By Art Garcia and David Aldridge, NBA.com
Posted Nov 13 2009 10:39AM
The Hornets are headed in a new direction after firing Byron Scott. What that direction might be is anyone's guess.
This is a franchise unsure of its identity, that's become too predictable and has suffered a talent drain. Despite running with arguably the NBA's most complete point guard, New Orleans is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy.
The 2008 Southwest Division champs are in danger of picking in the lottery in 2010.
Scott was served up as the fall guy Thursday for failing to implement changes mandated by the front office this offseason. General manager Jeff Bower, who's stepped in as Scott's replacement, and team president Hugh Weber decided nine games were enough to make a change.
The front office squarely placed the blame on Scott for the Hornets' 3-6 start. New Orleans also suffered a first-round playoff ouster last season after nearly reaching the Western Conference finals the season before.
"The general feeling was -- and Chris Paul has said this -- that this team did not have an identity, did not have a style, did not have a process for winning," Weber said. "Coach felt the issue was trust and effort, that if we just trusted each other, we'd get better, but the issue was execution."
Weber added that the Hornets had fallen into "bad habits" and no longer had a "culture" of winning. These problems, he continued, dated back to last season and didn't improve during training camp. Instead of looking outside for the next coach, the decision was made to go with someone familiar with the team's personnel.
Even with experienced coaches available, such as New Orleans native Avery Johnson and Jeff Van Gundy, the belief was that bringing in someone new would sacrifice the rest of this season. Bower put together the roster, which included trading for center Emeka Okafor among the six newcomers. Bower also understands the expectations of owner George Shinn.
That also sets up as a potential trap of the Kevin McHale variety. The former Timberwolves general manager (forcibly) stepped down from his post during last season to take over for fired coach Randy Wittman. McHale had constructed a roster that wasn't getting results, and he was eventually let go at the end of the season.
While it appears Bower is on studier ground than McHale, Weber acknowledged the possibility of another coaching change after the season. Johnson would be a popular choice in his hometown. Sources close to the ex-Mavericks coach said Johnson would be interested if an opening exists next summer, but currently is happy as an analyst at ESPN.
Weber chose Bower over other internal candidates, including longtime assistant Paul Pressey. Bower, essentially, volunteered for the job.
"We had ongoing discussions about all of the potential fixes about the brokenness of the team," Weber said. "Jeff volunteered the thought, 'I can do this.' I said, 'Are you sure that's what you want to do? Because once you do, the genie can't go back in the bottle.' "
In other words, if Bower doesn't produce, the unemployment line is likely his next top. "This is a true put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is situation," Weber said.
Although Paul has been frustrated with the team's slow start, a team insider said he was surprised and upset by the firing of the only NBA coach he's played for. Paul and Scott had a close player-coach relationship that extended off the court. The two played golf together in Los Angeles earlier this week with Hornets reserve Devin Brown and Paul's brother.
Other team members weren't as shocked. David West, the team's other resident All-Star, found Scott's offensive system too rigid. Several of the team's younger players were unsure of their roles.
Another knock on Scott was his handling of young talent. The team's two rookies, first-rounder Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, have had difficulty breaking into the rotation. Former first-rounder Julian Wright, now in his third year, has yet to see his career take off.
Players such as J.R. (Earl) Smith, Chris Andersen and Brandon Bass didn't get much playing time under Scott, and flourished after leaving New Orleans. The Hornets' front office was tired of watching potential develop elsewhere.
As far as making roster changes this season, the team appears handcuffed. Not only are the Hornets in luxury tax territory, they don't have any expiring contracts of consequence. The most tradable commodity, Paul, isn't going anywhere. The same goes for West.
The Hornets' highest-paid player, Peja Stojakovic, has moved into a bench role. Okafor hasn't clicked with his teammates yet after missing all of the preseason. No one has staked a claim to the two swing spots, shooting guard and small forward.
So most nights the pressure is on Paul to do it all. Though he's among the league's scoring and assist leaders, the Hornets have been blown out five times already this season. New Orleans lost 124-104 in Scott's last game Wednesday at Phoenix.
Before that game, Scott said he wasn't feeling any pressure.
"None whatsoever," he said. "Pressure to me has always been something fun. To be honest with you, I kind of enjoy the pressure of being in the last year of a contract, trying to do this and trying do that. I did it as a player and do it as a coach. I don't feel pressure at all to be honest with you. You either win or lose."
Scott was the 2008 Coach of the Year after guiding the Hornets to a 56-26 mark. Plagued by injuries last season, New Orleans slumped to a 49-33 finish and was embarrassed by Denver in the first round. Though rumors of Scott's dismissal had been swirling since the end of that series, the change caught a pair of West coaches by surprise Thursday.
"To me the guy has done a great job down there," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "You coach for two years and win 105 games, you would think you would have a chance to right the ship before you're replaced."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson added: "We're all surprised. It's pretty early in the season."
Bower doesn't head to the bench alone. Former Hornets and Bulls coach Tim Floyd joins the staff as Bower's top assistant. Floyd was 41-41 in 2003-04, his only season in New Orleans, and had Bower on his staff. West was among those who played for Floyd and was said to be pleased by his addition.
The Hornets are aware that Floyd is still under NCAA investigation for alleged improprieties while head coach at USC, where he resigned last summer. Floyd is alleged to have given money to an associate of former player O.J. Mayo, who left USC after one season and is in his second season with the Grizzlies. The Hornets expect no additional revelations to surface.
"We have a track record of looking at principles, but also giving a guy a second chance," Weber said. "Mr. Shinn is committed to the principle that we're all fallible, that we all make mistakes."
Weber said that no specific timeframe exists for judging Bower as a head coach, but he expected to see immediate improvement in preparation and tactics.
"I can't tell you how it's going to translate in terms of wins and losses," Weber said, "but it's going to translate into how we win and how we lose."
NBA.com correspondent Bryan Chu contributed to this report.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
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