Hornets, Rockets get off to surprising starts
The beginning of an NBA season usually offers some surprises, and the starts for the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets are just that. They just happen to be going in opposite directions.
Houston owns a 1-5 record after collecting its first win Nov. 7, a 120-94 drubbing of the hapless Minnesota Timberwolves. Before then, the Rockets had dropped five straight to open the season, losing to Denver, New Orleans, Golden State, San Antonio, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet most of Houston’s losses have been close games — three being decided by margins of four points or less.
The Rockets have looked terrific at times, with Luis Scola blossoming as a central figure for the team. Scola is averaging 22.5 points and 12.3 rebounds in his first six games while Kevin Martin is posting 23 points over the same span.
But the return of Yao Ming has sent the team into a state of flux. He has only been cleared medically to play for 24 minutes each game and is being held out of back-to-backs. As such, he has appeared in four of the team’s six games and has been unable to make a big impact due to his medical restrictions. Furthermore, having Yao coming and going from the starting lineup is wreaking havoc as the team tries to build chemistry and set rotations.
As a result, the Rockets have allowed 112.7 points per game this season after allowing 102.7 last season. Trading away Trevor Ariza — who played solid wing defense for this team — did not help matters, considering Shane Battier is getting up there in age. Combine that with the knowledge that neither Martin, Aaron Brooks, nor Scola are known as defensive-minded players, and that makes beating teams difficult without a turbo-charged offense.
The Rockets have not had an easy schedule to start the season either, losing to three Western Conference playoff teams from last season and to two upstarts in Golden State and New Orleans. They finally got fat on a lower-caliber team in Minnesota, and that was without Brooks, who will be out four to six weeks with a sprained left ankle.
Right now, the Rockets’ prospects look bleak, but there is too much talent on this team for it to be in the doldrums all year long.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Hornets have been the surprise of the league. They own a 6-0 record and are in a tie with the Lakers for the best record in the NBA, having knocked off Milwaukee twice, Denver, Houston, San Antonio, and Miami.
New Orleans has been doing it with stifling defense, holding opponents to 91.5 points per game on 42 percent field goal shooting.
And the most surprising aspect to the fast start by the Hornets is that this is fundamentally the same team that went 37-45 last season and allowed 102.7 points per game. Granted, Chris Paul missed 37 games due to injury, but this team did not exactly undergo a facelift over the summer. Emeka Okafor and David West are back from last season
Trevor Ariza and Marco Belinelli are the new starting small forward and shooting guard respectively, but the real surprise has been the play of bench players like Jason Smith (8.7 points per game), Marcus Thornton (7.3 points), and Willie Green (6.2 points). With Jerryd Bayless and D.J. Mbenga also playing close to 10 minutes per game, this team seems to be a collection of misfits and outcasts who never received a decent opportunity but are thriving in this new environment.
And for that, much credit must go to new head coach Monty Williams, whose 6-0 mark to start his head coaching career is tied for 4th-best all time in NBA history. He has the team playing with heart and giving a solid effort every night.
This may all be just an illusion, considering that the Hornets average just 97.5 points per game. New Orleans most likely snuck up on some teams that thought they were playing last season’s Hornets, but once scouts start dissecting the Hornets more thoroughly, the going may become a bit more difficult.
But for now, things are going great in the bayou. Almost great enough to put to rest those pesky Paul trade rumors.
By: Eric Lorenz
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