Tuesday October 20th, 2009

NEW ORLEANS -- There are many lessons that can be learned from a 49-33 season and a first-round playoff ouster, especially for a team with much loftier expectations. But sitting in front of his locker after a recent preseason game, Hornets point guard Chris Paul can only think of one.

"Health," Paul said. "I don't think people know the importance of health. You lose a guy for nine or 10 games at a time, and it just kills you."

Health wasn't a problem for the Hornets last season. It was the problem. New Orleans lost 93 games to injuries, including 62 by its starters. The primary starting lineup of Paul, Rasual Butler, Peja Stojakovic, David West and Tyson Chandler went more than a month without playing together, starting just 25 games as a unit all season.

"We were just never able to get into a rhythm," Paul said. "It felt like every time we started to build some momentum, someone else went down."

The most costly victim of the injury bug was Chandler, the human pogo stick of a center who was the linchpin of the defense, and Paul's favorite pick-and-roll partner on offense. In '07-08, Paul and Chandler connected on a league-high 107 alley-oop dunks. Despite missing 37 games last season, Chandler still threw down 65 of Paul's lobs -- 24 more than the next best duo, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett.

But with a sore ankle plaguing Chandler's '08-09 season (he went from 11.8 points and 11.7 rebounds in '07-08 to 8.8 and 8.7 last season) and an arthritic toe (at least according to the doctors with Oklahoma City, who vetoed a February trade for Chandler) threatening his career, the Hornets decided to cut their ties. Chandler was out; Emeka Okafor was in.

"No question, we are going to miss some of the things Tyson did for us," coach Byron Scott said. "But we think Okafor can bring a few different dimensions."

Indeed, while Okafor may not have Chandler's natural athleticism, he is a far more polished offensive player. The 6-foot-10, 255-pound Okafor is comfortable in the low post and can score off of both shoulders. He's a threat to shoot from 15 feet and is one of three players -- Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard being the others -- to average at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in each of the last five years. Perhaps most important for the Hornets, Okafor has proved to be a durable big man: He has played all 82 games in each of the last two seasons, a record the Hornets hope he can duplicate even though Okafor has missed most of the preseason with a toe injury.

"We need our key guys to stay on the floor," Paul said.

They also need them to develop chemistry. One of the keys to the Hornets' surprising 56-win season in '07-08 was the fluidity with which Paul, West and Chandler played together. Paul and Chandler rarely made eye contact during one of their morale-crushing alley-oops, and Chandler's offensive rebounding skills made him the perfect complement to West's low-post presence.

While Okafor ran the pick-and-roll frequently with Charlotte point guards Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin last season, it will take time to develop chemistry with Paul. Likewise, West will have to adjust to playing next to a center who likes to set up shop in the same areas he does.

"No question, we are all going to have to make some adjustments," West said. "We have to find a way to work Emeka in as quickly as we can."

That could mean allowing Paul to carry the team for a while. Besides incorporating Okafor, the Hornets will have a second new starter (third-year forward Julian Wright) and two rookies (Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton) coming off the bench. After playing the last few summers with USA Basketball, Paul spent this summer working with his longtime trainer, Idan Ravin. Workouts generally began at 5:45 a.m. with conditioning drills and a focused attempt to improve Paul's left hand. The two were often joined in the morning drills by Collison and Thornton.

"The idea was that anything Chris could do with his right hand, we wanted him to do with his left," Ravin said.

As for Paul's conditioning, Ravin says it's the best of his career.

"When you watch him work out, you think 'Yeah, he's in really good shape,' " Ravin said. "But when you watch him work out with other people, you say, 'Wow, this guys is in really good shape.' "

Said Paul: "This is an important year for us. We're the underdog again. Last year, everybody expected us to do a lot; now this year we're kind of being counted out. That's good for us. That's going to make us hungry. We're not all hungry yet, but we'll get there."

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