As a former player (Knick, Nugget, Bullet, Piston, and Bull) and head coach (Raptors and Wizards) New Orleans Hornets assistant coach Darrell Walker has shared the court, as player or coach, with some of the best NBA players in history -- including Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, and Joe Dumars.
Walker has a strong sense of who is, and who is not, a superstar. After working with him day in and day out, Walker could not be more convinced that Chris Paul makes the cut.
As part of The Playbook, an ongoing series of conversations with coaches, Walker agreed to talk to us about the powerful Hornets team:
Let's start by talking about the season Chris Paul is having.
Chris Paul is a superstar. There are not a lot of players in this league who are superstars, but Chris Paul is one. He's small, but he's strong as hell. He's very, very, very strong. And he knows the game. He's a great kid too. He's a better person than he is a player, and I don't say that about a lot of people. ...
Quickness. Vision. He's like Isiah. He's like Stockton. He sees the play before it develops. And he's the best I have ever seen at making the play at full speed. He has five or six gears, and he can play at all of them. He can stop on a dime at the foul line and make a shot or a pass like few can.
And he brings toughness. He knows what is happening out there. A lot of times coach calls a play and Chris says "I got something." He knows what he wants to do.
CP is young, but he's way beyond his years when it comes to thinking and understanding the game.
Compare where your team is this year to where you were a year ago.
It is nice to be healthy. This season, we have had almost everybody, and you have got to have players to get anywhere. David West and Chris Paul missed time last season, for some of the season they were out at the same time. And that wasn't all -- we missed a lot of players.
Look at our team, and the way we are playing this year. These guys just get it. They hustle. They play with confidence. In January we won 17 out of 20. That's basketball at a very high level. Chris Paul is playing at another level. David West is an All-Star, and Tyson Chandler was unfortunately left off (although I'm sure Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman are complaining too).
Tyson Chandler looks so much more assertive and sure of himself now.
[Assistant coach] Kenny Gattison has been doing an outstanding job with Tyson, working on his game. And he's a competitor. He's got a great heart -- just so competitive. You can ask him to do anything and he buys in totally.
Tyson is really comfortable with the coaching staff. In Chicago, his relationship with Scott Skiles was non-existent, and Tyson got a little timid. Byron [Scott] actually had to threaten to fine Tyson money to get him to try to score some more.
When he first came here, if he got an offensive rebound, he always wanted to pass it out. Byron told him to dunk, or go up hard to try and score. It was programmed into him not to make a move, not to score. It happened in a game once, and Byron jumped up and subbed for him, and told him that if he is under the hoop with the ball, he needs to dunk, no matter what happened in Chicago. "You better start trying to score this ball," he said. And his confidence started growing to the point that now he's a nice double double guy.
What is your preferred pace and style of play?
We have to try to run. We're not the Suns. But we should be in the top ten in fast break points.
But we really have to hang our hat on our defense. This team has showed a real commitment to defense. We might not have great individual defenders, but as a group we're solid, up there in the top five or so in terms of points allowed, and field goal percentage allowed.
Tyson is a big part of that. He's soooo long, and he's 7-1. If he can't block the shot, there's a good chance he'll change it. A shooter has to get a really clean look against us for Tyson not to affect it. That lets us do some things with weakside help, and maybe we push pick and rolls to the side more than some other teams. But we'll change it up on you -- show you different things to keep you off-balance. All that really has to happen for us is that we play defense and scrap. We're not imposing. Tyson is a beanpole -- really not the bulkiest guy. So we have to fight a little harder.
Team chemistry helps us overcome a lot. I could play with anyone, but I didn't like a lot of the players I played with. But this is a different team. These guys love hanging out together. They have dinner on the road. They go to movies. That never happens in the NBA, but it happens on this team, and that helps us.
It seems like some teams are daring Chris Paul to shoot long jumpers.
The first couple of years he was in the league, he really thought like a true point guard -- pass first. That's his mentality. But the other night, Byron Scott told him he had to look at the basket now. We do a lot of shooting and conditioning, so he's getting confident. And he ended up making 18/33. He had a few roll out, too. He could have ended up with 50 points.
Why does Chris Paul have so much trouble with Deron Williams?
It's no secret. Deron and Chris have a rivalry, and Deron is such an imposing player. He's 6-4, about 210, and he's solid. Chris has had one good game against him, but Deron plays great against CP. Everybody has somebody they can not guard. Michael Jordan just couldn't guard Jeff Malone. I was a point guard playing alongside Malone, and Jeff just killed Jordan. Jordan even wrote about it in his book.
When teams are playing well, contributions seem to come from everywhere. On your team, you are even getting valuable minutes from a guy who barely made the team, Ryan Bowen.
We are definitely happy with Ryan. He is committed to the game of basketball, and has just been invaluable for his energy. He's crafty, and relentless, and it's not at all rare for him to make two or three great plays in a row. He's in intangible guy, which you love as your twelfth man. He can not play for almost a whole game, then come in and give a great effort. Just one of those guys who does all the small things. You stick him out there for five minutes and then you look up and he already has five boards. He's a little sneaky, and he can run. And when he scores, the players on our bench jump up and go crazy, because everyone has a lot of respect for a guy with a non-guaranteed contract who is making it happen.
How's New Orleans?
New Orleans is doing fine. To be honest, I don't see that much of it. I'm always at practice or taking a nap, or at a game. But there is progress. There are big conventions, Mardi Gras, the All-Star Game. The city's coming back.
There are still people living in trailers. Some of what you see is unsettling, with the crime. You have to watch where you go. But I live right downtown, close to everything, and I love it.
How much does New Orleans love basketball?
There is a lot of basketball here. But it's also big-time football country.
But people are doing everything they can to make it work down here. A lot of people are not coming to games, but I don't think that's because they don't love basketball. They enjoy our team. But think about it. If you have four or five kids living in a FEMA trailer, it can be a little tough to buy NBA tickets. But we'll see how it goes.
How does Chris Paul get so many st
Anticipation. Great hands, and great anticipation.
I played with Alvin Robertson, one of the all-time great stealers, and CP does a lot of the things Alvin did. CP can steal it right off you in the open court. He'll be guarding you close, and then just pop it right out of your hand. I don't think you can learn that. I think you have to have great reflexes. Guys like Allen Iverson play the passing lanes, but CP just takes it from you.
What's your prediction about these crazy Western Conference playoffs?
It seems like they're a long way away right now. We have to have the idea that we're not going to make it automatically. We have to stay healthy, and keep doing what we're doing -- stay committed to defense. Hopefully we can end up in the playoffs, whether it's as a one or a two seed, or a seven or eight seed. The West is so wacky, we can't really predict anything, at right now we just have to play hard and see what happens.
There are plenty of strong teams to worry about. Utah hounds us and all twelve of their players are very physical. They're a pain for everybody. Denver, San Antonio, Lakers, Phoenix, Dallas ... it's not easy. But until somebody beats Tim Duncan, it's San Antonio's game. That's the bottom line.
(Photo: Layne Murdoch/Getty Images)