"Chris has his team near the top in the toughest division [the Southwest]," says Chandler. "He's the best player on our team. He's the floor general, making everyone better. He could get 25 points a night guaranteed, but he's sacrificing for the team. Man, I don't know what an MVP is if it isn't that guy." Peterson adds that the 6-foot Paul is one of the team's best defenders, "and that sets a trickle-down tone."
Plus, Paul has become a little nasty. The one knock against him was that he was too nice, too willing to ingratiate himself with teammates. Not anymore. "CP will definitely let you know what he's thinking," says West, "and I wouldn't want it any other way. As a rookie he was a little tentative, but now he speaks up. And he takes criticism too. From me anyway."
INDEED, PAUL and West sometimes can be seen hugging one minute, then sniping at each other the next. Through such, uh, creative discussions, they seem to have mostly figured out when West should assume his position in the lane and when he should clear out to open things up for Paul. The 6'9" West is an old school player in that he eschews the three-point line and likes to play with his back to the basket. He has a smorgasbord of inside moves but can also step back and hit a jumper, his game a rougher version of that of Alex English, the NBA's 11th alltime leading scorer. "My goal is to be a threat from everywhere inside the three-point line," says West, who was averaging 19.6 points and 9.2 rebounds through Sunday. "I knew I needed to be dangerous in a couple of different ways to make it in this league." Few thought, though, that he'd make it well enough to be an All-Star.
Stojakovic was an All-Star in 2001, '02 and '03 with the Sacramento Kings. He may never be able to achieve that status again, but he seems happy and healthy—"I have good days and bad days," says Stojakovic (16.0 points, 46.6% from three-point range), "but more good than bad"—and content to roam in the wide-open spaces created by Paul's creativity and West's post-ups. In Sacramento, Stojakovic was always told that he needed to expand his game, play with his back to the basket or get better at creating his own shot. There's little need for him to do any of that in New Orleans.
What there is absolute need for is Chandler's energetic defense. Only four teams (Boston, Detroit, San Antonio and Houston) were surrendering fewer points than the Hornets at week's end, and New Orleans had outscored all of them. A major reason for the tougher D (opponents were down to 94.6 points per game from 97.1 last season) is that the Hornets are enjoying it more. "A lot of times you get stats because you're not playing good team defense," says the 7'1" Chandler, who was averaging 1.02 blocks through Sunday after averaging 1.77 last season. "I'm all over the floor, but I'm no longer going after every shot."
Chandler is a rarity, a high draft pick (selected second by Chicago in 2001) who was treasured almost exclusively because of his defense. "I understood from the beginning that my defense got me here," he says. As a bonus, however, Chandler and Paul have been clicking on pick-and-roll lobs. Chandler is not as lethal a finisher as the Suns' Amaré Stoudemire or the Magic's Dwight Howard, but his ability to lurk when Paul begins to penetrate, then crash when Paul gets doubled, has added a dimension to the Hornets' attack. "I don't think you've seen my best offense yet," says Chandler. "Right now I'm a 12--12 guy [12.2 points and 12.3 rebounds], but I could get 18 points a game down the road. There's so many things I have to learn—the midrange jumper, for example. But right now I hope I'm giving what this team needs."
Deftly moving all the pieces is Scott. This is his team in a way that the Nets (who had strong personalities such as Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson on the floor and a shrewd and well-respected NBA hand in the front office in president Rod Thorn) never were. Scott is the only coach for whom Paul has ever played. They are simpatico in the same way that Nash and D'Antoni and Parker and Gregg Popovich are simpatico. Scott and Paul often show up early at the Hornets' Alario Center practice facility in suburban Westwego to lift weights, Scott as dedicated an iron-tosser as any player. "B looks like he's training to be Mr. America," says assistant coach Walker. "I kid him that he's on the juice, but it's all hard work."
Scott, who earned three rings with the Showtime Lakers in the '80s, knows what it takes to win a championship and that the Hornets are still lacking playoff experience. But these days he deals in reality, not false modesty.
"San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas," Scott said recently, "are still the three best teams in the West."
And fourth best?