October 21, 2009
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
New Orleans Hornets
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Hornets

The depth of talent here is the biggest problem. There's a big difference when Peja Stojakovic has been hurt and they haven't had anyone to take his place and space the floor the way he does. They were depending on James Posey to be their third-best guy when Peja was out, but Posey is one of those guys who needs to be your fifth- or sixth-best player. He serves as an addition to a championship-level team, but he's not going to be a big difference-maker to a mid-level playoff team.

So who is the 2 guard to give them consistent perimeter shooting? Morris Peterson is not that player anymore, and they've lost Rasual Butler.

The reason they keep making the playoffs is Chris Paul, who is an amazing guy. He's got the weight of the city on his shoulders. There's no way they can afford to lose the guy who runs their team, does a lot of the scoring and makes all of the decisions. That's a lot of pressure on a small guy.

Paul goes at a high speed but it's an efficient speed, and he's so smooth that he doesn't look fast and then he gets by you. He has continued to excel and improve as a three-point shooter. With him you still have got to pick your poison: Do you want to let him get in the paint and throw it up for a dunk, or will you let him shoot a three? Most of the time, you have to let him have the three because that has not been his best ability. But the kid makes half his shots from the field, he makes his free throws, and last year he chased down enough balls to get 5.5 rebounds a game at maybe 6 feet tall. He shot 36.4 percent from the three-point line, which is an important improvement since his earlier years.

On defense, Paul is good enough to stay in front of his man, he plays out the play and goes for steals, which he has been able to get away with when he's had a big man behind him. Emeka Okafor can now fill the same role defending the rim that Tyson Chandler used to do in making up for some of Paul's gambles, but that is still one area where you try to take advantage of Paul. Because he has the ball in his hands so much, you try to pick up and guard him earlier on the floor to make him work a little bit and prevent him from getting a full head of steam. At the other end you try to make him run through screens, though they generally switch up their lineup so he doesn't have to do that. You also try to post him up, but he's strong and he has a good base. Basically you just try to wear him down by going at him.

Paul has it in him to lead a championship team as Isiah Thomas did, but don't forget that Isiah had three other Hall of Fame-level players with him including the coach. Nobody on CP's team comes close to that level. Deep down inside, he has to be thinking there is no championship future for him there, and it says something about him that he keeps fighting anyway. I have a hard time imagining him being a guy who comes out and asks for a trade publicly, or bails out in some way. But at the same time, as hard and as hungry as he plays, I definitely think he would welcome a move to a franchise that would give him a better chance at going to the Finals.

Paul has helped David West a lot, but let's not take too much away from West. He's a self-made man who was underrated coming out of college, and he has improved every year. When Peja's not available, West is their only block scorer, period. And he has continued to develop more and more range on his shot. He has a lot of pressure on him to deliver every night and he doesn't have an advantage over guys that he's going against; he's not taller or faster than them. He's a good athlete for sure, but mainly he's just a blue-collar hard worker, and when Paul gets the ball to him, it's West who is doing the stuff to put it in the basket. I've seen West have bad nights where his shot wasn't falling, but he fights through it and ends up with 20 by going to the free throw line 12 times. Defensively, he's very active, so when he plays against bigger and wider guys, he tries to push them off the block. He's a strong guy even though he doesn't look it. He has good timing and he can block shots, so he's more than credible as a defender.

I have never had great feeling for Okafor, who came over in the trade for Chandler. At the end of the night Okafor will end up with his 14 [points] and 10 [rebounds], but he doesn't get a lot of traffic rebounds. He gets a lot of rebounds where he was in the area, and he uses his athleticism and length to get offensive rebounds, but I don't see him fighting for a lot of the rebounds. He runs the floor and has a decent offensive game, but he's never been anybody you had to game-plan for. You don't say that he?s such a force in the post that we have to front him. He has better offensive skills than Chandler, and he has that bounce so that CP can throw the ball up on the pick-and-roll and Okafor will finish the play at the rim. Obviously, he's been more durable than Chandler, so it's an upgrade for them at that spot. I wonder if he'll have the same chemistry with CP that Chandler had, and how long it will take to develop that. Okafor is going to be an undersized center, but that's not a big deal for New Orleans and the way it plays. His face-up shot from 18 feet has improved. He can score in the post, with a jump shot or with a quick move baseline. But he shot-fakes too much, so the good defenders make sure they stay down on him.

If backup big man Hilton Armstrong is playing a lot, we're usually happy. He's a good, active post defender who can block shots. But you can run him, and when he gets a little tired, he seems to all of a sudden be completely out of gas. He has trouble guiding himself through those kinds of situations, which probably bothers Scott.

Julian Wright has a lot of skills, though three-point shooting is not one of them. Otherwise he has the talent to play every position on the floor, yet he doesn't have one thing that he hangs his hat on. Eventually everybody has to have that one thing that they can point to and say it keeps them in the league at a high level. He has the ability to be great defender with length and athleticism, and he's a good passer. There is no reason why he couldn't be Trevor Ariza, apart from the three-point shooting. If Wright could ever develop a consistent outside shot playing with CP, so that he could spread floor and still slash inside, he'd be a consistently good player. If you saw him in a pickup game, you'd think he looks like one of the best players, but when you tell him he needs to be here and there to do this and that, that kind of discipline works against him.

Darius Songaila will be an important big man for them. He knows their Princeton offense from playing at Washington and he has got a good skill set, so you can put him on the floor with different guys. He can shoot from up to 20 feet. You're going to want him to be your seventh- or eighth-best player, but he may have to play a higher role than that for this team.

I keep going back to Peja's absence, which is really important. They signed him to make big statement a few years ago, and now they'd take that contract back if they could with his age [32] and productivity dropping off, and he's a liability defensively. He can still get hot, but when he's not 100%, you notice his deficiencies. He is one of my favorite guys to watch play because you think every shot is going in, and then he makes one and you think he might take 10 in a row. But I think he's at the end of the line physically. He needs to go play overseas once a week and be a star and make his money that way. Over here they need him to guard a 3 man, and obviously he can't do that anymore. If they go to a small lineup, he doesn't rebound enough to play the 4 and he can't play post defense.

First-round pick Darren Collison had some good games in the summer league, but he's just not ready for this level. I don't think he can play together with Paul, as both are small point guards. Second-round pick Marcus Thornton could help them because he can drive and score, and he's a very capable three-point shooter. He could form a nice backcourt with Paul. But he's a rookie, and some of Scott's stuff can be perplexing. If you're a rookie and you don't run the play just right, he'll sit you down for a long time. I don't think Scott is the type of guy to look the other way if a player isn't doing it right, even if he really needs some of the things he can get from having Thornton on the floor at shooting guard. If Byron goes down -- and they didn't sign him to an extension, so he's a lame duck -- he'll go down being Byron. He's not going to change.


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