The waning moments of Chicago’s win in New Orleans on Friday were intense, as the rampaging Bulls were scratching for their fifth straight road win. Late in the regulation, New Orleans had the ball on the side in the backcourt, up by two and less than eight seconds remaining on the clock. The Hornets’ David West was set to throw the inbounds pass and, not finding any open teammates nearby, inexplicably flipped the ball down the floor towards his own basket. A mad scramble ensued, with Chris Paul and Kirk Hinrich giving chase. Hinrich got to the ball, Paul hit the deck, Hinrich flipped the ball to Luol Deng at midcourt, who redirected it to Derrick Rose along the baseline. Rose went up but found himself under the basket and missed, but Deng crashed the boards, got the stickback and forced overtime. Paul was left limping around while Bulls color commentator Stacey King was hollering something like, “Get up or get outta da way!”
It was really an inexplicable gaffe by West and it appears that it has cost the Hornets more than the game. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that Paul is going to have surgery for a cartilage tear in his injured left knee and could miss up to two months. The Hornets have 29 games over the next two months and as one of nine teams in the Western Conference with between 17 and 22 losses, the injury probably sounds the death knell for New Orleans’ playoff chances.
So far this season, Paul’s adjusted plus-minus of +13.31 points per 100 possessions has been surpassed by only Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Certainly anyone who has watched a Hornets game over the last 4 1/2 seasons knows to what degree everything for that team revolves around Paul. However, his injury could have a silver lining. Rookie point guard Darren Collison had 17 points and 18 assists in his first game as Paul’s replacement in the starting lineup, as New Orleans knocked off the tough Grizzlies in Memphis. Such performances by Collison could get the Hornets through the next few weeks. If it happens, it wouldn’t be the first time a team has improbably lifted itself in the wake of the loss of its best player.
At the same time, the Hornets aren’t exactly going for it this season. Their surge over the last month had them back on track for a playoff push, but the cash-strapped Hornets have dealt useful backups Hilton Armstrong, Devin Brown and Bobby Brown since the start of the season. While none of those losses is crippling, the sum of them leaves New Orleans thin on the bench. Armstrong’s limited minutes will eventually be replaced by Aaron Gray, acquired from Chicago last week for Devin Brown. Gray has barely played this season, though, and won’t play productive minutes for a while. However, the loss of the Browns coupled with Paul’s injury means that New Orleans has a backcourt rotation of Collison, Marcus Thornton, Julian Wright and seldom-used Morris Peterson. Obviously, there isn’t a point guard amongst the latter trio, so expect heavy, heavy minutes for Collison.
Will New Orleans honcho Jeff Bower be allowed to sign a point guard to spell Collison? The trade of Bobby Brown got the Hornets approximately $311,000 under the luxury tax threshhold. If I’m understanding things correctly, each 10-day contract the Hornets dole out to a free-agent point guard with no prior NBA experience would cost about $16,741. So there is enough of a buffer there that Bower could bring in one or two free agents over the next month and wait to see how Paul is progressing. Or he could continue to whittle down his payroll by dealing one of his veterans for a point guard. James Posey would be attractive to a team making a playoff push and Peterson has an expiring contract. Either way, fantasy owners looking for a boost in raw point guard production would be wise to insert Collison into their lineups post-haste.
(Note: An e-mailer points out that Peterson’s contract is not expiring and he’s right. I misread my contract database. As such, I doubt anyone is going to take Peterson off Bower’s hands. Also, I’m aware that James Posey is hurt and his strained Achilles could scare teams off, though I’m operating under the premise that he won’t be out long.)