The New Orleans Hornets made the leap from perennial lottery team to contender in the deep Western Conference last season.
The Portland Trail Blazers are hoping for similar progress in 2008-09.
After a slow start, the Blazers look to continue their surge with their fifth straight win as they visit the defending Southwest Division champion Hornets on Friday night in a matchup between two teams thought to be the future of the West.
New Orleans finished with a losing record and missed the playoffs in three straight seasons before breaking out for a franchise-record 56 wins and advancing to the second round of the playoffs in 2007-08.
With a young nucleus surrounding All-Star point guard Chris Paul, the Hornets (4-3) figure to be contenders for years to come.
That’s encouraging for the Blazers (5-3), who hope to be undergoing a similar transformation. They haven’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2002-03, but as one of the league’s youngest teams with a number of budding stars like Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, their future is bright.
Portland didn’t start strong, losing three of its first four games, but has responded with four straight wins. Rookie guard Rudy Fernandez came off the bench to score a team-high 25 points in a 104-96 win over Miami on Wednesday night.
“The most important thing is we have played very well as a team,” said Fernandez, averaging 15.4 points as a reserve in his first eight NBA games.
That may be the most important thing, but a close second is the return of center Greg Oden, who played his first full NBA game Wednesday. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft missed all of last season following microfracture surgery on his right knee, and left Portland’s season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Lakers with a sprained right foot that sidelined him until Wednesday.
He had three points, two rebounds and two blocked shots in 16 minutes against Miami. His first NBA basket came 504 days after getting drafted and collecting a bit over $5 million in salary.
“We won and I got to play a full game, which is good for me,” Oden said. “I feel good.”
Though he knows the Blazers will need some time to adjust to Oden’s presence, Roy is excited about the possibilities of pairing the team’s young outside shooters with a potentially dominant inside force.
“We’re different with him because we have a low-post presence,” said Roy, the 2006-07 Rookie of the Year. “Without Greg, we’re a perimeter-oriented team. We take a lot of jump shots. With Greg, we’ve kind of got that low-post presence. He’s so strong.”
That inside-out combination could provide a challenge for a New Orleans team that’s lost three of four games following a 3-0 start. The Hornets nearly overcame a 23-point deficit behind 16 fourth-quarter points from Paul before falling 93-86 to the Lakers on Wednesday night.
They shot 44.7 percent from the field, and have connected on only 43.5 percent over their last four contests.
“That’s killing us the last four or five games,” coach Byron Scott said. “We’re not able to knock down shots right now. We’re getting a lot of good looks.”
Scott hopes his club can start heating up as it goes for its sixth straight home win against Portland, which hasn’t won in New Orleans since April 10, 2005. The Blazers won both of their home games against the Hornets last season as the clubs split their four meetings.
Paul, who has recorded a double-double in each of his first seven games this season, had two double-doubles against Portland in 2007-08.