What happened to the Hornets?

New Orleans was one of the best teams in the league last season. Chris Paul played at a MVP level and David West blossomed into a bona fide All-Star. Tyson Chandler turned into one of the best defensive centers in the league and the team got solid play from Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson. Over the second half of the season (and the playoffs) it looked like Julian Wright was turning into a starter-quality player right before our eyes.

Fast forward a few months, and after adding NBA Finals hero James Posey, the Hornets have lost five of their last seven games and are sitting at 5-5. It gets worse: they lost to Charlotte two weeks ago and lost last night, at home, to a Sacramento Kings team that was without Kevin Martin.

But Posey certainly is not the one to blame. His PER of 14.18 is actually the second-highest of his career. The only disadvantage I can see to the Posey signing is that it has taken valuable minutes away from Julian Wright.

No, the problem in New Orleans is not Posey, Paul, West or Chandler. They’re all posting the same numbers as last season. The problem is Peja Stojakovic. The team is paying him $13 million this season (and owe him another $29.5 million over the next two seasons) for the privilege of having him shoot 37% from the field and 38% from long range. Stojakovic is a poor defender, so if he’s not knocking down shots, he’s hurting the Hornets on both ends of the court. And right now he’s not knocking down shots.

I didn’t like the Stojakovic trade when it happened, and I really don’t like it now. I’d like to see the Hornets move him and give more minutes to Posey and Wright. But it’s going to be tough to find a team that wants to trade for a 31 year-old shooter who has two years left on a bloated contract and hasn’t shot better than 44% since the 2004-05 season. Stojakovic helped the team last year because he shot 44% from long range. Unfortunately, that was a career-high, and he’s not likely to match it this season.

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Couch Potato Alert: NBA Friday

With 12 games on the docket for Friday, there is bound to be a few games worth watching. I’m going to keep my eye on these games…

Trail Blazers (5-3) @ Hornets (4-3), 8 PM ET
The Blazers have won four straight and their first two of a five-game road trip. Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge have been outstanding, and they just got Greg Oden back on Wednesday. The Hornets are 4-3 need a win here to get back on track. They are just 2-2 at home with losses to the Lakers and the Hawks. Chris Paul is in MVP form and David West is playing well, but they aren’t getting much from Peja Stojakovic (39% FG%). Byron Scott is (ponderously) only playing Julian Wright in very limited minutes, which is surprising considering how strong Wright came on last season.

Pistons (6-2) @ Lakers (7-0), 10:30 PM ET (ESPN)
Detroit is hitting the second of a back-to-back, so the Lakers have a distinct advantage tonight. Still, if the Pistons are on their game, they can test the Lakers. Allen Iverson is averaging 21.8 points, 7.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds in four games with the Pistons. Meanwhile, the Lakers are still trying to figure out how to use Lamar Odom off the bench and are trying to get something other than defense out of Andrew Bynum. The upside is that Trevor Ariza is starting to look like a star (or at least a starter) in the making.

2008 NBA Preview: #3 New Orleans Hornets

Offseason Movement: The Hornets #1 job this offseason was to lock up Chris Paul, and they managed to sign the superstar point guard to a deal that runs through 2013. GM Jeff Bower poached James Posey from the Celtics in a move that will bolster the team’s bench. He also signed Devin Brown to give the team some depth at guard.
Keep Your Eye On: The Hornets’ wings
In Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler, New Orleans has three of the top players in the league at their respective positions. (Chandler isn’t an offensive force, but he’s a terrific shot blocker and rebounder and his contract is a bargain at the center position.) The key to the Hornets success might be the play at off guard and small forward, which are currently manned by Morris Peterson and Peja Stojakovic, respectively. Both players are 31 and have shown signs of decline. Neither player is a defensive force, so if their shots aren’t falling, there’s really no reason for them to be on the floor. Julian Wright is an up-and-coming small forward who played very well in limited minutes last season and James Posey was signed for his championship experience, tough defense and clutch shooting. Devin Brown will also play a factor.
The Big Question: Can the Paul/West combo lead these Hornets to the Finals?
Both Paul (23) and West (28) are in their primes so the championship window is wide open. They nearly upended the Spurs in last year’s playoffs and have added a valuable piece (Posey) to their championship puzzle. The Hornets need good shooting from their wings to give Paul and West the space to operate. Whomever is on the floor in crunch time needs to be able to knock down shots because inevitably the Hornets’ season will depend on it.
Outlook: With Paul locked up for five years and West locked up for the next three, the Hornets are clearly in their championship sweet spot. But it seems like the team is one player away from being a serious title contender. Stojakovic was supposed to be that guy, but his defensive limitations and suspect shooting in the clutch may make the Hornets regret signing that huge contract two summers ago (if they aren’t already regretting it). Don’t be surprised if Posey gets a lot of crunch time minutes. If he can perform like he did with the Celtics last season, the Hornets have a good shot of getting out of the West.

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