Posted Feb 1 2012 10:26AM
For motivational purposes, the Hornets can always look at their vastly more popular and successful football neighbor, a team that was so bad for so long that their fans found creative ways to recycle brown paper bags.
The Saints don't have that problem any more, and while nobody's covering their heads at Hornets' games, it's hard nonetheless for fans to see beyond the obstacles in front of the franchise.
Where do we begin?
Local ownership. There is none. The team is currently being run by the league. Months ago, the NBA dropped hints that an investor would be found by the end of spring at the latest. No news yet.
Eric Gordon. The replacement for Chris Paul has taken approximately 22 dribbles in a Hornets uniform because of a knee injury, and after declining an extension last week, will become a restricted free agent this summer.
The unprotected Minnesota No. 1 pick, grabbed from the Clippers in the trade for Paul. It was supposed to be a bonanza, except nobody told Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love.
Chris Kaman. He'll be dealt before the March deadline, although you wonder what he'll fetch. He's big, but he hasn't been terribly impressive.
Losing. The Hornets at 4-17 are taking their lumps, expectedly so, in what appears to be a total writeoff season on the court.
Basically, the state of the Hornets hasn't improved much since the Paul trade and the viral response to it. Although try telling that to team president Hugh Weber, who says it's only a matter of time.
"This is a team we think can be competitive as early as next year," he said.
A few things must happen between now and then, but given the tumult of the last few months, you can excuse the organization for thinking boldly. The best-case scenario would be for Gordon to return next month and finish strong, then sign an extension. Then the Wolves miss the playoffs, giving the Hornets an additional lottery pick. Then the Hornets nail those picks in what should be a deep Draft. And of course, someone very wealthy buys the team and turns out to be a far better owner than George Shinn. At least that part shouldn't be too hard.
"This isn't a dream," said Weber. "This is what we mapped out."
The least of the Hornets' concern is the losing part. In the big picture, it means nothing. All that matters is the Hornets get enough from Gordon this season to convince them a five-year contract, which is what he wants, would be money well spent. They can't afford to make a big-money mistake, and while Gordon had a terrific start with the Clippers, he needs to quiet all doubts, if any exist, by stringing together strong performances with the Hornets. There's the chance another team could blow the Hornets away with a massive offer this summer and force New Orleans to match if only to justify the Paul trade. But it's very small.
"He's extremely motivated to get back," Weber said.
The Hornets also need one or two young players currently on the roster to step forward. That's because this roster will change drastically the next year or two. Al-Farouq Aminu, who came in the Paul trade, has been a mild disappointment, shooting 37 percent. He's been too inconsistent to command major minutes. Jarrett Jack is a solid point guard (16 points, seven assists) and Carl Landry has moments, but that's about it. Ideally, the club would love to dump Emeka Okafor (two years, $28 million left), who might need to be packaged with an asset.
Most of the title contenders want Kaman, which is a problem, because title contenders won't surrender much in return and strip themselves of being title contenders. The Hornets will probably settle for young players and a conditional pick. The Spurs and Hawks, among others, are interested.
Whether the Paul trade is working or not is too early to tell. Would the Hornets be better off with Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola from the infamous "original" deal? Well, Odom likely would've pouted, while Martin and Scola, no doubt solid players, came with big salaries. With those three, the Hornets would be stuck in the dreaded, murky middle: too weak to contend, too strong to fetch a high lottery pick.
And therefore, too unattractive to a prospective owner. That's why David Stern, acting as owner (and not commissioner) green-lighted the "second" trade. Stern is running the Hornets the way Bud Selig ran the Expos, although Selig caught far less grief.
"One of the things David said when the league took over was the team has autonomy and has a budget. We went out and made trades and signed guys. It was only when people started framing it in the context of the Chris Paul trade and how it went down. All of a sudden, it was, 'The commissioner invalidated a trade,' and that's not what happened," Weber said. "It was an owner, in this case David, who said 'I want to do something different.' And that happens all the time. Talk to any general manager and they'll tell you."
As for an ownership update: "All I can say is we're working toward that (June 1) timeline. There's certainly a great deal of interest in the team and all those things will quickly produce what we hope is a long-term commitment to the city."
And that Wolves' No. 1 pick, which suddenly doesn't look so great as before? Weber laughed.
"We knew they were going to be a talented team this year. We're monitoring them."
A small-market team with ownership issues that plays in a football city certainly can't afford errors that could set the franchise back even further. Such is the burden for Weber, general manager Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams.
"We need to go out and build this team to be where it needs to be," said Weber.
Like next to the Saints, maybe? Doesn't hurt to dream.
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