Greetings to both Thunder fans and a warm welcome to Hornets fans who are coming to us from the blog At the Hive. We're beginning a little experiment today where the Hive's GM Rohan and I will be doing a little bit of dialogue on our respective teams as well as our impression of what is going on around the league. We hope to carry the effort forward a few times a week as we approach the playoffs.
In any event, this experiment should be...interesting. Let's see where it takes us.
Hello, Rohan. Welcome to Loud City. My first question for you today is the obvious one - what is up with Chris Paul's health, and what are his odds of getting back into the fray and being effective this year? Can the Hornets carry themselves against a murderer's row in his absence?
That's a good question to start with because the answer essentially dictates how the Hornets' season plays out. From a health/physical standpoint, Chris Paul seems to have progressed well since the start of the year. He recently got his (bulky) knee brace off, and at no point has he had a visible limp or anything. But CP3 has also struggled at times this year, including an especially brutal stretch towards the end of February. He attributed that slump to a "lack of confidence," and right as he was starting to play his way out of it (a strong game against Memphis and a strong first half against the Cavaliers) he suffered a concussion in Cleveland. I think it speaks volumes as to how strong his November-January was in that he still leads the NBA in Win Shares despite the way the past month has gone.
The Hornets sans Paul are a better team than the average fan might assume because their success has been entirely a defensive phenomenon. That's not to discount the value of Paul because he's arguably the team's best offensive and defensive (though I'd give the nod to Okafor) player. In general, the Hornets are very poor at offense with Chris Paul, and they're even worse without him, but it's defense that has earned them wins this year. And that smoothly segues into a question I have about OKC's defense.. (well done, Rohan!)
It seems like 'elite' teams like to keep guys around who can match up with the best perimeter/wing players in the game defensively. Kevin Durant is obviously one of those guys. As a close observer of the Durant's game, what kind of defense do you see him struggle with the most ("struggle," of course, being a relative term)? Is it against elite defenders that play him one on one or against teams that may lack great wing defenders that instead try and force him towards help?
Great insight, Rohan. I think that the league perception, and even within the Western Conference, does not really understand what makes the Hornets tick. Because the name Chris Paul has become so synonymous with the franchise, and by fact that he has earned his stripes by playing the point guard position at the highest level, we tend to think that the team is all about offensive efficiencies rather than defense.
Speaking of defense, let us take a quick perusal of the season series between the Thunder and Hornets have played, I can see that Durant has shot 7-22, 8-20, 7-18, and 14-19, with the last game being the anomaly. In those first three games, the responsibility for guarding Durant fell on Trevor Ariza, who has sort of made his claim in the league for his defense. He logged major minutes in those games and did an exceptional job in hanging himself on Durant like a shirt. His playing time went way down in game four, and I think that was a big factor in Durant going off for 43.
I can also attest to the fact that in the rest of the NBA landscape, Durant has struggled most with the Lakers' Ron Artest and the Grizzlies' Tony Allen. I think you can see the pattern between the three. All three of those men possess something that drives Durant crazy - strength and length. At this point in Durant's career, he does not possess the physical stature to toss people aside the way LeBron James or Kobe Bryant does. He has to be able to get space. If he can get that space, he'll score on everybody. But if the defender can close on that space with length and prevent him from threading through screens with strength, the defender stands a good shot at holding back Durant's game.
Which brings me to my next question - what is up with Trevor Ariza? A few years back, he was a critical component in the Lakers' championship push, both with his defense and shooting. What happened to him this year, and is he worth keeping around simply for his strong man to man defense?
With respect to Ariza, I think you have it exactly- that Lakers' championship push appears to have vastly overrated his true abilities by GMs around the league. During that run to the NBA Finals, Ariza randomly almost 50% of his threes. He's barely a career 30% shooter from deep (sub 30% in his first year as a Hornet), and that's in line with his release. It lacks consistency, there appears to be a strange jerk motion right before the release, and his lower body seems to have no rhythm whatsoever with the rest of his shot. Revisiting that Laker Finals run for a second- Ariza hit 40 of 84 attempts from distance. For a 31% career three point shooter that's remarkable. The Hornets (and the Rockets before them) seem convinced that Ariza's an adequate shooter. Chris Paul will routinely set him up for open threes during games with brilliant passes only to watch Ariza clang them (expectedly).
On the defensive end, he was certainly performing up to expectations, at least until his recent injury. The Hornets still hold the best defensive efficiency in the Western Conference, even after their horrid stretch without Emeka Okafor, and significant credit must be given to Ariza. Of course, the subsequent question then is if his offense cancels his defense. In my opinion, it essentially does, rendering Ariza a net zero to the team. In any case, there's certainly no way Monty Williams, with all his emphasis on defense, drops him from the starting role, and there really isn't anybody else that could step into the starting role either.
Maybe I'm mistaken here, but do you see any parallels between Ariza and Sefolosha, both in terms of style of play, and value in the context of the rest of the starting lineup? Sefolosha produces almost 15 more points per 100 possessions than Ariza, but he too seems to fit more into that role playing mold, right?
I hate to tell you this about your man Ariza, but it does look like he's been the beneficiary of the Phil Jackson legend. For whatever reason, Jackson has a strange ability to find guys like Ariza, and other guys like Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Bill Wennington, and Bobby Hansen before him, who just seem to fit into a role perfectly. They end up doing that one thing so well at the perfect point in time that it seems natural that they would be able to do it elsewhere. Inevitably though the players move on, get better contracts, and return to earth. At least Ariza still plays strong defense.
I think that Ariza and Sefolosha are only similar on the surface in that they're both big shooting guards. Stylistically though, they're very different. Often times Sefolosha seems afraid to shoot; it is rare when he takes more than 3-4 shots per game. He is very deferential to the rest of the Thunder, and I think it probably holds him back developmentally. On defense, Sefolosha's greatest strength is in his ability to body up against big guards. He can guard a player like Kobe Bryant in the post because he can deal with the physical play and contact. In open space however, Sefolosha is not as good. Ariza is much better at staying on the ball and using his height and reach, as well as fighting through screens. Over time, I think we're going to see James Harden get more and more of Sefolosha's minutes, especially in crunch time.
Staying with defense, are you satisfied with what you're seeing out of the Hornets right now? Last night seemed to be a bit of an anomaly, with the Hornets having given up 114 to Denver (Denver won, 114-103). Any chance of catching the Nuggets for that 5th spot?
On paper, the Hornets should be able to overtake them. Of course, the on-court offense has never come close to matching the paper this season for the Hornets. And therein lies my biggest gripe with Monty Williams- a team with Chris Paul on it should in no way, shape, or form be posting the second or third worst offense in the conference. It's unfathomable. There have been some signs of change since the addition of Carl Landry to the bench and since Chris Paul's recent reinvigoration. But it's been frustrating, especially given the team's ability on the defensive end. What Monty Williams has accomplished (primarily via Okafor, Ariza, and Paul) on that end is remarkable. If the Hornets were to return to the offensive efficiencies of the Byron Scott days, they'd be a contender in the West. It's a classic case of "can't have your cake and eat it too"... I think.
To be continued...
(if you have any thoughts or questions you would like either Rohan or myself to address, please add them in the comments and we'll do our best to discuss.