Posted Dec 19 2010 3:43PM
New Orleans Hornets president Hugh Weber is putting on a brave face. Nothing has changed, he insists. The embattled franchise is still able to operate as before. If there's a trade or signing to make, the Hornets can get it done.
"We've been assured that if that's the scenario and there is a good rationale and it's part of our building the success of the franchise," Weber said, "we will have the ability to make those decisions."
Those doing the assuring don't reside in the Big Easy. They're in the Big Apple -- 645 Fifth Ave., New York, New York, to be precise. The Hornets are property of the league's remaining 29 owners, and the obvious speculation is that those 29 other owners are more interested in New Orleans' bottom line than its on-court success.
NBA commissioner David Stern has tried to squash that line of thinking. He said as much when the deal to purchase the cash-strapped Hornets was announced earlier this month. Weber, the brother-in-law of former Hornets owner George Shinn, had some of those same concerns. These are uncharted waters in the NBA, so any team executive would be unsure of the voyage ahead.
The Hornets have been one of the season's success stories. Weber, general manager Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams naturally want to capitalize on their early momentum. The Hornets have been active already this season, making a few minor moves designed to beef up the second team.
Most teams work within a budget. The difference with "private" owners is the ability to exceed that budget or change course when different opportunities present themselves. Take San Antonio, a small-market franchise that's traditionally not a luxury taxpayer. Spurs owner Peter Holt, however, opened up the purse strings in the last year or so to keep Tim Duncan's championship window ajar.
Is it to realistic to think that New Orleans can pull the trigger on a blockbuster or two that would add significant talent and a major payroll commitment down the line? Could the Hornets pull off a flurry of trades similar to those that rocked Orlando, Phoenix and Washington on Saturday?
"The first commitment that the commissioner has told me is that it's not about the budget, but about the success," Weber said. "He's not asking me to make sure that we work within a pared down budget. We have a budget as a team, we traditionally operated under a budget and part of this transition wasn't about paring down our budget and trying to make this work.
"He has told me that I will have every available resource, not only to continue to run the team in a successful way but to make it better any way that I can."
The league's other owners won't be involved in how the Hornets are run, even though they've bought the team for $300 million and are funding its budget. They won't be approving trades, hiring staff or take part in the day-to-day dealings of the club.
One team owner, for example, couldn't protest a potential New Orleans trade on the basis of how it would impact his team.
"No conflict," Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "We have no say in the operations, so it's no different than how we partner in everything else we do as a league."
Weber and league-appointed governor/caretaker Jac Sperling are the de facto management group. They understand the budget they've been given and what's expected. They're going to function within those parameters.
And while Weber declined to comment specifically on players such as Chris Paul or David West, the team president is fully aware that decisions regarding their futures in New Orleans uniforms could be made before a new buyer is secured.
"What we're talking about is Monty, Dell and I have a process in place, a way and philosophy of doing things," Weber said. "And ownership -- in this case our governor Jac Sperling and the league -- have given us the proper assurance that when the time comes for those conversations, we'll have their full support."
Until then, finding support within New Orleans is essential. The possibility of relocation or even contraction has surfaced with the sale to the league. The Hornets can opt out of their New Orleans Arena lease with the state -- effectively become a "franchise free agent" -- if certain attendance conditions aren't met by Jan. 31, 2011.
The Hornets Business Council, a recently-formed group of local companies, is pledging to buy tickets to boost attendance through January. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said he's confident local investors can be found to buy and keep the Hornets in New Orleans.
Weber, a former executive in the food industry who joined the Hornets shortly after Katrina, is navigating through the doubt. Not only is there the psyche of the team to deal with -- the Hornets went into Sunday tied for sixth in the Western Conference at 16-10 -- but franchise's 103 fulltime employees have to question what's ahead.
"It's an organization that's battle-tested," Weber said. "From a negative standpoint, people on the outside seem to think that trouble just follows this team around. But from the internal standpoint, the resolve and the commitment we have from our employees in really understanding what it takes to operate in uncertainty is great.
"We're going to operate this business in a successful way and we're going make the metrics as positive as we can because that's going to resolve this ownership issue. Timing will all come out of that. Money controls it."
Weber described league ownership as providing a "much longer runway" to find the next ownership group. That likely won't happen until a new collective bargaining agreement is approved. In the meantime, Weber said the Hornets need to make it work financially in New Orleans.
"We're going to be successful," he said. "When it comes to David's decisions, I don't want to be the one that wasn't successful. Our focus is on being successful. We're going to be successful. That's what this organization is going to be about."
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