Hornets-Suns Preview

After a tumultuous offseason, the New Orleans Hornets get to
finally take the court – but without one of the best players in
franchise history.

The Hornets begin an era without Chris Paul when they open the
season against the Phoenix Suns on Monday night.

New Orleans went 46-36 last season but was eliminated by the Los
Angeles Lakers in six games in the opening round of the
playoffs.

With the Hornets temporarily owned by the NBA, which is trying
to find a permanent local buyer by sometime in 2012, the club has
struggled to win long-term commitments from any big-name
players.

That even meant players on their roster, as Paul requested a
trade once the NBA settled the lockout earlier this month.

A three-team deal that would have sent the star point guard to
the Lakers seemed to be struck, but commissioner David Stern cited
“basketball reasons” for vetoing the trade.

Less than a week later, New Orleans sent Paul to the Los Angeles
Clippers for center Chris Kaman, guard Eric Gordon, reserve forward
Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 first-round draft pick.

The Hornets also saw the departure of forward David West to
Indiana via free agency, leaving them without their top two
scorers.

“I’m sure a lot of people are counting us out,” forward Carl
Landry said. “We’ve got guys that want to be good players in this
league and they come and practice hard every day, and I’m sure it
will have a carry-over into game situations.”

Landry averaged 11.9 points with New Orleans and Sacramento last
season, and returned to the Hornets through free agency with the
promise of replacing West in the lineup.

Replacing Paul will be the taller task, and that seems to be
falling on Jarrett Jack, who averaged 8.5 points and 2.9 assists in
70 games with the Hornets after being acquired in a deal with
Toronto. That’s a far cry from Paul’s career averages of 18.7
points and 9.9 assists.

Jack, however, topped 20 points in his two starts when Paul was
out with a concussion.

The acquisition of Gordon could ease the pressure on Jack in the
backcourt.

The eighth overall pick in 2008, Gordon averaged career highs of
22.3 points and 4.4 assists with the Clippers last season but was
limited to 56 games due to wrist and shoulder injuries.

“He can score in a number of ways,” Jack said. “He stretches the
court. When you penetrate, he gives you another shooter on the
wing.”

The Hornets took three of four from Phoenix in 2010-11.

The Suns were coming off a conference finals appearance before
missing the playoffs at 40-42 last season, finishing with a losing
record for the first time since 2003-04.

“I think we’re going to be better than what people think,” said
Grant Hill, who re-signed with Phoenix earlier this month.
“Obviously the West is extremely difficult, but we almost got in
last year and I think we’ll be better. We have better chemistry and
continuity than we had last year.

“… Then, I think collectively there’s a little bit of a
mindset that we’ve got something to prove, that we’re better than
what we showed.”

With a lineup led by the 39-year-old Hill and Steve Nash, 37,
coach Alvin Gentry may need to rely on the depth of the roster
during the compacted 66-game season caused by the lockout.

“I think it’s going to be important this year that you have a
deep bench because you have certain situations where you’re playing
five games in seven nights or six games in nine nights, where it’s
going to be really important to have depth where you’re not burning
guys out,” Gentry said.

Nash averaged a league-high 11.4 assists and is the Suns’ top
returning scorer at 14.7 points per game, followed by Hill at
13.2.

Another challenge for Gentry is getting the team to improve
defensively in order to balance its up-tempo play. The Suns again
were among the worst defensive teams last season, surrendering an
average of 105.9 points.