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Let me start off by saying that until they are eliminated, the San Antonio Spurs remain the favorites to win the NBA title.
I don't care how many games they lose or what seed they end up with. If they're healthy come mid-April, I'm picking them — with the same nucleus as a year ago — to repeat as champions.
With that out of the way, here's a question: Which Western Conference team has the best record?
The Spurs? Nope.
The Mavericks? Nope.
The Suns? Not quite.
No, the correct answer is the New Orleans Hornets. (Don't believe me? Check your local paper.)
The Hornets began Wednesday a game up on Dallas and three and a half games ahead of San Antonio in the stout Southwest Division. Their 32-12 record is percentage points better than Phoenix's 33-13 mark.
Their turnaround from a sub-.500 record a year ago is not as unbelievable as you might think.
The only reason New Orleans missed the playoffs a year ago was injuries. Point guard — and current MVP candidate — Chris Paul missed 18 games. Newly acquired free agent sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic played in a mere 13 games. David West, the most underrated player in the league, missed 30 games.
For all you math whizzes out there, that's 117 games missed by the team's Big Three.
This season, all three are healthy and thriving. But they haven't risen to 20 games above .500 by themselves. The reincarnation of big-skinny man Tyson Chandler has been a huge key in New Orleans becoming one of the NBA's best defensive teams.
Chandler, who stands 7 feet 1 inch, is averaging a career-best 12.1 points per game and matching hist output from a year ago of 12.4 rebounds a game. (Yep, that was a Bulls fan who just jumped off a bridge, mourning management's decision to give up on the young stud by handing him to New Orleans for two players no longer in the Windy City.)
It is clear that the 25-year-old Chandler has regained whatever confidence he lost during his five non-productive years in Chicago. He plays with a renewed swagger down low, and he's a big reason why scoring easy buckets against the Hornets is no longer a walk in the park.
Because of the team's newfound success, it's easy to question whether the Hornets are a legitimate contender. I tried to do that the other day. Here's how my conversation with myself went:
Doubter: I'm concerned about their depth, especially inside. Melvin Ely isn't exactly a playoff performer.
Responder: That's an excellent point, but here's the beauty of this team: Every key cog is young and fit. Chandler doesn't mind playing 35 minutes a game, and Ely's a banger. They don't need him to score.
Doubter: OK, but Stojakovic is so fragile. What happens if he goes down again?
Responder: Dude, Jannero Pargo is playing out of his mind right now (my fantasy team just picked him up). He averages 7.5 points and 2.6 assists per game, and he's an upgrade defensively. A Stojakovic injury wouldn't do the damage it caused a year ago.
Doubter: But what about the lack of experience? Besides Pargo getting stepped over by A.I. in the finals seven years ago and Stojakovic throwing up a lame-duck air ball against the Lakers, this team is devoid of seasoned playoff players.
Responder: Two words: Chris ... Paul. At the midway point of the season, averaging 20.6 points, 10.7 assists and 2.57 steals a game, he's my MVP. There, I said it. This guy is icy clutch and isn't about to disappear in May. The modern NBA is ruled by point guards, and the Hornets might just have the best one in CP3. Plus, anyone who watches "SportsCenter" knows that David West makes as many game-winning shots as Kobe, LeBron or anyone else in the league. The team you see right now will be playing the same way — or better — come "win or go home" time.
And with that protracted, but strong, response, the conversation ended. I had convinced, well, myself that these Hornets' sting won't be any less painful in the months to come.
With one of the NBA's top starting lineups, a decent bench, and a hunger that is seen on both ends of the court, New Orleans has what it takes to make a run in the playoffs. Of course, I'm writing this in January — a lot can, and will, change between now and money time.
But don't be surprised if, just like the Saints last year, the Hornets bring energy to their struggling city with some late-season excitement.