Hornets eager to see how new lineup fares
"I'm sure a lot of people are counting us out," said Hornets power forward Carl Landry, who started after West's knee injury late last season and returned in free agency with the promise of becoming the full-time starter. "We've got guys that want to be good players in this league and they come and practice hard every day, and I'm sure it will have a carry-over into game situations."
Coach Monty Williams and general manager Dell Demps were unable to persuade Paul, a four-time All-Star, to commit to becoming the cornerstone of their program in New Orleans, so Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for three new players and a 2012 first-round draft pick. West, a former two-time All-Star, chose to move on to Indiana in free agency.
With the Hornets temporarily owned by the NBA, which is trying to find a permanent local buyer by sometime in 2012, the club has struggled to win long-term commitments from any big-name players.
It probably did not help that the league took a public relations beating and was hit with conflict-of-interest accusations when Commissioner David Stern refused to approve a proposed trade of Paul to the Lakers before brokering the deal with the Clippers.
Even though Landry agreed to come back, he signed only a one-year contract with New Orleans, with his agent saying his client believes in Williams and Demps, but wanted to see how the eventual new owner would proceed before he could agree to a longer deal.
While Landry joins a starting five that has lost its top playmaker (Paul) and leading scorer (West), there is a new scoring threat in Eric Gordon, who averaged 22 points while he was part of a struggling Clippers team last season. Gordon will start in place of Marco Belinelli, who remains on the squad as a reserve.
New Orleans also could be stronger in the middle with the addition of 7-foot center Chris Kaman, a former All-Star who came to New Orleans along with Gordon and small forward Al-Farouq Aminu as part of the Paul trade. Kaman, who appears to have returned healthy from an ankle injury that plagued him last season, will back up Emeka Okafor, and Williams has said both could play together at times.
Trevor Ariza, one of New Orleans' best defensive players, is back at small forward, with second-year pros Quincy Pondexter and Aminu -- both 2010 first-round draft picks -- vying for backup minutes at that spot.
The 6-foot-9 Aminu, drafted eighth overall by the Clippers, averaged 5.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in 17.9 minutes in his rookie season. Demps said he sees Ariza as an ideal mentor for Aminu.
"We like Trevor. He brings a lot and anchors our defense on the perimeter," Demps said. "But we also want to see what Aminu can do. ... You know he's a guy who has a lot of potential. We want to make sure we get the most out of that potential."
Point guard Jarrett Jack will have to try to fill the enormous void left by Paul. Jack had experience as a starter for three previous teams -- Portland, Indiana and Toronto -- before coming to the Hornets in a trade from the Raptors early last season. When Paul was sidelined by a concussion for two games last season, Jack thrived as a starter, surpassing 20 points in both games.
Jack said he is eager to see how productive the Hornets' backcourt can be when he is paired with Gordon, who Jack called "one of the more underrated players in the league" and an "unbelievable talent."
"He can score in a number of ways," Jack said of Gordon. "He stretches the court. When you penetrate, he gives you another shooter on the wing."
Gordon, meanwhile, said he believes he'll be under less pressure to score this season than he was with the Clippers.
"We're an overall balanced team and I'm looking forward to being more of a playmaker and being a good leader on this team," Gordon said.
Little was expected of the Hornets last season, even when they had Paul and West, in large part because the Hornets missed the playoffs in 2009-10. But Williams instituted a new system that lifted the Hornets to the upper reaches of the NBA's defensive rankings.
The Hornets allowed 94 points per game last season, fifth fewest in the NBA. That allowed them to be competitive in most games.
They hope the same formula works this season.
"That's our calling card," Williams said. "We want to be a defensive team, and if we can score 115 points and hold teams to 90, I'd be happy. If we hold teams to 90 and score 91, I'll be just as happy."
Regardless of how much they win, the Hornets at least know they'll have fan support. Despite the recent NBA lockout, the Hornets still managed to sell more than 10,000 season tickets. The club's marketing campaign asked fans and businesses to see the Hornets as a community asset that could have long-term success and stability in New Orleans with the proper support.
Landry said he and his teammates have every intention of holding up their end of the bargain.
''We want to show them that we still do have a good basketball team," he said.