A New Era in New Orleans
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

It was only a year ago, but it seems like much longer. Back in the summer of 2007, there was no shortage of uncertainty surrounding the New Orleans Hornets, both on and off the court. The skeptics and the question marks seemed to be everywhere. Could the Hornets emerge as a playoff team for the first time since 2004? Would the teams full-time return to the city of New Orleans after a two-season hiatus be a successful one? Would the Big Easy embrace the Hornets?

Today, we know how those questions were answered.

The 2007-08 campaign evolved into the most successful in the 20-year history of the franchise. New Orleans set a team record with 56 victories, en route to winning its first-ever division title. The Crescent City fell in love with the team and its players, culminating in 13 consecutive sellouts at the New Orleans Arena, including all seven home playoff games.

Perhaps the best part of this story: Its only beginning. The 2008-09 season has been called the most anticipated in franchise annals, for a wide range of reasons. Based partly on a youthful core group of players (headlined by 2008 All-Stars Chris Paul, 23, and David West, 28) whose best years are ahead of them, the future looks very bright in New Orleans.

Although many of the familiar faces from last years record-breaking team have returned, there are several aspects of the 08-09 Hornets that will make the upcoming season a bit different from the previous one. With a CP3-worthy assist from the Hornets TV and radio broadcast teams, heres an overview of whats new this season:

New respect

In another Hornets franchise first, after surprising many by reaching the Western Conference semifinals in 2008, theyre now being viewed as a legitimate contender to capture the 2009 NBA championship. Although the Hornets have qualified for the playoffs 10 times since their inception in 1988, theyve never been considered a team capable of winning it all.

That changed this summer, when multiple publications predicted that New Orleans would still be playing in late May and June. Athlon Sports NBA preview projected an NBA Finals matchup between the Hornets and the defending champion Boston Celtics, with the Hornets prevailing. Sporting News wrote that the Hornets would advance to the conference finals for the first time in team history, before being eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Its nice to have that recognition going in, because it definitely legitimizes a lot of work that our general manager (Jeff Bower) and coaches have done, Hornets radio play-by-play broadcaster Sean Kelley says. But at the same time, theres a little bit of added pressure, because were not sneaking up on anybody anymore. Youve got to learn how to handle higher expectations from the outside. I think the Hornets were still sneaking up on some teams last year, but thats no more. Now youre going to get other teams best efforts every night. But for us as broadcasters and fans, it makes the games even more exciting.

The fact that the preseason magazines think so highly of this team is great and those magazines are fun to look at. But Ive always said that theyre quickly put away once the season starts. Along with the rampant preseason praise for the squad, New Orleans has been rewarded with significantly more media exposure in 2008-09, in the form of 13 national TV broadcasts on ESPN, TNT and ABC. Thats also a team record. When the 2007-08 national TV schedule was released, the Hornets were slated to make only two appearances.

As the networks started to increase their coverage of the NBA, to see that we were not a part of the menu, made me feel pretty bad, longtime Hornets TV analyst Gil McGregor remembers. Because weve always had some very good stories to tell, but they werent covered. You wondered if we were kind of a stepchild in the league.

Based on the success of last season and having a once-in-a-lifetime player like Chris Paul, now the basketball world outside of New Orleans has taken notice. Its a compliment to the franchise. The fact that people want to see the Hornets play and want to know who we are and how we do things, its extremely positive. It follows along with everything that has been done by the organization, coaching staff and the players. Its something that has been earned and is richly deserved.

In yet another rarity, the Hornets 13 national TV appearances include games on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. New Orleans had never previously played a game on Turkey Day or Dec. 25 over the first two decades of the franchise. The Hornets will play at Denver on Thanksgiving night and an afternoon game in Orlando on Christmas Day.

Having that large number of games on national TV is great, Kelley says. But it also said something that the team has games on those two holidays as well. Only the elite teams get to play on a holiday. The combination of playing on holidays and having double-digit national television appearances only legitimizes what weve known for a couple years about where this team is going. It seems like the league finally realizes that too, in the way they put together the schedule.

New players

From the outset of last season, Hornets coach Byron Scott was concerned about the production he was receiving from his bench. Due to inconsistency shown by much of the second unit, Scott frequently tinkered with his rotation. Although more significant contributions from players like Julian Wright, Jannero Pargo and Bonzi Wells improved the situation in March and April, by Game 7 against San Antonio, Scott only used eight players with two of the three subs logging less than six minutes. Paul and West were on the floor for almost the entire game, with Paul only sitting for the final 25 seconds, after San Antonio had sealed its victory. West rested a total of just 1:34.

The Hornets front office entered the 2008 offseason with a primary objective of upgrading the teams bench. In July, Hornets general manager Jeff Bower pulled off a signing that reverberated around the NBA and immediately improved the units outlook. After winning a second NBA championship in a three-year span, free agent James Posey agreed to come to the Big Easy and help the rising Hornets in their efforts to break through for the first title in team history.

The Hornets bench was ranked 29th in offense and 27th in field-goal percentage, Hornets radio analyst Gerry Vaillancourt says. The bench was pretty solid on defense, ranking sixth. Not only does Posey enhance them defensively, but also on offense. Hes a terrific catch-and-shoot guy. Youve also inherited a player whos had to take and make shots in the biggest games of his life, the NBA Finals. Hes immune to pressure. Byron Scott can immediately rely on him to be a big-time shot maker.

My reaction to Posey signing here was extremely positive, because of how well hes played and what hes achieved in significant situations, McGregor says. That culminated with him being on a championship team in Boston.

When people talk about what James Posey can do defensively, that he can guard multiple positions, I think that sometimes goes under-noticed. His persona is one of business and accomplishment and winning. In terms of what kind of team and franchise were trying to be, when you can add those intangibles, then youre already a better team.

For several Hornets, 2008 was their first experience in the NBA postseason. Posey brings 60 games of playoff experience, more than any of his new teammates other than Peja Stojakovic (71 games). Here is a guy wearing a few pounds of jewelry, having a won a title in Miami and Boston, Vaillancourt says. That makes him a guy worthy of the other players going to dinner with him and asking what the journey is like (of winning an NBA title). Hes done it twice and has some terrific lessons to teach.

Bower further added to the weapons at Scotts disposal by signing two other free agents, guard Devin Brown and forward/center Sean Marks. Brown was an in-season pickup by the Hornets during the 2006-07 season and started a career-high 49 games. Marks is an eight-year NBA veteran. The 6-foot-10 native of New Zealand made his NBA playoff debut last season, as a member of the Phoenix Suns.

The familiarity Devin has had with Byron Scott, his teammates and the style of play is a big bonus for him, Vaillancourt assesses. He knows a lot of what Byron Scott likes to do, from vocabulary, to style, so his contributions will be accelerated. Hes a seasoned guy who gives you solid play at the 1 and the 2. He gives you credibility off the bench. He has also started in the past. His signing creates a terrific air of competition in practice.

Meanwhile, Marks will compete for minutes in the teams frontcourt rotation, behind West and Tyson Chandler.

Hes a catch-and-shoot guy, Vaillancourt says. He can float out to the elbow or 15 feet and make some shots. Hes a solid guy, and a good personality who keeps harmony on your bench. Hes not a complainer, and hes low-maintenance.

New look

In a move that had been in the works for two-plus years, the Hornets unveiled new uniforms, colors and logos, during an Aug. 20 ceremony in the French Quarter. One of the primary purposes of the changes: To increase the identification fans make between the Hornets and the city of New Orleans.

McGregor calls the brand-new jerseys and symbols one aspect of the teams long-term objective to become a New Orleans institution, something local residents accept as part of the experience of living in the city.

What weve done is make a New Orleans statement, McGregor explains. Weve talked about being embedded in New Orleans and being part of the New Orleans scene, and hopefully as the years go by part of the culture here. The new uniforms, logos and colors, all of those are things that say, We belong to New Orleans.

The way the city responded last season (in terms of fan support), it was like the city was saying, You belong to us.

The teams popular Fleur de Bee logo, which was unveiled prior to the 2007-08 season, remains a prominently-featured symbol of the Hornets pride in New Orleans. The Fleur de Bee will become even more recognizable nationally this season, particularly after the Hornets decided to add the logo to center court at the New Orleans Arena. In addition, the Hornets created a NOLA horn third logo that pairs the citys frequently-used abbreviation with a trumpet. The primary Hugo the Hornet logo was also altered, with the mascots chest now reading NOLA and the font of the words NEW ORLEANS HORNETS modified to better reflect the citys history and textures.

McGregor, well-known for his creative wit and puns on TV, uses an interesting relationship analogy when describing the connection between the Hornets and their home city.

What happened last season was like going on a first date together, McGregor says, smiling. We never broke up with each other, but we did go away for a couple years. Weve come back and said, Lets exchange things and be together.

The way I see it, the changes that the Hornets decided to make to the jerseys and colors were made to say, This franchise belongs to New Orleans.

New supporters

There may be no better tangible measurement of the current excitement in the city of New Orleans about the Hornets than the teams season-ticket base. The club entered the 2007-08 season with about 5,000 full-season plan ticket holders. That figure has now ballooned to over 10,000. The entire lower bowl of the New Orleans Arena has been sold out by season-ticket requests.

As the Hornets kept setting new individual and team marks on the court last season, fans kept pace in the stands, establishing a New Orleans-era record with a total of 20 sellouts. The final 13 Hornets home games were all played in front of capacity crowds.

It showed in the results on the floor: the Hornets were one of the NBAs most successful road teams early in the 2007-08 regular season, but struggled at home, losing several games to sub-.500 opponents in November and December. After the All-Star break, however, New Orleans went 12-1 in the New Orleans Arena from Feb. 27 through the end of the regular season. The Hornets then looked virtually unbeatable at home during the playoffs prior to Game 7 of the San Antonio series, going 6-0 and winning by an average of 16.7 points per game against the Mavericks and Spurs. Add it all up, and New Orleans went 18-2 in its home arena over the last 20 games there.

Early on, when the crowds werent that big, it affected (the players), Kelley remembers. After finally being healthy as a team and winning games on a consistent basis, it was hard to find that home-floor advantage. But when it flipped and the crowds got bigger, around the All-Star break, it had the opposite effect. It became a huge boost.

Our guys really loved playing at home. There really was a true difference, and you could see it in the way they played and the way theyd come back from a road trip. Knowing that theyd have home games and would be playing in front of huge crowds, it was a big deal.

Kelley is looking forward to seeing the homecourt edge continue to build, with the New Orleans Arena earning a reputation as one of the buildings opponents do not look forward to visiting.

Now we have a chance to have a full building on almost any given night, Kelley says. Not just from the All-Star break on, but from Opening Night on. Thats only going to fuel the fire even more for a team that has championship aspirations. Like a lot of teams that have become powers, such as a San Antonio and Phoenix, when you go to their buildings, you expect a big crowd that has knowledge of the game. Thats about to happen here. I think the players realize that they are about to join that elite club, of not just being a elite team on the floor, but an elite building to play in as well.

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