Tuesday April 1st, 2008

Sometime in the next month it will become obvious the New Orleans Hornets are better than their skeptics had imagined. Or so thinks coach Byron Scott.

"That's what I envision: the Western Conference finals, and then seeing what happens after that," says Scott, who has played or coached in eight NBA Finals. "I think everybody in [our] locker room feels we can get there."

The mainstream thinking has been that the Hornets are too thin off the bench and too young overall to get by their postseason elders in San Antonio and Phoenix, not to mention Kobe Bryant. But the facts are getting in the way of that story: As of Tuesday, the Hornets remain atop the West, tied for first with the Spurs entering their final 10 games, a position reached through the mature leadership of 22-year-old MVP finalist Chris Paul.

Could the Hornets' rise, though, also be a product of playing all season in New Orleans, where they may have been inspired by the needs of their city? Have they grown up quickly by living in a community that faces a much braver mission than overcoming Steve Nash, Tony Parker and Deron Williams?

"That might have a little bit to do with it," says Scott of the Hornets' year of community service in New Orleans. "But I really think it's just the people that we have. They've been raised extremely well. You meet Tyson's (Chandler) parents, you meet David's (West) parents, you meet Chris' parents -- you can see why they're all still very humble and you can see that they've all grown up in the church. I think that has a lot to do with the way they are as people.

"I tell people all the time, I'm so blessed and fortunate to be able to coach these guys because they just don't give me problems. Whatever I ask them to try to do, they go out there and try to do it. There's no conflict with me yelling at one and him yelling back. It's like a dream job. Its unbelievable, really, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way they've been raised."

Which leads abruptly and surprisingly to the season Paul has been having. He's going to be the first player in 15 years to average 20 points and 10 assists, dating to Tim Hardaway with the Warriors. Paul has either scored or assisted 49 percent of his team's points, which is the highest percentage since John Stockton accounted for 52 percent of the Jazz's offense in 1990-91. And he has had 10 games of 20 points and 15 assists, which is two more than the rest of the league combined.

Simply, Paul is the main reason the Hornets have earned the best record against the West (31-14) as well as the best road record in the conference (23-12). The third-year pro dominates the ball without playing selfishly; at 6-feet and 175 pounds he's strong enough to finish at the rim and smart enough to kick out to the open teammate when a defense collapses.

After devoting last summer to improving his shooting, Paul is now converting 49.4 percent overall and 37.5 percent of his threes, which is crucial for an offense that depends on spreading the floor. "Bonzi [Wells] talks about it a lot, saying he's got that glow," says Hornets shooting guard Morris Peterson. "In video games when a player gets hot, he lights up, and that's kind of how Chris is. He's an engine for us, and he reminds me of Isiah Thomas. I grew up a Pistons fan and I had a chance to see Isiah Thomas a lot, and they have similar-styled games."

The Hornets are 14-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer this season, and they've shot 62 percent in the last five minutes of those games, undoubtedly a testament to Paul's drive. "He thrives having the ball in his hands, he loves being the creator," says Scott. "His first year he looked at me all the time; his second year he looked at me all the time. I finally had to tell him his second year, 'You know the offense as well as I do. Figure it out. Just call something.'"

Paul's independence has resulted in a terrific season that has come along at the right time for New Orleans. The Hornets have committed to building 20 new homes in the city, and their Hoops for Homes Teachers' Initiative will provide financial assistance to 39 teachers who need help to repair their homes. Beyond his inspiring play on the court, Paul also has been involved in several charitable endeavors, including a shared effort with Dwyane Wade to donate $10,000 to remodel a family and community resource center at a New Orleans school.

The good feelings surrounding the team also have finally translated at the box office after a sluggish start. The Hornets have sold out eight of their last 13 games, which in turn raises hopes that they'll remain in New Orleans for the long term.

The Hornets are uniting Paul's MVP candidacy with the larger mission of New Orleans by sending each award voter a scrapbook made by a middle-school student in New Orleans. The scrapbooks were made by 350 children and commend Paul as an athlete who has done much to help them and the city. It's a unique campaign suited to an unusual and unexpected star.

"It's a great feeling that the kids knew about the Hornets," says Paul of the scrapbooks. "All-Star Weekend was great and everyone came in, and it was a lot of fun with the day of service we had. But it's an ongoing thing for us. We are out in the community day in, day out, and it's not always things you do in the news. It's just day-to-day things."

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