Talk to them, and they say all the right things:
Watch them, however, and the New Orleans Hornets (24-20) tell a different story. Two seasons after posting a franchise-best 56-26 record -- a season that seemed the harbinger of future title contention -- they've regressed. And now, they are stuck.
This isn't unusual, of course, to see an NBA team acquire a star or two thanks to the lottery, improve from terrible to good, excite its fans, and then falter just when it borders on contendership. For current references, see Toronto and Chicago.
Two seasons ago, the Hornets improved their record from 39 to 56 wins and took San Antonio to seven games in a second-round playoff series.
Last season, they lost six of their last eight games to slip to 49 wins, then suffered a first-round pratfall by losing to Denver in five games -- with the four losses coming by an average of 31 points.
"They've taken a step back," one NBA scout said of the Hornets. "They're in a weird spot right now."
How did they get to this point? Easy. a series of poor drafts, some questionable free-agent signings and an uncertain coaching situation.
The Hornets hit on three consecutive draft picks from 2003-2005, taking
The Hornets' management complicated matters by overspending in the free-agent market. Perhaps the biggest failed investment was in post-prime
Now, like compulsive shoppers with maxed-out credit cards, the Hornets have had to shift into cost-cutting mode. On Monday, they traded starting guard
And on Tuesday, New Orleans continued its streak of cost-cutting moves by dealing reserve
And to top it all off, New Orleans' coaching situation is equally muddled.
"We're continuing to try to build and get back to that [56-win] level, but we have to take it step by step," he said. "Right now we have to continue to improve as a team ... get wins, you know, one at a time. Get ourselves into playoff position, you know, and then keep working our way to it step by step."
And what are the steps?
"The big thing is, as the season takes place, to prove our place so that we can consistently compete against teams at the top of the conference," Bower said. "And we've done that. We have wins against Phoenix, Atlanta and we've played very well against teams in our division. We have to continue to develop a consistency to play that way on a nightly basis."
Vague, yes, but what else can he say?
The Hornets' foundation is Paul, who nailed the game-winning jumper at Portland on Monday and whose averaging 20.0 points, a league-leading 11.2 assists and 2.25 steals (second best in the league) while shooting 41.7 from three-point range. New Orleans may not find a better point guard or a more optimistic one about his team's future.
"We have everything we need," Paul said. "We have the pieces; we just have to put it together on a nightly basis."
Nice words, but debatable. The Hornets still aren't putting it together on a nightly basis, and they probably have no chance of rebuilding until the summer of 2011 when the contracts of Stojakovic,
Until then they're likely stuck in their "weird spot." The one with no exit in sight.