Right now, it's a fairly hectic time to be a fan of the New Orleans Hornets. As has been repeated amongst us, things around the franchise lack validity and security in many areas. From management to players to ownership, the Hornets are in a critical point in the franchise's history. So with that being said, you have to be confident that you have someone who can turn the ship around. Now I know a lot of people are blaming the current state of the Hornets on Jeff Bower and you very well can, but let's evaluate his moves as a general manager from a whole.
Jeff Bower has overseen the Hornets the last five seasons.
The most often criticized move of the Jeff Bower regime, currently, is the contract given to Peja Stojakovic. At the time of the signing, in the 2006 offseason, Peja Stojakovic was a consistent 20 point threat and was one of the deadliest shooters in the league. When you're a team that's playing out of town in Oklahoma City and as a team that's never been an attractive destination for players, you're kind of forced to overpay to get above average talent to your team. Peja Stojakovic probably was a smarter investment at near the 9-11 million dollar a year range at that time, but the Hornets gave him 65 million and 5 years to convince any kind of big name to come and play for them. Again, that's management attempting to build a winner regardless of the restrictions. It didn't pay off immediately as he missed 69 games in his first year of the deal (and if that injury had happened prior to him becoming a free agent it's safe to say the Hornets would not have made that kind of investment to Peja). However, the next year paid off really well for the Hornets and Peja. He wasn't scoring at the rate he used to, but he shot over 40 percent from three point range and made countless clutch shots for the Hornets and became one of the most popular players amongst fans. Having one of the greatest statistical three point shooting seasons in the league's history, he was crucial to the Hornets winning the Southwest Division and making it to game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals in 2008. The very next year his back injuries reemerged and he hasn't been the same player since, so in only that sense is it a bad contract. Had Bower had a miraculous crystal ball and could have predicted the injuries that would emerge with Peja, I seriously doubt the team would have made that kind of investment with Peja. However, with the contract in place, the Hornets can't do anything to distance themselves from Peja. I'm sure they tried to move him in previous offseasons, but with that price tag, the only way they could have moved would have been to add the ridiculously underpaid David West or Chris Paul to the package and if they had done that, fans and players would have accused the franchise of cost cutting and would have bashed Bower. So again, in a no win situation, Bower is forced to put Peja out on the floor.
The signings of Morris Peterson and James Posey go hand in hand. Neither are as expensive as Peja's, but both were brought in as complimentary swingmen who could really add unspoken intangibles to a team on the rise. The signings were a year apart, so I'll argue Peterson's first. When Peterson was brought in, he and Rasual Butler were supposed to provide a formidable pair at the two guard position. Peterson never has emerged as the player the Hornets thought he would be when they first brought him in. They gave him a 4 year, 28 million dollar deal (again overpaying) to get him to start at shooting guard. For years, Peterson had been regarded as a fan favorite who hustled, played defense and knocked down shots. He was viewed by many as one of the more unheralded players in the NBA and the Hornets really took a chance on him and gave him the starting shooting guard position. He's never materialized and I'll never know why. However, 9 out of 10 general managers would have done the same thing that Bower did. Again, maybe not at that price tag, but in order to convince players to come over you have to give them the best deal. Which brings me to James Posey. Is Posey a 4 year, 24 million dollar player? Not at all. He wasn't even when he was in Boston, playing on a one year contract with the Celtics and proving invaluable during the Celtics 2008 championship run. As one of those clutch, defensive role players that every championship team needs, the Hornets felt he was just the man to help get this team over the top. The Hornets had Julian Wright emerging as a backup small forward and he was entering his second year, so Posey was not a necessary signing, but it was an aggressive move to show that the team was still committed to bringing a title to New Orleans. The Hornets were already spending a lot of money at that point, and with the contract extension given to Chris Paul ready to kick in in the 2009 offseason, they made a huge risk by bringing in Posey. A lot of teams were interested in Posey, but nobody wanted to offer 4 years. So the Hornets decided to do so to ensure that he would sign, and he did. James Posey is the same player he was when the Hornets brought him in. He'll shoot a few threes (although his shooting percentage has declined with New Orleans) and play hard defense, bring the intangibles; the whole nine yards. But his efforts go unnoticed because the Hornets are struggling. He's not a saviour to a team. He's more of a complimentary player whose efforts would be better appreciated on a championship team (as they were in Boston). His contract is no different to the one the Spurs gave Malik Rose. Malik Rose was a huge crowd favorite in San Antonio and was a hustle guy/role player. The Spurs gave him a 7 year, 42 million dollar deal at his peak and he didn't change his style of play. The Pistons just did this with Jason Maxiell a couple years ago as well. These players aren't anything more than what they are on the court. But you make an investment in a player because you want them to stay. When they first pop on the scene, the market for them is huge and you want to do anything to keep the player on your squad. This may happen with the Jazz and Paul Millsap as well, but that's the risk you take when you invest your money into role players. Teams like the Lakers can get away with contracts like Luke Walton or Sasha Vujacic sitting on the bench. The Hornets really can't afford to do so and that's why the Posey deal is killing them right now.
But Bower has made countless great moves to bring the Hornets back to the forefront. As an assistant coach to both Paul Silas and Tim Floyd, Bower's been with the Hornets organization in various roles since 1996. After being given the general managers position in 2005, he oversaw a complete turnaround of the Hornets franchise. He was given a team that was starting the season with four starters (Baron Davis, David Wesley, Jamaal Magloire and Jamal Mashburn) on the injured list. The team had a lot of money invested in those players and a few others on the bench. That wasn't going to work. The team won 17 games his first season as general manager, but he oversaw the dismantling of that underachieving, often injured bunch and made key moves in putting the Hornets future together. As the team's primary talent scout, he played a huge role in drafting David West in 2003 at the 18th pick and drafting J.R. Smith the very next season at the same spot. Also, in the 2004 offseason, the Hornets moved from the Eastern Conference to the much more competitive Western Conference. Knowing that you couldn't win with the roster he had, he got rid of everybody. Darrell Armstrong and his salary were sent to Dallas for Dan Dickau: an expiring contract. David Wesley was sent to Houston for Jim Jackson and Bostjan Nachbar, Nachbar being a promising young player and Jackson being an expiring contract. Baron Davis was sent to Golden State for Speedy Claxton and an expiring contract in Dale Davis in a move that looked horrible at first, but freed up the space to eventually sign Peja and lock up David West longterm. He brought in Bryon Scott to lead the bunch and endured a very tough 17 win season. In the offseason, just by being apart of the deal that brought Antoine Walker, James Posey and Jason Williams to the Heat for the 2005-2006 season, the Hornets were given Rasual Butler and Kirk Snyder. Those two players played hard for the Hornets in the first season in Oklahoma City and they were huge steals for Bower.
One thing that cannot be underappreciated by Bower was his ability to keep the team together and afloat when they had to relocate to Oklahoma City because of Hurricane Katrina. With the help of Byron Scott, the Hornets kept a solid, promising team together and always put a competitive team on the court when it could have been very easy to look at the situation as a loss cause and completely collapse (see how the Saints handled being away from New Orleans after Katrina). In that same offseason that the Hornets had to go to OKC, they drafted Chris Paul. He and J.R. Smitih were supposed to be the tandem of the future for New Orleans, but once Smith started to undermine Byron Scott and regressed his second season, the Hornets turned a negative into a positive and moved him to Chicago for Tyson Chandler. Tyson Chandler would develop immediate chemistry with Chris Paul and would start for three seasons with the Hornets. The next two drafts brought Hilton Armstrong and Julian Wright to New Orleans and both players showed promise sparingly. They've never capitalized and it's safe to say Hilton never will, but one bad draft pick in five or six years isn't a reason to fire the general manager. Especially when you picked both of them around the 13-15 range. 2009's selections of Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton and his great trade to double the Hornets draft selections and also get under the luxury tax at the same time also speak well to his ability in trades (not to mention his Antonio Daniels for Darius Songaila trade).
So let's look back at it all, he was able to trade J.R. Smith for Tyson Chandler, was able to trade Chandler for Emeka Okafor which allowed the team to still be able to compete this year while giving them minor salary cap relief (a move most general managers would not have been able to pull off, in fact he almost didn't pull it off when he sent Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox). Although Okafor wasn't the player we all hoped he would be when he donned that horrendous Hornets jacket during his intial photo shoot, he was infinitely better than Chandler was in Charlotte this season and the fact that he played 82 games this season should be a welcome commodity amongst this bunch. Especially considering he played through an ankle injury that held him from practice the final six weeks of the regular seasons. Bower worked with his limitations and brought in Darius Songaila and Ike Diogu to try and shore up a thin frontcourt, things just haven't materialized. But they haven't been bad moves. Bower has someone to answer to and he has a limit to what he can spend, and he's still put out a team that most people are upset hasn't won a championship yet. He's still put out a team that expects to win. That's big for a small market general manager. He continued to build the franchise even when they were in Oklahoma City and throught drafts, trades and signings put together a great team for the 2008 season. Did the spending go a little overboard with the James Posey acquisition? Sure it did. But the fact that the franchise attempted to go for it all when they were close to a championship shows that it's a team trying to win. At the same time, there's a reason the same teams were able to go after big name players this offseason and the same teams had to cut costs and try and be competitive. Because the NBA salary cap sucks. It puts a lot of small market teams at a disadvantage. Teams like the Lakers can get away with having huge contracts on their team because they'll make it all back with TV deals, ticket sales and overall revenue based off of Kobe Bryant's jersey sales alone. So it's easy to say that "Kobe's not bigger than the Lakers but Chris Paul is bigger than the Hornets." The Lakers have always been good. That's why Kobe's not bigger than the Lakers. The Lakers are a gifted franchise who should always be competitive with any kind of competent management.
Do I want to accept losing and do I want to make excuses for Jeff Bower? No. But I understand the situation and I know why the team made the moves they did. So I can't, in the same breath, sit and blame Bower for the same team that he was praised for a few years ago. He tried to shake things up and keep the team competitive even though the franchise was over the luxury tax last offseason. He still may do the same thing this offseason. You never know. He even did a terrific job as the team's interim head coach this season that allowed the roster to improve over the course of the season while waiting for the coach that they all wanted in the offseason. I still have hope in the Hornets and if the franchise decides to strip it bare and build it back up again, I would like Bower to still be the general manager of the team. Why? Because he's oversaw a rebuilding process that resulted in a big turnaround before. There's reason for me to believe he could do it again.