The Hornets are back in New Orleans for their first full season since the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina more than two years ago. They kick things off Wednesday night against a short-handed Sacramento Kings squad.
The Hornets were relocated to Oklahoma City for two seasons after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region in August 2005. They returned to New Orleans Arena to play nine games over the course of those seasons, going 4-5 there. One of those victories came against Sacramento, 88-84 on Jan. 26.
Now, they return to the city full time after a promising 2006-07 season when they finished 39-43 despite numerous injuries, and came up three games shy of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“This year, we have a chance to do something special,” said new Hornets swingman Morris Peterson, who signed a four-year deal after spending his first seven seasons with Toronto. “Hopefully, we can bring some pride back to this city. From everything that’s happened, all the guys understand how important it is. There’s going to be a lot of people watching us, a lot of people trying to see how we respond to everything that’s happened.
“The people that stayed here … stayed because they wanted to be back. We appreciate that and we’re going to try to come out and play the best basketball we can and get back into the playoffs.”
The Hornets made the playoffs in their first two seasons following the move to New Orleans in 2002, but have failed to qualify in the last three.
Peterson is looking for his own revival after averaging 8.9 points in 71 games for the Raptors last season, seeing his playing time reduced, after scoring a career-high 16.8 per game in 2005-06.
The Hornets hope Peterson can benefit from returning to a starting role and playing in the backcourt along with third-year point guard Chris Paul.
The former Rookie of the Year averaged 17.3 points and a team-high 8.9 assists last season but missed 18 games with an ankle injury. Paul averaged 18.7 points and 8.0 assists in three games against the Kings.
The New Orleans starting frontcourt isn’t too shabby, either. Center Tyson Chandler has shown signs of improvement, Peja Stojakovic is one of the game’s top outside shooters and appears to be healthy, and David West has averaged more than 17 points in each of the last two seasons.
“We have all the pieces of the puzzle to be successful,” Paul said. “We have a shooter, we have a shot blocker, a rebounder, all those tools.”
The key for the Hornets might be remaining healthy after Paul, West (right elbow surgery), Stojakovic (back surgery) and reserve Bobby Jackson (strained Achilles’ tendon, cracked ribs) missed a combined 143 games.
“I’m getting my comfort back,” said Stojakovic, who was limited to 13 games and averaged 17.8 points in his first full season with New Orleans. “And with that, my shooting is going to come and my playing shape is going to come.”
Chandler was one of the league’s biggest surprises last season, his first with the Hornets after spending five in Chicago. He averaged 12.4 rebounds to rank second in the league to Kevin Garnett (12.8), blocked a team-high 1.8 shots per game and scored in double figures in 23 of his final 27 games.
The Hornets took three of four meetings with the Kings last season, including a 125-118 win on April 16 in the most recent matchup. West had 25 points and Paul added 23 to go with his 12 assists.
Sacramento and first-year coach Reggie Theus enter the season missing many key players.
The most notable absence is point guard Mike Bibby, who will sit out at least the first six weeks of the season after tearing a ligament in his left thumb in training camp.
Bibby averaged 17.1 points and 4.7 assists last season while playing in all 82 games for the Kings, who missed the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons after posting a 33-49 record. The 10th-year pro missed just two games over the last four seasons.
The Kings also will be without center Spencer Hawes, the 10th overall selection in June’s draft, due to a knee injury suffered during training camp. Ron Artest is suspended for the first seven games of the regular season after pleading no contest to a charge related to domestic violence.
The absences add more offensive responsibility to guard Kevin Martin, the runner-up for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season after averaging 20.2 points, and give Theus a tougher job from the outset.
The former shooting guard spent three years of his playing career with Sacramento and scored the first basket for the Kings after the franchise moved from Kansas City in 1985. He went 41-23 over the last two seasons at New Mexico State in his first significant coaching job.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this team could have and should have won more games last year,” Theus said. “We have to create an identity. Right now, there’s no identity to this team.
“There’s really only one way to play the game, and that’s up and down,” Theus said after being hired. “Defense is an important aspect, because there was none here last year. … The game is supposed to be fun, and I don’t think it was fun here last year.”