After just about two weeks of play, there are three undefeated teams left in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks sit atop the Eastern Conference at 6-0 and the Lakers are back in their familiar home as the number one team in West after a 6-0 start. While both of those records are impressive, when you look at the quality of competition they have faced, it’d be hard to say they shouldn’t be undefeated at this point.
The Hawks have faced the Memphis Grizzlies, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Cavs are the only team in that group that made the post-season last year but they figure to be back in the cellar this season after losing the best player in the league during the off-season.
The Lakers have defeated the Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors. Again, other than the Suns, none of those teams made the playoffs last season, and Phoenix is still adjusting to losing all-world power forward Amare Stoudemire.
Like I said, that’s rather underwhelming competition, featuring just two playoff teams from last year, both of which lost a top 10 player in the league over the summer.
But the other undefeated team. Well, they haven’t been so lucky to have a cupcake schedule early on in the season. No, the New Orleans Hornets have only played one team that did not make the playoffs last season. Just one. The Houston Rockets didn’t make the post-season last year, but they are a division opponent and the game was in Houston, so even that match-up wasn’t a given.
The other teams they have faced, the Milwaukee Bucks (twice), Denver Nuggets (a bit of a rival ever since the 2009 post-season), San Antonio Spurs (division rival, in San Antonio), and the Miami Heat, all made the post-season last year and the Heat are one of the four teams considered to be in serious title contention.
Chris Paul has been wheeling and dealing all season long, returning to best point guard in the league form. Paul is tops in the league in pure point rating, which is a more advanced version of assist/turnover ratio. Paul is averaging 20 points and 11 dimes on the season while shooting 49% from the field. Paul has done a lot more probing and creating than in year’s past, only taking shots when his team absolutely needs him to score the ball. Time after time, Paul has penetrated into the lane and kicked it out to his wing shooters, who, to this point, have not been particularly effective.
Marco Belinelli has shot 37% from three on the season while Trevor Ariza is only converting at a 35% clip from long range. Still, neither has been short on looks from distance, Paul continuous to get into the lane and draw defenders away them. Also, Ariza does have the single biggest shot on the season for the Hornets, knocking down the game-clinching triple against the Heat after a CP3 drive and dish.
The pick and pop game has been fueling the Hornets’ offense while their long range shooting is working. David West is producing at his usual extremely high rate, popping in shots when it matters most. On the season, West has shot 6.6 16-23 footers per game, making 58% of them, which would easily lead the league if he continued on at this rate. Newcomer Jason Smith has also impressed. When the Hornets traded for Smith, I noted that this was his game, but that he hadn’t had any success doing it prior to this season. So far this season, he’s turned everything around, taking nearly five shots from 16-23 feet, a remarkable number for a reserve, all of which have been off the pick and pop with Paul, and he’s knocked 50% of them down (100% of them have been assisted on, according to HoopData).
Anchoring the Hornets’ fifth ranked defense, other than Ariza who has done a masterful job on the wing (Belinelli has been solid as well), has been center Emeka Okafor. After being pretty much the same player for the first six seasons of his career, Okafor seems to have a made a tad of improvement to his game. His post-game looks a bit more defined and his touch thus far has been better. Okafor is averaging around the same numbers he has for his career (13 points, nine rebounds, two blocks), but his 12-for-13 performance against the Heat (26 points and 13 rebounds) was huge and he’s been sound defensively.
Despite the brilliant play from the Hornets’ starters, its a bit surprising to see New Orleans out to such a fast start because their bench has not been nearly as effective as I thought it would be. Marcus Thornton is putting in a respectable 9 points on 46% shooting and Smith has been extremely effective offensively and his hustle on both ends of the floor has made him less of a liability on the other end. Other than that, though, Peja Stojakovic has seen his role go from possible gunner off the bench to trade bait because of his expiring contract, rookie Quincy Pondexter has failed to get a lot of burn, likely because he is still earning the trust of Monty Williams and the rest of the Hornets’ coaching staff, and off-season acquisition Jerryd Bayless hasn’t done much as the back-up point guard, though he has the potential to do a lot more.
Though it is too early to say this quick start for the Hornets is enough to put them among the NBA’s elite, there is no denying that that this is one of the most impressive stories of the young season that definitely makes New Orleans one of the most intriguing teams to watch going forward. If they can end up using Peja’s expiring contract to get an effective bench scorer to create an even more dynamic second unit with Bayless and Thornton, the Hornets will be in business and would put themselves into the championship conversation.
But even if they don’t make a move, this team is playing excellent basketball. Monty Williams has this team committed defensively, role players are stepping up in big moments and Chris Paul has rightfully regained his throne as the best point guard in the league. And previous experience has taught me never to bet against Paul when he’s got a locked in group of talented players around him like he does right now.