The Bucks play host to NBA elite tonight as Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets come to the Bradley Center. To mark the occasion, we were lucky enough to interview Hornets.com reporter Jim Eichenhofer, who kindly offers a fresh, expert perspective on tonight's opponent. Thanks Jim!
BH: Since arriving in New Orleans, Tyson Chandler has dramatically raised his scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, and overall effectiveness. The Bucks' point guard-center combination of Mo Williams and Andrew Bogut (affectionately dubbed Mogut) has often succeeded on individual levels this year, but they lack consistent chemistry. How have Chris Paul and Chandler coexisted so successfully, and in what areas can they improve?
JE: Paul has aided Chandler’s career turnaround by showing confidence in him since the day the center arrived in July 2006. Chandler was well on his way to being labeled a "bust" after five mostly disappointing seasons in Chicago, but he has transformed into a completely different player since being traded to the Hornets.
At the offensive end, it seems like Paul feeds Chandler for an alley-oop dunk about three times a game, often after a high pick-and-roll. According to stats I saw recently, they are the most prolific alley-oop combination in the NBA right now, by a pretty wide margin. I think a big reason this high-percentage play has worked so often is that they’ve had more than a season to learn each other’s games. Paul realizes that you only have to throw the ball somewhere in the vicinity of the hoop, and Chandler will use his 7-foot-1 stature and impressive wingspan to catch and slam.
In terms of areas where they can improve, I’m not sure what else Paul can do at this point – he’s a legit MVP candidate. Chandler still needs to refine his low-post moves, but he’s improved a lot in that area as well in the past season and a half. You have to give Byron Scott and his assistant coaches major credit for making Chandler a much more confident and effective offensive player. He averaged a career-low 5.3 points in his final season with Chicago. Two seasons later, he’s putting up 12.2 per night, the first time in his seven NBA years that he’s averaging double-figure points.
BH: Barring a collapse, playoff basketball is coming to New Orleans this spring. The Hornets are 6-2 combined this season against the Suns, Spurs, and Nuggets. They have lost both games against the Jazz, by an average of 25 points. Which playoff contenders provide the best and worst matchups for the Hornets?
JE: You already mentioned their toughest matchup, which has to be Utah. In general, New Orleans has not matched up well against big, physical teams like the Jazz. On the other hand, the Hornets are 3-0 against Phoenix, which plays a fast-paced, up-tempo style. Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is that New Orleans has been one of the most consistent defensive teams in the league – the Hornets’ performance at that end of the floor does not vary greatly from night to night. The offense has been inconsistent at times, however. Teams like Utah that can put the clamps down on New Orleans and hold the Hornets under 90 points have presented problems. The Hornets have only scored 71 and 88 points in two losses in Salt Lake City this season. You’re not going to win many games that way. Conversely, in their two wins at Phoenix, the Hornets have scored 118 and 132 points.
BH: The Lakers and Suns made bold moves recently by acquiring Pau Gasol and Shaquille O'Neal respectively. The Mavericks were rumored to have interest in O'Neal, while the Warriors, Jazz, and Spurs have also made moves to bolster their playoff hopes. While the top contenders are repositioning themselves, the Hornets seem to have a quiet contentment. What, if any, key ingredients must the Hornets add before they can realistically emerge from the West this season and in years to come? Or do they just need some thyme (or time) and seasoning and to wait for this stew to properly simmer before they can truly set the West afire?
JE: Every contending team is always looking to make moves to improve, but to be perfectly honest with you, I would be fine with the Hornets not doing anything before the trade deadline. New Orleans had a slew of new players on the roster last season and also had more key injuries than any NBA team (although the 2006-07 Bucks definitely gave us a run for our money in that department).
As a result, many of our players have not been on the floor together a whole lot. Part of the improvement that has happened this season is a result simply of the Hornets familiarizing themselves with each other’s games and getting comfortable as a group. Last season, it was impossible to become a cohesive unit with so many guys being shuffled in and out of the lineup due to injuries.
In terms of what the Hornets need to add, it’s no secret that their bench has been disappointing. If New Orleans could add a productive and reliable veteran to boost the reserve unit and not give up a lot in the deal, that might make sense. On the other hand, the bench has played noticeably better since returns from injury by frontcourt players Melvin Ely (fractured eye socket) and Ryan Bowen (sprained knee). Even if the team stands pat, there is reason to think the bench will continue to improve with those guys back on the floor.
BH: Speaking of the West, David West is averaging career highs in points and rebounds, and is blocking roughly twice as many shots as last season. Clearly we aren't the only ones to notice, because he was recently selected as an All-Star for the first time in his career. The Bucks have a pair of power forwards who were chosen higher than David West in the draft, but can only hope to someday match his production. How has West progressed from a rookie who averaged less than four points to an All-Star today?
JE: In hindsight, I think the only things West needed to become an excellent NBA player were opportunity and health. He did not play a ton as a rookie in 2003-04, because at the time the Hornets were a veteran-laden, playoff team. In his second season the chance to play clearly was there on an 18-64 club, but injuries limited him to 30 games. In his third year, he was moved into the starting lineup and was back to 100 percent physically. The result was a 2005-06 in which he tallied a team-leading 17.1 scoring average and a runner-up finish in the NBA’s Most Improved Player voting (behind Phoenix’s Boris Diaw). He’s been improving individually every season. Now he’s an All-Star.
BH: Against all odds, the Hornets have thrived, performing beyond expectations over the last two years. What is your perspective on the Hornets' success in spite of bouncing between New Orleans and Oklahoma City, playing in the NBA's toughest division, having one of the league's smallest payrolls, and the general uncertainty of the franchise?
JE: Wow, great question. I’m not sure if I can sufficiently answer this one in a few paragraphs. Let me put it this way, though: One of the more admirable things about this team throughout the past three seasons is that it never used off-the-court issues as an excuse. The players have never fallen back on the franchise’s unenviable circumstances as a reason for poor play or disappointing games.
I frequently get asked how difficult it has been for the organization – not just players, but also team employees like myself – to deal with what the Hornets have gone through. Although we have encountered several unprecedented challenges that no other NBA team has ever faced, frankly you can’t compare a basketball team’s adversity to what thousands of people in the city of New Orleans have endured during and after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
I’d like to believe that the players and everyone else affiliated with the Hornets who returned here in summer 2007 have a unique understanding of why they should be grateful for how blessed they are to either be playing or working in professional sports.
BH: Let's fast forward to this summer in Beijing. Michael Redd is a strong candidate to serve as Team USA's sharpshooter off the bench in the Olympics following his performance at the FIBA Americas. Tyson Chandler and Chris Paul have also spent time in the national team's system recently. There is a lot of depth and competition, especially at point guard, where Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups, and Deron Williams impressed in a dominant run last summer. With Paul transforming into an MVP-level player this season, USA Basketball must consider him an attractive option. Should Chandler or Paul make the team? From the Hornets' perspective, would you want them to make the team and play this summer?
JE: As someone who gets to watch Paul play every game, I think one of the biggest reasons why he is a great fit for USA Basketball is because he’s proven he can be an effective point guard by taking 25 shots in a game or five. He can adjust his game to whatever the team needs, which is crucial on a USA team where you already have plenty of guys who can fill up the basket. Although Paul is now the Hornets’ leading scorer, he can easily adapt to pass-first mode. As I type this, for example, he just scored two points but piled up 16 assists against Memphis, and New Orleans won by 13.
The Hornets were very happy that Chandler gained the invaluable experience of suiting up for USA Basketball last summer, because it gave him a chance to compete with some of the NBA’s elite players. That can only help a player who is trying to steadily improve and move into the next level of stardom. He is not an All-Star player yet, but he’s getting close. Obviously, the fact that he excels at very specific skills – as one of the NBA’s best rebounders and most feared shot-blockers at 7-foot-1 – makes him a good fit for USA Basketball. To its credit, USA Basketball has gotten away from loading up the roster with high-scoring superstar guys, instead trying to find a more sensible mix of scorers and role players. That’s what makes Chandler an ideal candidate to make the team.