Hornets Unraveling in Off-Season?



The good news for the New Orleans Hornets is that after going through a mediocre, injury riddled campaign that saw the Hornets go 37-45 and miss the playoffs last year, the Hornets should have a fresh chance to right the ship in the upcoming season.  Nevertheless, this off season has been less than auspicious and, if recent events are any indication, the Hornets might be well on their way to an unfortunate meltdown before they have even had a chance to play a single basketball game this season.

First, there was the bizarre coaching search after it was announced that Jeff Bower, who took over the reins after Byron Scott was fired 9 games into last season, would not be returning as the head coach this season.  It started off with the Hornets publicly announcing that Tom Thibodaux would be their top target for new coach.  Soon thereafter, it was also rumored that they are also looking at highly regarded Avery Johnson.  Then all sorts of other names also started to surface.  When Thibodaux spurned the Hornets and Avery Johnson signed with the New Jersey Nets, the Hornets decided to go with Monty Williams, who was well regarded as an assistant coach, but has no head coaching experience.  The Hornets claimed in an obvious PR flop that, after their interview with Williams, it became clear to the front office that there was little doubt that he was really the one that was all along best suited for the job.


Another question arose shortly thereafter when it was announced that general manager Jeff Bower, who had been with the team for many years and who got rave reviews for maneuvering during last year's draft and did a solid job holding the injury riddled team together last season after Scott's firing, would be interviewing for the New Jersey Nets general manager position.  Although Bower announced a couple of days later that he had removed himself from contention for that position, where there is smoke, there is fire, and sure enough, the Hornets announced a week later that the team and Bower had "parted ways", with little further explanation.


While Bower had been criticized for weighing down the Hornets by giving big and lengthy deals to veteran players, as well as for wasting high draft picks on players like Hilton Armstrong and Julian Wright, who are currently considered to be draft busts, he has also made some solid decisions and scored several draft coups this and last season.  His contrarian decision to draft older, more seasoned players from the college ranks over talented but unproven younger ones paid off last season when Bower picked very promising point guard Darren Collison with the 21st pick and showed real balls (pardon the pun) by acquiring the rights to second round pick Marcus Thornton for two future second round picks.  The Thornton acquisition really showcased Bower's potential to evaluate talent when Thornton turned out to be one of the better players in last year's draft and possibly the starting shooting guard for the Hornets in the upcoming season.  Bower also managed to free up some cap space by trading away the difficult to move Morris Peterson contract without giving away much in return, a pretty solid move during a summer where the attention of fans and media was focused solely on high priced free agent signings.


In summary, despite some questionable past decisions, Bower was recently on a roll and the decision to let him go left the Hornets with a rookie head coach in Williams and no general manager during the beginning of what is believed by many to be the greatest free agent off season in years.  Majority owner George Shinn tried to put a brave face on the situation, announcing incredulously, but apparently in all seriousness, to media that, "under the new leadership of Monty Williams, our team president Hugh Weber and our new (yet-to-be-hired) general manager, we feel very positive about our future" (emphasis added), but the front office shakeup undoubtedly left many scratching their heads, wondering in which direction the franchise is going.


Most damaging of all--at least according to some opinions--was the Hornets' activity, or rather lack thereof, during the free agent signing period.  In an off season which saw LeBron James and other super (if perhaps somewhat overrated) stars change teams, the Hornets' lone signing was questionable and frequently overweight back-up center Aaron Gray.  Bower tried to do more before he was let go, apparently agreeing to terms with combination guard Luther Head to the league minimum, but that move was apparently undone in a bizarre sequence right after Bower was shown the door, with team president Hugh Weber announcing that the team wouldn't be signing Head after all.  Hugh said that the Hornets' medical staff had nixed the deal in an announcement which was seriously panned by some NBA commentators.  This announcement caused Head’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, to become apoplectic, howling that New Orleans had not offered a reasonable explanation for rescinding the contract offer for the veteran guard and accusing the Hornets front office of damaging the career of his client.


Although it is questionable whether the Hornets would have done themselves any favors by overpaying for some of free agents that changed teams this summer, the signing of Head for pretty cheap would have been a solid move.  Further, this situation is particularly unfortunate for New Orleans because Head's agent, Mr. Bartelstein is well respected in the league and has represented a number of notable NBA players, including stars like Indiana's Danny Granger, so it does little good to get him so mad.


Maybe there was the feeling that, with the point guards already on the roster, there wasn't as great a need for a third guard like Luther Head.  But for a relatively cheap $1.3 million/year, Luther would have been a solid addition, giving the Hornets a player who has shot over 1000 three pointers, making over 38% in his NBA career, who is well used to playing a secondary role and who could have also backed up at shooting guard where the Hornets' depth is iffy.  The failure to sign the veteran guard appears all the more glaring now that just about all of the attractive free agents have signed with other teams.


The Hornets can get some credit for acting relatively quickly to shore up the front office with the recent addition of Dell Demps as the new general manager.  Unfortunately, although well regarded, Dell is 40, almost as young as Monty and his experience level is also questionable.  He previously served as a vice president of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs, hardly a position that guarantees that he is ready to be handed the final say over a franchise's personnel moves.


In any case, the signing of Demps was apparently too little too late as Hornets fans recently learned to their shock that the face of the franchise, fan favorite star Chris Paul, had privately requested to be traded and, through representatives, had even gone as far as coming up with a short list of teams to which he would like to be moved (remarkably, the list did not include the star magnet Miami Heat...).  Although the Hornets' new management team downplayed Paul's request and both Paul and Demps talked about the many "positives" that emerged when Paul recently did a sit down with the new general manager and head coach to discuss the direction in which the team was headed, it would be difficult not to conclude that Paul, rightly or wrongly, has become alienated from the Hornets organization.  


Paul had undoubtedly become frustrated after seeing two of his super star peers, LeBron James and Dwaye Wade, team up this summer along with former Toronto star Chris Bosh, to form a super team which is already touted by many to be the championship favorite for this coming season.  It does not help that Paul has some questionable advisors around him.  That includes new agent Leon Rose who also represents LeBron James and apparently considers himself to be a major power broker for the league but is accused by some of being a franchise destroyer after helping King James escape from Cleveland.  Rose has started his representation of Paul by making rather irritating noises in the media about the Hornets inactivity during the free agent summer and the organization's alleged failure to surround Paul with the talent level that he deserves.  Then there is fired Hornets coach Byron Scott who apparently keeps in touch with Paul and probably whispers evil thoughts in Paul's ear about the franchise that dumped him.  The potentially toxic link between the Hornets' former head and Paul has been described as a "father-son" type of relationship, but considering Scott's pride and the circumstances of his departure from the Hornets organization, one has to wonder whether Scott isn't playing Darth Vader to Paul's Luke Skywalker.


To its credit, at least the new management team has so far resisted listening to any Paul trade proposals.  Certainly, Paul is one of a very small handful of players who deserves every single dollar of his eight-figure salary, so it would be a cruel blow to fans if the Hornets were to lose him.  On the other hand, it would be an unfortunate situation if it came down to Paul and his agent being effectively handed de facto power over personnel decisions by an organization that is desperate to keep him satisfied, an arrangement that would likely turn out badly for the Hornets.  Whether the gap between team and Paul can somehow be bridged or the Hornets end up as another franchise held hostage by a disgruntled superstar, remains to be seen, however the endless Paul trade rumors will create tremendous pressure on the Hornets management and players to return to winning basketball games from day one of the upcoming season.   


Meanwhile, back at the ranch... the club’s ownership continues to be uncertain.  Hornets majority owner George Shinn had a verbal agreement to sell to minority owner Gary Chouest in May, but neither owner has been willing to discuss what has taken so long to complete the deal.


With their super star player obviously disgruntled and questioning the direction of the team, the front office instability, and the awkward ownership situation, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that the franchise is on the brink of a major meltdown, even before the team has played a single game this season.  But there is some talent on the roster and not everything is yet lost, especially if the new front office can somehow find a way to continue the good momentum left by Jeff Bower. 

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