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

Shaq attacks verse in new TV series "Poetry in America"

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shaquille O’Neal called himself “The Big Baryshnikov” and “The Big Socrates” in his days in the NBA. Now he can add “The Big Shakespeare.”

The basketball Hall-of-Famer, TNT TV analyst, commercial pitchman and onetime rapper is putting poetry on his lengthy resume as part of a new public television series.

He brings his best bard to a dramatic reading of a poem in his episode of the 12-part “Poetry in America ,” then discusses it with Elisa New, a Harvard English professor who hosts the show.

“I’ve always been into poetry,” O’Neal said in an interview with The Associated Press in a sunlit conference room overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. “I’ve been writing rhymes all my life.”

“Poetry in America,” distributed by American Public Television and presented by WGBH in Boston, is airing at various times on local public TV stations. Some episodes, including Shaq’s, are already available to stream.

On the show the 46-year-old former All-Star from the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat recites “Fast Break,” a poem by Edward Hirsch from his 1986 book “Wild Gratitude.” It describes some very imperfect players who manage to put together a perfect basketball play.

“A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,” the poem begins, “and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man.”

O’Neal, whose 350-pound bulk would never be called “gangly,” still related to the center in the verse, but said he initially missed the poem’s point.

“The first mistake I made was thinking it was about basketball,” he said. “I read it real quick I said `fast break, shovel passes, sure, this is what I do.”‘

He said New, who sat next to O’Neal in the interview and like almost everyone is utterly dwarfed by him, gave him whole new insights that led to a fast friendship.

“When she broke it down intelligently for me, I was very astounded and very amazed,”

The poem is written for a close friend and playing partner of Hirsch’s who had just died. That’s easy to miss if you skip past the dedication at the top, as most readers do.

“It’s fun that only later as you’re reading, you look back at that dedication,” New said. “One line can change everything.”

Suddenly it becomes an examination of transcendent moments and human connections.

“It’s about friendship, it’s about caring, it’s about emotions,” O’Neal said. “I had missed that.”

His latest learning experience took O’Neal’s thoughts back to high school, where he had a 69 percent in English after blowing a test during the basketball playoffs, and needed a 70 to stay eligible for sports.

The teacher allowed him a retest, and suggested a tutor.

“This guy, his name was McDougal, he was a geek, he saved my academic life,” O’Neal said. “Everybody bullied him in school, except me.”

O’Neal said he took the work and “broke it down, made it seem so simple.”

“I retook the test, got an 80, and we won the state championship,” O’Neal said.

“Now,” he said, “I always tell kids I’m a geek.”

The professor had another name for him. “He’s a learner!”

O’Neal partly looked the poet during the interview in a polo shirt and jeans, having traded his basketball sneakers for a pair of slip-on Toms shoes, size 22.

When he wanted them, a company executive told him “it wouldn’t be worth it to make them in my size unless I bought 500 of them,” O’Neal said. “I told him to give me 2,000.”

 

Rumor: Grizzlies had to choose between Marc Gasol and David Fizdale

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David Fizdale has been linked to most of the NBA’s head-coaching vacancies.

He developed a legion of backers as lead a Heat assistant, and he did good things guiding the Grizzlies before they unexpectedly fired him. He deserves consideration.

But he also must explain his fractured relationship with Memphis star Marc Gasol. They weren’t speaking for a while.

And maybe the problem was even worse than that.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to a source close to Fizdale briefed on the Grizzlies’ decision, it was ownership having to make a choice — trade their All-Star center Marc Gasol, who has fallen in love with its small-market city, or fire the coach. Their relationship had gotten that bad.

If Grizzlies ownership felt it had to choose between Gasol and Fizdale, it’s not clear why.

Fizdale benched Gasol down the stretch during the coach’s last game, and Gasol publicly expressed his frustration.

But Gasol denied issuing a me-or-Fizdale ultimatum. Fizdale said focus on his relationship with Gasol was “overblown,” adding he cared far more about whether he could win with a player than whether they got along personally.

Memphis obviously sided with Gasol – probably too strongly.

LeBron James bought Cavs teammates matching designer suits to wear to game tonight

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I’m still trying to decide if this is cool or a little too Stepford.

The Cavaliers rolled into the Bakers’ Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight wearing matching designer suits, all paid for by LeBron James and custom fitted to each player.

If a college team rolled into a game in four-digit designer suits, the NCAA would have questions. And not about the vests.

The Cavaliers are LeBron’s team, and if he wants to buy his teammates suits and tell them to wear them it’s going to happen. Is it a bonding thing that helps bring them together? Sure. Is it in place to make sure LeBron remembers which ones are his new teammates? Probably not.

Do the suits help on the court? No. And the Cavaliers better bring it in Game 3 because if they go down 2-1 in this series — something that is a realistic possibility — the whispers of doubt are going to get a lot louder.

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?