New Orleans finds path to winning runs through San Antonio

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The New Orleans Hornets are standing at the top of the hill, 7-0. They beat the Clippers last night, but the lineup before that — Milwaukee, San Antonio, Denver and even Miami — is a bunch of teams that would bring most teams to their knees.

Standing there, the Hornets have a good view. They are as good a team as there is in the league right now, but they see the long road of the season stretching out before them. Standing there the questions about the future remain — key among them is can they keep Chris Paul? — but the road looks open and the future promising.

However, if they were to turn around and look back at the road that led them to this spot, they would see it runs straight through San Antonio.

The Hornets started to retool their organization this summer, something that was expected to come with a change in ownership that has yet to materialize. But the change in the organization went forward anyway.

It started with the hiring of Monty Williams as coach then Dell Demps as general manager (in that odd reverse order, but it seems to work here). Demps was a member of the San Antonio Spurs brain trust who was general manager of their D-League affiliate the Austin Toros (among other jobs in the Spurs organization). Demps came in with a mandate to “change the culture” of the organization, to make the culture more Spurs-like. Which is what everybody says when they hire a GM, but Demps really has changed things.

He didn’t hire Monty Williams — a coach who learned the NBA game at the right hand of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio — but he’s the kind of guy Demps would have hired. A like minded, Spurs culture guy.

And you can see that on the court in how the Hornets play defense. The Spurs have won four titles by defending the rim and closing out hard at the arc, forcing teams into a lot of long twos and midrange shots. The least efficient shots in the game.

Sound strategy, but could Emeka Okafor really be that guy defending the rim? He can, it turns out. Okafor has been a force all season, really controlling the paint. He’s had room to do that because David West — who seemed to sleepwalk though the last couple seasons — has brought energy at both ends of the floor. With West focused and Okafor not having to help him as much, it has freed Okafor up to defend the rim with gusto. Okafor also leads the league right now with a 72.7 shooting percentage. He can’t miss, like a Pacer in the third quarter.

Of course, the biggest change for the Hornets has been the return of a healthy Chris Paul. He is playing at an MVP level, giving the team 18 points and 10 assists per game, doing it with the highest shooting percentage of his career. Right now, when he is on the court he assists on about half of his team’s baskets scored. His PER is at 29.8, a career best by a mile (and second only to Dwight Howard so far this season).

Add in smart pickups like Trevor Ariza to fill needs, and you have really got something.

It all looks good. Does that mean Chris Paul is staying?

Nobody knows. Maybe not even Paul himself. Nothing is going to happen short term. The Hornets are not looking to move him right now, instead they are looking to woo him to stay long term by proving he can win here. The 7-0 start is just that, a nice start, but winning in the playoffs is what matters and that is a long way off.

Paul isn’t talking, and the Hornets do not face the deadline pressure to make a move that Denver does right now. But that will change — by next summer and into next season the Hornets will need to get a commitment from Paul (who will be in the last year of his deal) or they have to look to move him. They have until then to change his mind. Certainly some kind of resolution with the ownership sale and that outcome will play a role in Paul’s decisions as well (as will outside influences, such as what happens in New York).

But the Spurs never really lost their core players. If the Hornets stay with that model… maybe you can win big in the Big Easy.

Frank Vogel says Paul George is best two-way player in game

Paul George, John Wall
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The moniker of the “best two-way player” sounds more like something an agent made up to gain a little leverage contract negotiations. It’s a nebulous concept. It’s an intentional dig at whomever is perceived as a better player, suggesting they don’t play enough defense.

But it’s part of the NBA lexicon now, and Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel thinks he has the best two-way player in the game in the resurgent Paul George. Tuesday night George dropped 40 points on Wizards and Vogel said this after the game, via the Washington Post.

“It’s tough to quantify in words,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said. “I mean, he just does so much. He’s capable of going for 40, carrying the offensive load and being the best defensive player on either team. He’s a special player, and the best two-way player in the game. We’re a different team with him out there.”

Paul George’s return to an elite level of play is one of the best stories of this young NBA season — for nine straight games now he has scored at least 25 points, he has pushed the Pacers to a 9-5 record with a top 10 NBA offense and defense. Tuesday night John Wall talked about how George’s improved jumper has made him a far more dangerous, more difficult to guard player. And he’s still a lock-down defender.

But George is not the best two-way player in the game — that’s Stephen Curry. George does not have the offensive impact that Curry brings to the Warriors, plus Curry has developed into a solid NBA defender. Curry gets steals, plays smart, and is a positive on defense, plus he’s the best offensive player in the league right now.

That doesn’t make the return of Paul George any less fun, any less good for the game. It’s great to see George back. Whatever you want to call him.



Kobe Bryant “not really worried” about his shooting after 1-of-14 night

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Sometimes a picture can tell the story better than words.

That’s why above you can see all of Kobe Bryant‘s shot attempts against the Warriors Tuesday, a night where he went 1-of-14 from the floor (and “facilitator Kobe” had two assists). If you want another picture, here is Kobe’s shot chart for the game.

Kobe shot chart vs. Warriors

On the season, Kobe is shooting 31.1 percent overall, 19.5 percent from three, and he has a career low true shooting percentage of 41.5 percent. It’s hard to watch. On a team that is supposed to be developing their young stars, Kobe took as many shots as D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle combined. Laker coach Byron Scott is good with Kobe doing whatever he wants.

But Kobe is worried about his shooting performances, right? Not so much. From Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

If Kobe can figure out the Lakers’ system this season, he will be in a club of one.

I could go on a longer rant here, but the bottom line is this is just a sad spectacle to watch. And there’s a lot of season left to watch it.

Kobe Bryant: Warriors can make run at record 33-game win streak

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Pat Riley compared the Warriors backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to one of the legendary guard tandems the game has ever seen — Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. Two Hall of Famers who led the 1972 Lakers to an NBA title.

That West/Goodrich team also won 33 straight games that season.

The Warriors are off to the fastest start in NBA history at 16-0 after destroying the hapless Lakers on Tuesday night, and the question of “when will they lose?” Kobe Bryant thinks these Warriors could get to that legendary 33 mark, as he told Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“Yeah, they could do it – because they’re good,” Bryant said afterward. “It’s a very young league, and they’ve managed to put together a team of extremely intelligent players and extremely versatile players, and great shooters. And so I see no reason why they couldn’t continue to extend (the record).”

The Warriors are not even halfway there and have shown some flashes of one-game vulnerability of late (a rough game against the Nets, for example). They have an upcoming seven-game road trip with a couple back-to-backs where they likely stumble at least once.

Then again, look at their next dozen opponents: Suns, Kings, Jazz, Hornets, Raptors, Nets, Pacers, Celtics, Bucks, Suns, Bucks, Jazz. Teams such as the Raptors and Pacers are certainly playing well, but there is no team on that list that makes you step back and say “that’s a loss.” Get through that dozen and the Warriors are at 28-0 and the Lakers’ record is within shot. The Warriors are not going to stop doing what they do — if the wearable science tells them Curry needs a night off, he’ll sit — but if they can get close, for a team trying to establish a legacy of greatness this would be a step in that direction.

The 16-0 mark already is.

Nick Young wears Gilbert Arenas’ old shoes during game (PHOTO)

Nick Young, Devin Harris
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In a disastrous Lakers season, one thing can be counted on (besides Byron Scott saying absurd things about Kobe Bryant): Nick Young will always be able to lighten the mood. He brought some levity to the Lakers’ blowout loss to the Warriors on Tuesday night with a blast from the past: a pair of gold shoes formerly worn by his ex-Wizards teammate Gilbert Arenas.

These shoes, like Swaggy, and like Gilbert before the injuries and the guns, are awesome and should be celebrated.