A few weeks ago, the New Orleans Hornets made an announcement that surprised neutral observers and signaled a monumental shift for the future of the franchise. The news came just as the NBA lockout ended and training camps were set to start, yet somehow it was nearly overlooked by the media.
It's not hard to see why, since most headlines involving the Hornets during the past couple of weeks have centered on the melodrama culminating in Chris Paul's trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. The days-long fiasco — prompted by the league axing two previous deals on dubious grounds — has been a public relations nightmare for a league seeking to get past a messy work stoppage.
It also made for a surreal preseason experience. Paul attended training camp but never talked to the press; he even got a pass on media day (when sports reporters and photographers traditionally have access to players) — the same day he was traded. Head coach Monty Williams tried to conduct regular practices, but until the trade, which was made less than 48 hours before the team's first preseason game, Williams had no idea what his lineup would be. All the while, general manager Dell Demps and team president Hugh Weber were working feverishly behind the scenes to find a resolution to the drama so it wouldn't derail the season before it even began.
Ostensibly, Chris Paul is to blame for the whole saga. When he refused to sign an extension of his contract, Paul left the Hornets with no other choice but to trade him or risk losing the player generally regarded as the best point guard in the NBA — and get nothing in return. The trouble is that Paul, who will be a free agent after this season, is within his right to play for another team. That's what free agency is.
As a result, the villain in this story became David Stern and the NBA owners. Stern apparently didn't have his fill of bad press with the lockout and decided to undermine his popularity by rejecting the best trade deals Demps has been able to make with what little leverage he had.
Everything about the situation — the conflict of interest with having the league own the Hornets, threats of litigation by the players' union and the way the trade drama has overshadowed the start of the season — could make fans lose faith in the franchise. But to lose faith would mean overlooking the good news that has come out of the situation.
There's the announcement that everyone seems to be overlooking. It's an unlikely rock that Williams and Co. can use for support, something that NBA teams from cities big and small would kill for: more than 10,000 season-ticket holders.
"I think that's what's lost in all of this," Williams said. "The work that Hugh Weber and all of those beautiful people downtown who have been busting their butts since last season to appeal to our community and show them that we're committed to be here."
Speaking at media day Dec. 14, Weber insisted that people who bought season tickets did so to support the whole team, not just Paul. That's not just PR-speak. Having a legitimate superstar is a good selling point for fans, but rumors about Paul's departure have been flying around since last year. To counter them, the Hornets applied a smart and aggressive media campaign and earned widespread support from New Orleans city government and the business community. For a small-market team on the verge of losing its lone star player, this is no small feat.
A more impressive accomplishment is that the Hornets have gone from one of the league's least financially viable teams four years ago to one of its most profitable at the start of this year's training camp. This turnaround has led to Weber announcing the Hornets are "60 to 100 days" away from announcing a new owner (and putting the whole Stern mess behind them). As it turns out, the team that has seemed on the verge of disarray for the past several weeks is in a better position than most franchises in the NBA.
It's one thing to have an owner and a strong fan base, and quite another to ask both to tolerate watching a team win less than 20 games. Many have chastised Stern for killing a trade that would have landed the Hornets last year's sixth man of the year (Lamar Odom) and a mix of veterans and draft picks from the Houston Rockets that theoretically would have given the Hornets a team with which to compete immediately.
Demps, it seemed, was dealing with the same kind of behavior one would expect from the worst type of small-market owner struggling to reconcile the hard truths of NBA basketball. The current reality, however, is that smaller markets not only have less money, but even the players they can afford care less about a paycheck than their chance to play in a big city. Paul's concern isn't so much that his earning potential is slightly diminished by playing in New Orleans, but that his legacy's potential is diminished. Small-market owners with bad teams believe this is what's killing the NBA.
Because the league owns the Hornets and Stern is the de facto owner, his main priority is the team's bottom line. When the league bought the Hornets for more than $300 million last year, it intended to earn a return on its investment. The 29 other owners in the league aren't in the business of losing money on a franchise that' isn't their own. Losing Paul for anything less than a slew of quality players and draft picks diminishes the team's resale value — no matter how many people have committed to season tickets.
The league's perception that superstar players' trade demands undermine a small-market team's abilities to compete ignores the reality that mismanaged teams and those with incompetent owners usually fail no matter who's on the roster.
The Hornets' front office and coaching staff are competent and capable. Demps had not one, but three deals lined up for Paul over a five-day span, all of which would have positioned New Orleans with a remade roster and a bright future. To his credit, Demps seemed unaffected as the league stymied each deal for reasons that appeared less-and-less comprehensible, even managing a smile and laugh when meeting the media as the Twittersphere was abuzz with rumors he had threatened to resign. (Demps denied he ever did that).
Meanwhile, there's Williams, who was handicapped by the uncertainty of his roster as the saga dragged on. But when asked about dealing with that uncertainty, Williams didn't speculate about who may or may not be playing for him. His focus was — and always has been — on the here and now.
"Would I love to have some things in order? Absolutely. But that's not the case," he said. "You have to deal with reality. I have to devote myself to the people who are here right now and prepare as best I can and that's what we're doing right now."
For most of a week, Williams was bombarded with questions about his team and roster that he couldn't answer. But he stressed, "We're a no excuses, no explanation team," and whoever the Hornets put out on the court will be ready to compete.
It won't be easy. The only players returning from last year's lineup are forward/center Emeka Okafor, guards Marco Belinelli and Jarrett Jack and forwards Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry and Quincy Pondexter. The deal with the Clippers landed the Hornets solid young talent in guard Eric Gordon (who at 22 already is scoring 22 points a game) as well as an experienced center in seven-year veteran Chris Kaman (who could stay on the roster or be traded for even more assets). On top of that, the Hornets acquired prospect forward Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round draft pick next year, giving New Orleans two with which to build its roster even more.
This translates into Williams having a slew of young, untested athletes to which he'll have to teach his system during a short pre-season before a shortened season. Williams is no fool; he's said repeatedly that for a young team to succeed, it needs a lot of practice time and opportunities to study film. The Hornets have no such luxury, but neither does any other team. If it's lucky New Orleans can pull out wins through work ethic and the benefit of young, fresh legs.
That's not to say the Hornets will be mediocre or worse for long. You can trust Williams' abilities because he, like Demps, is a product of a San Antonio Spurs organization that has won four championships in the past 13 years and has missed the playoffs only once — the 1989-1990 season — all while playing in a market almost identical in size to New Orleans.
The Spurs enjoyed their success with the aid of two superstar players: Hall of
Fame center David Robinson and three-time league MVP Tim Duncan (neither of which ever felt the need to test the waters of free agency). But Robinson and Duncan enjoyed success because the Spurs' front office was well-equipped to make sure their superstars were surrounded with championship-caliber talent.
The Hornets are far from being the Spurs, but it's not irrational to say that, while this season may be destined to be a forgettable stepping stone in the rebuilding process, the Hornets have competent people in charge to lead the organization in the right direction (this is also assuming Weber's 60- to 100-day prediction on a new owner comes to pass).
There is no denying that Paul and the league have dealt the Hornets a terrible hand. But these are not end times. For 10,000-plus people who've bought season tickets, unproven talent and a competent and capable front office may not be the sexiest reason to stay optimistic about the franchise, but if the Spurs' track record is any indication, it's certainly not something you should overlook.