Stuck in the Middle with New (Orleans)

The 2007-2008 New Orleans Hornets took the NBA by storm, recording 56 wins and taking the defending champion Spurs to 7 games in the Western Conference semifinals.  Chris Paul emerged as hands down the best point guard in the league and the supporting cast around him was mostly young and extremely well suited to his talents. They were knocking on the door, and it looked like they were getting in.

On paper, the 2009-2010 incarnation of the Hornets looks much the same.  Emeka Okafor took Tyson Chandler’s place in the middle, but otherwise the starting five remains unchanged. Overall, Okafor and Chandler are players of comparable skill, but Emeka does not fit the team nearly as well.  Chandler both protected the rim (vital given David West’s lack of size at power forward) and soared above it to receive the lobs that Chris Paul throws so well. Okafor isn’t great at either. He represents setback number one.

 Though they scored two good players in this year’s draft, they misfired badly in 2007 and sold their 2008 pick to Memphis.  Add in the awful James Posey signing, and you have setback number two. And in the NBA, two setbacks take you from the top to the middle of the pack.

It will be interesting to see what the Hornets can do going forward. They are well over the salary cap and saddled with some unsavory contracts which are going to make improving difficult. Posey is owed $6 million each of the next two seasons, and his production has already slipped well below that value. Okafor is only on year two of the six-year, $72 million deal he signed with Charlotte. That’s two subpar pieces eating up about ¼ of the cap for the next two years.

The only avenue of hope is the possibility of flipping Peja’s $13 million and/or Mo Pete’s $5.8 million expiring contracts next season for a big-time player. Even if they can, I don’t see how it puts them ahead of Denver, Utah or Oklahoma City going forward, let alone the Lakers.

So, I see the Hornets as a team in limbo. They’ll always be competitive as long as Chris Paul is around, but it seems like it will be a long time before they’re anything more than competitive. I never imagined I’d be saying that so shortly on the heels of that (apparently faux) breakthrough 2007-2008 season.

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