After a tumultuous offseason, the New Orleans Hornets get to finally take the court - but without one of the best players in franchise history.
The Hornets begin an era without Chris Paul when they open the season against the Phoenix Suns on Monday night.
New Orleans went 46-36 last season but was eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the opening round of the playoffs.
With the Hornets temporarily owned by the NBA, which is trying to find a permanent local buyer by sometime in 2012, the club has struggled to win long-term commitments from any big-name players.
That even meant players on their roster, as Paul requested a trade once the NBA settled the lockout earlier this month.
A three-team deal that would have sent the star point guard to the Lakers seemed to be struck, but commissioner David Stern cited "basketball reasons" for vetoing the trade.
Less than a week later, New Orleans sent Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers for center Chris Kaman, guard Eric Gordon, reserve forward Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 first-round draft pick.
The Hornets also saw the departure of forward David West to Indiana via free agency, leaving them without their top two scorers.
"I'm sure a lot of people are counting us out," forward Carl Landry said. "We've got guys that want to be good players in this league and they come and practice hard every day, and I'm sure it will have a carry-over into game situations."
Landry averaged 11.9 points with New Orleans and Sacramento last season, and returned to the Hornets through free agency with the promise of replacing West in the lineup.
Replacing Paul will be the taller task, and that seems to be falling on Jarrett Jack, who averaged 8.5 points and 2.9 assists in 70 games with the Hornets after being acquired in a deal with Toronto. That's a far cry from Paul's career averages of 18.7 points and 9.9 assists.
Jack, however, topped 20 points in his two starts when Paul was out with a concussion.
The acquisition of Gordon could ease the pressure on Jack in the backcourt.
The eighth overall pick in 2008, Gordon averaged career highs of 22.3 points and 4.4 assists with the Clippers last season but was limited to 56 games due to wrist and shoulder injuries.
"He can score in a number of ways," Jack said. "He stretches the court. When you penetrate, he gives you another shooter on the wing."
The Hornets took three of four from Phoenix in 2010-11.
The Suns were coming off a conference finals appearance before missing the playoffs at 40-42 last season, finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2003-04.
"I think we're going to be better than what people think," said Grant Hill, who re-signed with Phoenix earlier this month. "Obviously the West is extremely difficult, but we almost got in last year and I think we'll be better. We have better chemistry and continuity than we had last year.
"... Then, I think collectively there's a little bit of a mindset that we've got something to prove, that we're better than what we showed."
With a lineup led by the 39-year-old Hill and Steve Nash, 37, coach Alvin Gentry may need to rely on the depth of the roster during the compacted 66-game season caused by the lockout.
"I think it's going to be important this year that you have a deep bench because you have certain situations where you're playing five games in seven nights or six games in nine nights, where it's going to be really important to have depth where you're not burning guys out," Gentry said.
Nash averaged a league-high 11.4 assists and is the Suns' top returning scorer at 14.7 points per game, followed by Hill at 13.2.
Another challenge for Gentry is getting the team to improve defensively in order to balance its up-tempo play. The Suns again were among the worst defensive teams last season, surrendering an average of 105.9 points.