If you were to ask longtime fans to choose a favorite New Orleans squad, the 2007-08 Hornets team would be the pick of many; however, for as great as it was to watch the winningest regular season squad in the franchise’s short 18-year history, the second-round series loss to the San Antonio Spurs admittedly still stings a little to this day.
Today’s selection of teams for Mike Prada’s Titleless: The quest to find the best NBA team to never win a championship is devoted to overachievers, but it’s mildly disconcerting to place the 2007-08 Hornets in this category without making an important distinction first. Oh, the justification is understandable because the team resembled a one-hit wonder on the surface — they came out of nowhere yet were unable to sustain excellence down the road, but external factors were responsible for this core’s quick demise, not unfathomable and otherworldly play over the course of a single season.
These Hornets were controlled by George Shinn, a controversial owner who was previously accused of maintaining trashy business practices, mired in several personal scandals and run out of Charlotte. Although a multi-millionaire, he was no longer able to happily cover the team’s growing financial losses so it wasn’t in his best economic interest to keep the 2007-08 roster core intact when they struggled some the following season.
Case in point, the New Orleans front office attempted to trade Tyson Chandler, the defensive backbone of the Hornets, “solely to rid themselves of the two years and $24.6 million remaining on his contract” for the expiring deals of Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox.
“I was really disappointed too when I was traded,” Chandler said. “I felt like if we were healthy we had a championship team in New Orleans.
This trade with OKC, however, was rescinded because of a failed Thunder physical involving Chandler’s big toe, but the writing was on the wall: this core wasn’t going to be kept together for the long term. Both Paul and David West later admitted that this move set the wheels in motion for their eventual departures, too.
Two years later, Chandler overcame his injury issues with his toe and was an integral part of the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks championship team. Meanwhile, Shinn was bought out by the league months earlier in an extraordinary move signaling the depths of the trouble.
Getting back on topic, though, the 2007-08 Hornets were really damn good. They won 56 games, finishing just a lone victory behind the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers, and came within a game of reaching the Western Conference Finals, sadly blowing a 3-2 series lead over the vaunted San Antonio Spurs. And who could forget the little engine that could. Chris Paul, who finished as the runner-up to Kobe Bryant for the 2008 MVP Award, emerged as one of the league’s best dynamic players.
Having only won 39 games in the previous season and missing the playoffs, the 2007-08 Hornets burst onto the national scene, but they quickly established themselves as a team to be reckoned with. They began that campaign winning nine of their first 11 games, and then went on to enjoy another couple of blazing stretches, winning 17 of 19 before the All-Star break and 12 of 14 during the last five weeks of the regular season.
One important detail to note here, the play of the Hornets gave the city of New Orleans so much to cheer about for the first time in years. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, the Hornets were forced to move and play temporary homes games in Oklahoma City for a couple of seasons. That 07-08 campaign marked for the first time in a long while that faithful could come and watch the action live, and they usually went home happy — the Hornets walked away winners in 30 of their 41 home games.
According to the eyetest, the Hornets starting lineup was an incredibly well-balanced unit and downright a heck of a lot of fun to watch. They had the best young maestro in the game but Chris Paul was so much more than just a jaw-dropping facilitator as evidenced by his averages of 21.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.2 threes. If CP3 wasn’t attempting to score, he was finding one of his teammates for an excellent look in Byron Scott’s methodical offense. Morris Peterson (8.0 points, 1.5 threes) and Peja Stojakovic (16.4 points, 3.0 threes) spaced the floor well, David West (20.6 points, 8.9 rebounds) dominated the low-block and midrange areas with his burly frame and underrated skillset, and Tyson Chandler provided the perfect high-flying outlet around the rim off pick and rolls and other cuts.
In line with the numbers on NBA Stats, the 07-08 Hornets were a formidable bunch, worthy of being considered a championship contender absent the requisite experience. They posted the sixth highest offensive rating and defensive rating during the regular season. Just as important, they excelled in crunch time, sporting a +10.1 net rating. They went 21-10 when the score was separated by five points or less inside the final five minutes of contests.
As current fans know all too well, getting the best of opponents in clutch minutes is everything. (The 2019-20 Pelicans have a 12-24 clutch record through 64 games, but they sit only 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8th spot in the West.)
For as exhilarating of a ride the 2007-08 Hornets took us on through the regular season, the first round of the playoffs was even more intoxicating. The Hornets throttled the Mavericks 4-1 in the series. Paul and West shined at all-star levels to offset Dirk Nowitzki’s contributions, Peja was deadly from three-point range, and Chandler did his thing in the paint on both ends. And for the true fanatics, remember that Jannero Pargo was a vital scoring machine off the bench.
It’s a shame the good times couldn’t keep consistently rolling against the next opponent. The fateful series against San Antonio will probably never be truly forgotten, one in which the Hornets seized a 3-2 advantage after dominating the Spurs 101-79 in Game 5. They wound up fumbling away a golden opportunity to make the 2007-08 season that much more memorable.
Through the first six games of this second round series, the home team had won every contest, but San Antonio broke the streak in the deciding game and emerged victorious, 91-82. In a staunch defensive battle, the Spurs shot the three-ball worlds better, making eight more three-pointers, and had a decided advantage from the free throw line too. Darn that savvy of a veteran Coach Pop team!
The Hornets failed to put themselves in good position to grab either Game 6 or 7 so the franchise’s best season ended with somewhat of a whimper. However, the future seemingly remained as bright as ever. Chris Paul was 22, Tyson Chandler, 25, and David West, 27 — but alas you know the rest of the story.
Regardless of the disappointing conclusion, I will always recall the 2007-08 NBA season a little more fondly than most. The effects of Hurricane Katrina forced us to relocate to Mobile, Alabama in the summer before and I failed to connect with another pro basketball diehard, let alone a decent Hornets fan. But for that one spectacular season, the 142-mile trek to New Orleans never felt shorter.