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NBA Season Preview: New Orleans Hornets

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Last season: 37-45, after Byron Scott started the season and was bounced for Jeff Bower, they still finished out of the playoffs. Of course they played half the season without Chris Paul and right now he is everything to that franchise.

Head Coach: Monty Williams comes over from being an assistant in Portland and steps into a tough spot as a first year, man. On the court he’s asked to get blood from a stone (the Hornet bench, the starters will be pretty good). Also, he was brought in to try and form a tight relationship with CP3, to help keep him around. We’ll see how that plays out.

You can’t really mention Williams without talking about new GM Dell Demps. Demps is a well-respected guy around the league who is going to have to find a way to get talent in the door while not going into luxury tax range. Unless the new owner, should he ever arrive, change the rules.

Key Departures: Darren Collison, who came into his own when Bower trusted him in a way Byron Scott never did. The Hornets needed to trade Collison — he was the one guy they could move that would bring in talent to put around Paul at other positions (Collison just would have backed him up). Whether they got enough for that trade chip is up for discussion.

James Posey and his oversized contract were shipped out to save money, tied to the Collison trade. Mo Peterson was shipped out mostly to save money, Julian Wright went out to bring in some depth at guard.

Key Additions: Trevor Ariza, who is now Chris Paul’s wingman and should bring some better defense on the perimeter to a team that could use it. Marco Belinelli and Mustafa Shakur will try to prove they can be quality players off the bench. Aaron Gray, Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter also all come over, but may not play much.

Best case scenario: Everyone stays healthy, the bench comes together well enough and they make it back into the playoffs in the West.

For that to happen: Distractions and health issues can’t get in the way of a decent roster, and the bench needs to come togehter.

I never trust teams that that are undergoing an ownership change, and as we passed along this morning the sale of the Hornets is still alive and well. This sale could be good for the team and franchise long term — Gary Chouest could come in and invest in players and really turn the feel of the franchise around. But that has yet to be proven. Or for him to even get the team yet.

And ownership changes will just fuel the CP3 trade  rumors and distractions — with New York papers fanning the embers of whatever is there. Same is true if and when this team hits a rough patch this season (everyone does). Paul is not talking publicly about going, he has done the right things lately, but this fire will not die out this season. The team will have to learn to play and ignore all the talk.

On the court, this team could be pretty good. The starting five is good — Paul is a game changer, one of the elite guys in the league. Marcus Thornton stepped up last season and showed he can play the two, Ariza will bring defense and better energy that Peja has in years, David West remains a quality four and Emeka Okafor is solid at the five. That’s a nice group that can run or play in half court.

For this team to really make the playoffs, it will be about the bench — Peja Stojakovic is your designated gunner off the pine, but he has not been a great gunner in recent years. (Also, as he is in the last year of a big deal, look for his name to come up in a lot of trade talks.) Mustafa Shakur will be CP3’s backup and could be another D-League success story, but he’s going to be challenged to prove it. Marco Belinilli is going to have to play better. Then it’s guys like Aaron Gray that are hard for coaches to trust.

More likely the Hornets will: Be a good team that is a bit inconsistent — they’ll go out and beat the Lakers one night then drop one to the Clippers the next because their bench gets outplayed. The 54-point preseason loss to the Magic may typify that — the Hornets are not that bad but they don’t have the depth of talent to take a night off. They’ll most likely be in the mix but just miss out on a playoff spot.

This is not a bad team, in fact it has the makings of a good team in it. If it can get there some day comes back to the new brain trust of Williams and Demps, and beyond that if they get new ownership that gives them more latitude. More needs to be done to build this team, the question is will the new front office can do it and if the owner gives them the latitude to do it.

Prediction: 45 wins, leaving them 9th or 10th in the West. Then the real Chris Paul speculation will get started

Spurs honor Kobe Bryant in his last game in San Antonio (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 30:  Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs on March 30, 2006 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Spurs won 96-85. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.

So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below:

Report: Clippers’ Austin Rivers has broken hand, out 4-6 weeks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers scores on a layup past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 105-93 win at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.

The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.

Warriors hold off late Thunder run to remain undefeated at home

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For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.

Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.

The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.

Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.

Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.