Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Whether in Charlotte or New Orleans, the Hornets franchise is where dynasties go to never start.

For the better part of two decades, the Hornets have managed to acquire- either via the draft or through trades- a number of gifted players, in or before their primes, often in groups of two or three.

Over that same stretch, with their various collections of young stars, the Hornets have consistently been seen as an up-and-coming team “on the cusp of greatness.”

Each of their successes, particularly in the postseason, tend to be overrated, while their shortcomings are deemed “learning experiences,” as observers envision a time in the near future when this team is a legitimate contender.

The pattern began in 1992 when, a year after selecting Larry Johnson with the top pick in the draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Alonzo Mourning with the second overall pick. The team now had perhaps the most talented and powerful frontcourt in the league, to combine with sharpshooter Dell Curry, pint-sized PG Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and Kendall Gill on the wing.

The budding dynasty appeared to be well on its way, as the Hornets posted a then-franchise-record 44 wins, +13- from the previous season, and secured the franchise’s first-ever trip to the playoffs. Optimism was ratcheted up further in the postseason’s opening round, as the Hornets dramatically knocked off the Boston Celtics on a Game 4 buzzer-beater from Mourning. That they fell to the Knicks in five games in the conference semifinals was not a big deal- the dynasty was ahead of schedule.

The team hit a speed bump the following season, finishing 41-41 and missing the playoffs by a single game, as injuries robbed Mourning and Larry Johnson of a combined 53 games.

The Hornets overcame the hiccup in 1994-95, as a healthier crew secured the first 50-win season in franchise history and home court in the first round of the playoffs. Charlotte fell 3-1 to the Chicago Bulls and a fresh-off-baseball-sabbatical Michael Jordan. Though no one new it at the time, Mourning and Johnson would never play together again, as friction between the two young stars led to Mourning being traded to Miami in the offseason, in exchange for Miami sharpshooter Glen Rice.

Suddenly, this incredibly optimistic chapter for the Hornets had come to an abrupt end.

Despite missing the playoffs after another 41-41 finish, the Hornets would ride the talents of several talented young players- Rice, Anthony Mason, Eddie Jones, Baron Davis, Ricky Davis, David Wesley, Derrick Coleman and Jamal Mashburn, among others- to seven playoff appearances in the next eight seasons. While it’s debatable whether they were ever truly title contenders, just three trips to the second round during this stretch probably qualifies as a disappointing end to another potentially great era.

A quick tangent before we return to “Potential Unrealized: The Hornets’ Story.” In the midst of the aforementioned run (before the 2002-03 season to be exact), the Hornets were relocated from Charlotte to New Orleans, amid waning attendance and local politics (in which owner George Shinn won himself no friends) derailing plans for a new arena. This arena was eventually built, as is currently home to the Bobcats. As a result of his role in the Hornets sudden departure from Charlotte, Shinn, who has not returned to Charlotte since the move, is still a pariah in the city.

Now, back to the “happier” portion of our story.

In the summer of 2003, heading into what was to become the final playoff season in the Baron Davis-Jamal Mashburn era, the Hornets used the 18th pick in the draft to steal David West, a standout power forward from Xavier. West would get limited burn in his first couple of seasons, the first of which included another first round playoff exit.

The following year the Hornets stumbled to an atrocious (but later fortuitous) 18-64 record, during which Baron Davis was traded to the Golden State Warriors. The trade, along with a few cooperative ping-pong balls and Billy Knight’s disdain for point guards paved the way for the arrival of Chris Paul, a legitimate superstar and the best lead guard to enter the NBA in years.

After being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets turned in a pair of sub-.500 seasons in Oklahoma City, before returning to the Crescent City.

In 2007-08, the Hornets- now powered by Paul, West, Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler- ripped off 56 wins and came out of left field to lock up the #2 seed in Western Conference playoffs. Paul led the way as the upstart Hornets dismantled the Dallas Mavericks and pushed the veteran Spurs to seven games in Round 2.

But it was ok. No big deal- the dynasty was ahead of schedule.

Not so fast!

In 2008-09, the Hornets, now carrying the weight of expectations, turned in a respectable 49-win regular season (good for 7th in the West) and drew the Denver Nuggets. What followed will be remembered as one of the most savage beatings in playoff history. The Nuggets not only dismantled the Hornets in five games- four wins coming by an average of 31 points, including a 58-point demolition (121-63)- but effectively ended the ascendancy of Hornets’ latest talented young core.

For Hornets’ fans, if the pattern holds, the best and worst part of all this is that lots more optimism is likely not too far off.

But then…

PG- Chris Paul (19.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 10.7 apg, 2.4 spg in 345 games)

Nothing here about the developments of recent weeks other than to say that Paul, still under contract for two more years, want help, or he wants out.

Glad we ID’d the elephant in the room, now let’s really talk some CP3.

With all due respect to Baron Davis (15.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.7 apg, 1.9 spg in 381 games) and the longtime inspirational leader of the franchise, Muggsy Bogues (8.8 ppg, 8.8 apg, 1.7 spg in 632 games), this was not even close.

Chris Paul is special. A legitimate superstar and Magic-style alpha dog lead guard. From his first game in the NBA, Paul had the look of a seasoned vet put on this planet to do one thing- run the point.

Chris Paul combines speed, quickness, toughness, sublime ballhandling and the ability to completely take over a game better than any small guard in league history, with the possible exception of Isiah Thomas. And he’s a good bet to crash that one-man party some day.

His numbers are fantastic- especially 2007-08 (21.1 ppg, 4 rpg, 11.6 apg, 2.7 spg, 48.8% FG) and 2008-09 (22.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 11 apg, 2.8 spg 50.3% FG), two of the best individual seasons by a player 6’ or shorter.

His credentials are also beyond question: 2006 Rookie of the Year, three-time All-Star, selected once each to the All-NBA 1st and 2nd Team, as well as All-Defensive 1st and 2nd Team and second, behind only Kobe Bryant, in the 2008 MVP voting.

But to truly understand the brilliance of Chris Paul, one needs to see him at the peak of his powers. While there is no shortage of outstanding CP3 performances to choose from, the second half of his first-ever playoff game comprehensively outlines his greatness.

At home in Game 1, trailing the veteran Dallas Mavericks by a dozen points at half and the crowd taken out of the game, Paul launched an all-out assault in second half (third quarter in particular) the like of which we rarely witness. He spectacularly scored 15 of the Hornets’ 36 third quarter points, while stifling (this is not a strong enough word) Jason Kidd on the perimeter and single-handedly created an atmosphere that was palpable through a television set.

Paul ended the game with 35 points, 10 assists, four steals and a blocked shot- though it felt like he played even better than that- as the Hornets held Dallas to 40 second half points en route to reversing the halftime deficit in a 104-92.

SG- Dell Curry (14 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 40.5% 3-pt in 701 games)

Seldom a starter and never the best player on any of the teams on which he played.

However, along with Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry will forever be the face of the Hornets’ days in Charlotte. He is also still one of the players most associated with the Hornets franchise, regardless of geography.

Entering his third season in the NBA, Curry was selected by the Hornets in the expansion draft prior to the 1988-89 season. He spent the next ten seasons in Charlotte, where he established himself as one of the best sixth men of his era, winning the 1994 Sixth Man of the Year, and one of best outside shooters in NBA history.

Curry ranks first in franchise history in games played (701), points (9,839), FG attempted (8,559), FG made (3,951), 3-pointers attempted (2,294) and made (929). Additionally, Curry ranks third in Hornets’ history in 3-point percentage (40.5%) and fourth steals (747). For his career, Dell Curry hit 1,245 3-points, good for 29th in NBA history.

Another noteworthy Hornets’ two-guard is David Wesley, who averaged 14.7 ppg and 4.7 apg and 1.5 spg in 522 games with the team. In seven full seasons with the Hornets, Wesley helped the Hornets reach the playoffs six times, and still ranks second in franchise history in games played, points (7,670) and 3-pointers made (644), third in steals (766) and fourth in assists (2,446).

SF- Glen Rice (23.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 44.4% 3-pt in 240 games)

One of the NBA’s greatest-ever shooters.

After an outstanding start to his pro career in Miami, Rice’s career took off following his 1995 trade to the Hornets. Rice was an All-Star in each of his three seasons in Charlotte, and never averaged worse than 21.6 ppg, 4 rpg and 42.4% 3-pt.

Rice averaged 24 ppg and 5.2 rpg in twelve playoff games with the franchise, which included a 3-1 first round victory over the Atlanta Hawks in 1997-98.

In 1996-97, Rice turned in one of the greatest individual seasons by an outside shooter, averaging 26.8 ppg, 4 rpg, made 86.7% of his free throws and hit a staggering 47% (207-of-440) of his 3-pointers. That season, he led the league in 3-point percentage and his scoring average was third in NBA, behind only Michael Jordan and Karl Malone.

Rice was named the MVP of the 1997 All-Star Game, during which he set All-Star game records with 24 points in the second half and 20 points in the third quarter, during which he hit 8-of-11 field goals, and four 3-pointers.

Rice is one of the three best players in franchise history, along with Chris Paul and Alonzo Mourning.

He ranks first in franchise history in scoring average (23.5 ppg) and 3-point percentage (44.4%), and despite spending just three seasons with the team, ranks fourth in 3-pointers made (508) and seventh in points (5,561).

Glen Rice beat out Jamal Mashburn in what was a fairly close race. In 217 games in four seasons with the Hornets, two of which were dramatically truncated by injury, Mash put up 21 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 5 apg and was named an All-Star in 2003.

In his two healthy postseasons with the team, Mashburn averaged just under 25 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.6 apg in 14 games. In 2000-01, he played a key role in sweeping the Miami Heat in Round 1 and pushing the Milwaukee Bucks to seven games in the conference semifinals.

PF- David West (16 ppg, 7.2 rpg,, 48.7% FG in 460 games)

This was a particularly interesting race, with representation for each era of Hornets’ prosperity.

Anthony Mason is a hard-luck third-place finisher here. Playing alongside Glen Rice and later Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn, Mason used his hard-nosed, effective-but-ugly, below-the-rim game to help the Hornets to three trip to three playoff berths and a trip to the conference semifinals in 1998.

Mason was one of the toughest and best all-around forwards of his era. However, despite averaging 13.4 ppg 10 rpg (the only Hornets’ forward to average 10+ rebounds) and 4.8 apg in three seasons, neither his numbers from his brief run in Charlotte nor the success of his teams distinguished him from the competition.

Coming in a close second is the Hornets’ first star PF, the top pick in the 1991 draft, Larry Johnson. Before he was slowed by chronic back injuries, L.J. was one of the NBA’s best frontcourt players, averaging 20+ ppg twice in five seasons with the Hornets, and grabbed 11 and 10.5 boards per games in his first two seasons. In 1992 and 1994, Johnson made the only All-Star appearances of his career, as a member of the Charlotte Hornets.

The Hornets reached the postseason twice in his time with the team, reaching the second round in 1993, but were ultimately stopped by Michael Jordan’s Bulls on both occasions.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he peaked physically in his first two years, during which he averaged a double-double each season, including a monster 22.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg in 1992-93.

After an injury-plagued third season and a 18.8- 7.2- 4.6 fourth season, Johnson’s last season in Charlotte, 1995-96, was his last star-caliber season in NBA. That season Johnson put up a 20.5- 8.4- 4.4 in 81 games.

For the time being, Johnson ranks first among Hornets’ forwards in points (7,405) and scoring average (19.6 ppg), is second in rebounds (3,479) and is tied for third in steals, with 296.

Heading into a season that promises to be packed with franchise milestones, the Hornets’ all-time PF spot belongs to David West.

Drafted in 2003, West was not given significant playing time until his third year, 2005-06. That was his breakout season during which he averaged 17.1 ppg and 7.4 rpg in 34 minutes per game. In the four seasons since, West has equaled or exceeded his averages in both categories, en route to averages of 16 ppg and 7.2 rpg in 460 career games.

West was at his best in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, when he averaged 20.6- 8.9 and 21- 8.5, respectively, and was named to a pair of All-Star teams- the same as Larry Johnson.

Also like Johnson, West has played for a pair of playoff teams, reaching the second round once.

Among Hornets’ forwards, West ranks second in games played (15 behind P.J. Brown), points (7,368; 37 behind L.J.), steals (329; 73 behind Brown) and blocks (373; 50 behind Brown). He also ranks third among forwards in franchise history in rebounds with 3,324- 155 behind Larry Johnson for second place.

C- Alonzo Mourning (21.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg, 51.2% FG in 215 games)

Coming out of Georgetown in 1992, Mourning was selected #2 overall, behind Shaquille O'Neal. Entering the league, while Shaq was colorful and acted like a gigantic 6 year-old, Mourning was expected to be a steady, blue-collar anchor. The Russell to Shaq’s Wilt.

While those early comparisons may have been a tad hyperbolic, Mourning did little to disappoint in his three seasons in Charlotte. As a rookie, he averaged 21 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 3.5 bpg, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and was named First Team All-Rookie. His 1992-93 scoring average remains the rookie record for the Hornets franchise.

Mourning’s rookie season was not only the franchise’s first with a winning record (44-38), but also the Hornets’ first trip to the playoffs. In the postseason, the #5 seed Hornets met the Boston Celtics in the opening round.

After dropping the opening game at the Boston Garden, Mourning turned in an outstanding 18- 14, with six blocks in Game 2 as the Hornets snagged the home court. Following a 30-point win in game 3, the Hornets found themselves trailing by a single point in the dying seconds of Game 4. Faced with a return trip to Boston for a deciding game, they found Mourning at the left elbow and he buried a dramatic 20-foot buzzer-beater to clinch the Hornets’ first-ever series victory and give the franchise its first, and maybe still its biggest, signature moment. In nine games in the 2003 postseason, Mourning averaged 23.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg and 3.4 bpg.

In his next two seasons in Charlotte, Mourning was a consistent 21- 10- 3 guy and earned a pair of All-star selections. His 21.3 ppg and 10.1 rpg with the Hornets each rank second in franchise history. Meanwhile, his 3.2 bpg are more than 50% better than Vlade Divac’s second place average of 1.9. Mourning’s three seasons with the Hornets are the top three seasons for blocked shots in franchise history, and his three-year total of 684 blocks is the most in franchise history, 169 better than second place and nearly double the highest total for an active Hornets’ player, David West’s 373.

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