovic and sixth man Bobby Jackson.

If the Hornets aren't able to exchange a draft pick for a veteran player by Thursday, they may yet have other options. One could be to make a run at signing their 6-10 former forward Chris Andersen, who was banned for violating the league's drug policy in 2006 but has filed for reinstatement. Another option could be the 38-year-old Brown, another former Hornet who has been in semiretirement and may or may not be enticed to play for a winner heading into the playoffs. Returning to New Orleans could make sense for the 6-11 Brown, who still lives in Louisiana but probably didn't imagine that the Hornets would be in so strong a position so late in the season.

The Hornets are also hoping that a strong second half will elevate their attendance, which needs to improve from its current 12,645 (29th in the league) to keep them in New Orleans after next season.

"A lot of people were probably waiting -- probably like a lot of people around the country -- to see us fall on our face,'' Scott said with a smile. "Since they see that's not happening, we're starting to get some of that support that we feel we deserve. ... We're hoping after [All-Star weekend] that the attendance is going to go up because obviously we're going to need it.''

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