Though the New Orleans Hornets were eliminated from playoff contention last Saturday, the final two weeks of the season will still be very important to the Hornets' future. With Chris Paul returning from arthroscopic knee surgery on March 22, New Orleans has a critical opportunity to evaluate whether Paul and Darren Collison can coexist in the same backcourt before deciding whether to pursue a trade involving Collison this summer.
“It’ll give us a sample of games to look at and see how effective they may be together as far as moving forward,” Hornets Coach Jeff Bower told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “We’ll have that to use from an evaluation standpoint. I think we’re going to see things we really like and other things that would have us go in a more conventional approach. This is just going to be one thing we’re able to try. It’s not going to be an every-minute type thing. But it’s a nice option. The biggest thing is to have your most talented players on the floor playing together, being productive.”
Monday's win over the Los Angeles Lakers was probably the ultimate advertisement for the duo. Paul and Collison were on the floor together for 12 and a half minutes, and in that span New Orleans outscored the Lakers 37-19--the difference in a game the Hornets won by eight points.
Over the course of the season, the duo of Collison and Paul has played about 350 possessions together--the equivalent of nearly four full games. That sample is still small enough that Monday's game was enough to take it from negative to positive overall. Per BasketballValue.com, here's how the various backcourts involving Collison, Paul and rookie shooting guard Marcus Thornton have performed this season.
Backcourt Pos +/- ORtg DRtg Net
Paul + Thornton 641 +107 121.8 105.1 +16.7
Paul + Collison 350 + 10 109.4 105.1 + 4.3
Collison + Thornton 1465 -107 103.5 112.2 - 8.7
Paul and Thornton, the current starters in the backcourt for New Orleans, have formed a potent offensive duo. Meanwhile, Collison and Thornton struggled, as you might expect given this lineup doesn't include the league's best point guard and the Hornets missed Paul badly while he was sidelined.
The first obvious takeaway from these numbers is that the notion that New Orleans should consider moving Paul because Collison put up big numbers as a starter is misguided. Collison is a promising player, and obviously the Hornets would be better thanks to whatever they got in return in such a trade, but they are much, much better with Paul on the floor. Over the course of the season, New Orleans has slightly outscored its opponents when Paul is at the point but has been badly beaten with Collison or anyone else in that spot.
The other takeaway is that, at the very least, a Paul-Collison backcourt can't be ruled out by the numbers. There's also a historical precedent for playing a smaller player alongside Paul. In 2005-06, when I wrote about the rise of two-point guard lineups in the wake of the NBA's rules reinterpretations for SI.com, it was the combination of Paul and Bobby Jackson that served as a primary example. Paul and Jannero Pargo--more of a two-guard in a point guard's body--successfully teamed together for two years, including the Hornets' Southwest Division championship campaign. New Orleans didn't make use of smaller backcourts last season, but that was because of the team's inability to find someone to fill the minutes behind Paul, let alone play alongside him--the reason the team selected Collison in the first round last June.
Watching video of Collison and Paul together against the Lakers offered a reminder that part of the reason those units have worked is Paul's ability to defend much bigger players. When both teams had three-guard sets on the floor late in the third quarter, Paul matched up with Kobe Bryant and held him scoreless for a period of five and a half minutes. Even though he is just 6'0", Paul is very strong, which helps him with these defensive assignments. Indeed, the numbers suggest defense has not been an issue for the Collison-Paul backcourt, which has defended better than Paul with a shooting guard alongside him.
At the other end of the floor, there is sure to be an adjustment period. Both Paul and Collison prefer the ball in their hands, and they control it when on the floor as a lone point guard. Fortunately, both are good enough as spot-up jump shooters (Collison has made 37.9 percent of his threes this season, while Paul is hitting them at an incredible 42.3 percent clip) to be dangerous when playing off the ball. At the start of the second quarter, they hit consecutive three-pointers to build the Hornets' lead.
There were examples in the game of Collison and Paul playing off each other and taking turns initiating the offense (something that should help Paul get a bit of a break while staying on the floor). A really intriguing prospect that did not manifest itself against the Lakers is what the two players might do in transition. Both are so quick up and down the floor (Collison calls himself the league's fastest player, and Paul isn't far behind) that either could beat the defense into the frontcourt and receive a lead pass from the other.
Just because Collison and Paul can play together doesn't mean New Orleans should not explore its options on the trade market. Even though the two players were teamed in the backcourt for more than a quarter, Collison played just 21 minutes against the Lakers because Paul spent 39 minutes on the floor. Unless the Hornets are very confident in the ability of their two point guards to coexist---and have less faith in Thornton--Collison is still going to be stuck playing fewer minutes in New Orleans than he would on another team where he could be a full-time starter. It's possible that a team that envisions him in that role would be able to offer the Hornets a piece that better fits their needs. If Collison and Paul continue to play well together, however, New Orleans can go into the summer feeling no pressure to make a move and content to see what kind of offers they get for Collison.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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