On Hornets media day Sept. 29, just as the team was getting set to depart for training camp in Lafayette, team owner George Shinn spoke with the media frankly, and at length. He discussed coach Byron Scott's expiring contract, what he felt was a disappointing 2008-09 season and his feeling the team is overdue to win a title. It wasn't the first time he made the speech.
"I talked to the players just a little while ago," he said. "I talked to them about the importance of all of us believing. I've been doing this for 20 years, and this is our best team yet, and this is our chance to win a championship."
Ownership has set a tone this season that management, coaches and players have embraced. Last season serves as grim evidence that the Hornets are not good enough to just coast into the playoffs. And yet, the 2007-08 campaign shows that, with the right kind of drive, this could very well be a team that contends for a championship.
"We never got everything going at the same time (last season), we never got everything clicking on the same cylinders," Shinn said. "In order for everything to happen it has to come together at the same time."
It seems forever since the Hornets have been firing on all cylinders. NBA seasons are so long that success is measured month-to-month. It can be easy to forget that — just two years ago — this team came off a 39-win campaign split between the New Orleans and Oklahoma City to sneak up on everyone but the Lakers in the West en route to 56 wins and a Southwest Division title.
Hornets fans would rather forget what happened next. After their record-setting season, New Orleans acquired two-time NBA champion James Posey, thinking he was the final piece to their championship puzzle. But Posey's four-year, $25 million contract overshadowed the glaring problems on the Hornets bench. The team struggled with injuries throughout the season and lacked the depth to make it past former Hornet Chris Anderson and his new team, the Denver Nuggets, in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
More than anything, those who followed the Hornets closely could tell the team lacked the drive and hunger of the year before. From their sluggish 5-5 start to a season finish in which they lost six of their last eight games, it seemed Chris Paul and company thought they could just turn on a switch and start winning games like they used to.
"I could sense their attitude changing," Shinn said. "I don't know if it was, 'Well, we're going to coast through this.' I don't know what it was. It wasn't the same type of fire and positive attitude."
Players refuse to blame last season's outcome on complacency — perhaps because no one wants to admit he didn't try as hard as he could have. But believing the Hornets gave up on the season would mean ignoring the effort players had to put in when injuries befell all around them. The fact is, last year's Hornets team wasn't as good as billed in the preseason when they were projected to win it all. David West said that, for whatever reason, last year's team members just couldn't keep their focus all season long.
"The thing that sticks out most in my mind was, we had a stretch when we won the most games in a row all season and we just tanked after that," West said. "There was a mental block somewhere. We couldn't keep the pressure up and keep improving."
Be it lack of talent or motivation, last year's Hornets campaign did not live up to the franchise's new standard. And with this franchise, accountability starts at the top. Shinn said this season will be his most hands-on in the 20 years he's owned the team. Though always concerned with success, Shinn admitted he usually put people in place and then let them do their job. Now he's putting pressure on everyone in the organization to perform better, starting with his son, Chad Shinn, who is executive officer of the board, team president Hugh Weber and general manager Jeff Bower.
"We try to think about the impact from every angle," Bower said. "Discussing with Byron is important, his thoughts on a player and how he thinks they can be utilized. Talking with Hugh and Chad about our financial picture ... and with Mr. (George) Shinn, his understanding that the player fits the criteria he has for a player as far as willingness to be a part of the community."
Weber and Chad Shinn are more money men than anything, their roles consisting mostly of telling Bower what kind of numbers he's working with when seeking talent. But while some have criticized the Shinn family for being stingy, George Shinn points to the 12-year, $84 million contract the team gave Larry Johnson back in 1993 when it was still the Charlotte Hornets. Back then, Bower was just a scout in the Hornets' front office. One could argue the results of that deal — Johnson was traded to the Knicks just three years later — have affected how the Hornets have signed players since. Bower denies any such influence.
"Outside opinions don't sway our methods and don't guide us for the next step," he said. "We understand if [a player] works, it was a great decision — and if they don't, it was a bad one."
Since taking over as general manager in 2005, inheriting a team with David West in place and Chris Paul coming on board after that spring's draft, Bower has made few bad decisions. The Hornets improved the first three seasons Bower was in charge of selecting players, culminating in a second-place finish in 2008-09. But while the team has flourished on the court, Bower has remained in the shadows. His trade of Tyson Chandler for Emeka Okafor garnered just as much attention for how it was accomplished as for the players involved. With most people expecting the Hornets to stay quiet over the summer, Bower had been talking to the Charlotte Bobcats since the beginning of the off-season and struck a deal that may define this year's Hornets.
"We had a tight circle of people that had knowledge of [the trade]," Bower explained. "The communication between ourselves and the Bobcats was obviously pretty confidential. Today's day and age, you have to expect people to do their job and find out about things and normally things are leaked for one reason or another, but the question is if it's accurate."
Few of the rumors that have been reported about this team over the years — from its potential move to whom it would trade — have proved accurate. The Okafor trade is significant not only because of how surprising it was, but for the finances involved: The Hornets will save roughly $1 million a year on Okafor's contract as compared to Chandler's. Over the summer, Bower let go a number of reserve players with big-money deals, including veteran guards Rasual Butler and Antonio Daniels, and brought in cheap but effective front-line help in Darius Songalia and Ike Diogu. He also drafted two guards, UCLA's Darren Collison and LSU's Marcus Thornton, to provide young, cheap competition for Paul and veteran guards Devin Brown and Bobby Brown.
In the end, saving money on role players — the same reason people have criticized this organization in the past — may make this off-season Bower's most successful to date. Quietly, the Hornets have become a much better team than the one that suffered a 56-point blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets en route to losing in the first round of last year's NBA playoffs.
Take Okafor. While not as tall or athletic as Chandler, Okafor brings a grit and physicality the Hornets have lacked in the low post. He has the ability to score with his back to the basket and has averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds in his career (compared to Chandler's 8-point, 9-rebound career average). Most important, Okafor is a man who takes care of his body. Though slowed at the beginning of training with soreness in his legs, Okafor just completed his first back-to-back 82-game seasons, something Chandler has never accomplished.
"It's just cross-training in the off-season," Okafor said of his regimen. "Basketball is a very repetitive sport, so certain muscles get worn down and certain muscles get neglected, so you have to find the best non-impact way. Yoga and Pilates are great ways to keep those small muscles firing and keep your core stabilized."
Okafor's cross-training is nothing new among NBA players, and not even the most creative exercise on his own team. Veteran forward Peja Stojakovic spent the majority of his summer in Greece, relaxing with his family and doing low-impact workouts in the Mediterranean Sea. Stojakovic's health has been an issue since joining the team three seasons ago, but now he'll be taking on a new role: coming off the bench after Scott gave the starting small forward spot to Julian Wright at the beginning of training camp. For an aging but still accurate Stojakovic, a diminished role could provide a boost in bench scoring and help keep the Serbian sharpshooter healthy and fresh for the playoffs when he'll be needed most.
"If [Scott] thinks I will be more useful to the team that way, I will do it," Stojakovic said at training camp, seeming happy his body would be taking less punishment this season. "I want to be able to help this team, either way, in whatever role is given to me."
Where last year the Hornets found themselves asking where they could find help on their roster, this may be the first year since Chris Paul was drafted that the team can say it has too much depth. Along with draft picks Thornton and Collison, the Hornets added guard Bobby Brown to shore up the bench behind Paul and a refocused and healthy Morris Peterson. Paul, who finds himself as a team's seniormost guard for the first time in his short NBA career, took on a more intensive off-season workout and added some bulk to his frame. He said it was all a part of getting back to the grindstone and that he looks forward to the competition the Hornets have at all positions.
"I think this may be the deepest bench we've had since I've been in the league," he said. "It's going to be exciting to see the competitiveness; is it going to be buddy-buddy, or is it going to be like, 'Hey, I want your position'? I would love for somebody to come in and try to take my position because, at the end of the day, that just makes us better."
While no one is expecting any player to replace CP3, just the notion of having viable backups for the Hornets superstar should have fans giddy with excitement. Lest anyone forget, whenever Paul sat last season, the offense stalled with Daniels, Mike James and Devin Brown struggling to run offensive plays. As a result, Paul saw more and more minutes as the season wore on, despite Scott's insistence that he wanted to keep his star player rested and healthy — and, indeed, Paul's body did not hold up. A groin pull sidelined him at midseason and nagged at him throughout the team's late-season run and quick playoff exit.
"I think a lot of times last year he was just playing on fumes, just pure determination," Scott said.
When all is said and done, last year may have been something of a blessing for the Hornets. Outsized expectations paired with mediocre performance forced the management, coaches and players to see themselves for what they really were. After the season ended, there was no escaping the fact that this team was far from a top-tier squad — at least not yet. The disappointment of last season seems to have reminded Hornets players of the hunger they possessed back in 2008, when they were relative unknowns just looking to make a name for themselves in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
"We just gotta go out there with the same understanding we had a couple of years ago," Scott said. "Sometimes we have to play like we're the hunters. Last year we got a little caught up with all the preseason picks and that stuff. The way we lost (in the playoffs) is the most disturbing thing. That should be the most motivating factor right there."