The good news is that the Stardust Race and Sports Book lists the New Orleans Hornets at 35-1 to win the 2004-05 NBA championship, placing the team in the top half of the league's 30 clubs. The bad news is that the Hornets, who made the playoffs in both seasons since moving to New Orleans, are deemed more likely to win a lottery position than make the postseason.
The grim prognosis is due to injury, pre-season dissension among the team's top players and a switch from the Eastern to the Western Conference, where the Hornets have landed in what many believe to be the toughest division in the NBA. "Returning to the playoffs won't be a lock," NBA Inside Stuff points out, "as there are a dozen teams in the West with realistic postseason plans."
Street and Smith's, CBS.com and NBA Inside Stuff all pick the Hornets to finish last in the Southwestern division behind the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks.
"The honeymoon appears ready to end," observes CBSSportsLine.com. "The Hornets will be moving to the Western Conference for the 2004-05 season, and with that move will come a much tougher challenge to stay in the race for the postseason."
"If the Hornets would have been out West last season, they would have failed to earn a playoff spot," the CBSSportsLine.com report continues. "Last season, the Hornets finished tied for third in the Central Division with the Bucks at 41-41. That same record last year in the Midwest Division, which included the other four teams in the new Southwest Division, would have landed the Hornets in dead last."
The loss of former All-Star small forward Jamal Mashburn with what may be a career-ending knee injury casts a pall over the Hornets' season.
Mashburn's injury "puts an inordinate amount of offensive pressure on their backcourt," notes Street and Smith's, "most notably Baron Davis, who has shown signs of his own wear and tear over the past two seasons."
Mashburn's contract limits the Hornets' ability to add big-contract stars under the NBA's salary cap rules. "Mashburn has two years and $19 million left on his contract," notes CBSSportsLine.com.
The team's remaining stars are unhappy. "Despite a team rule against personal trainers at practice, Baron Davis brought his along," reported FOXSports.com. "So did Jamaal Magloire. Davis said the new rule isn't what prompted him to explore asking for a trade during the off-season, but owner George Shinn disagreed, saying that's what triggered the situation. Sounds like things are still snippy between the Hornets and their point guard."
The Associated Press reported that All-Star center Magloire said "no comment" when asked if he was happy to be playing for New Orleans. "Along with Baron Davis," the AP report continued, "that makes two All-Stars -- the only two on the team -- who are talking as if they're losing faith in team management and would prefer to play somewhere else."
New coach Byron Scott's job is to keep that dissension from boiling over. "The arrival of head coach Byron Scott should create a much more stable atmosphere in the locker room," notes CBSSportsLine.com. "Scott's experience will quiet the chaos."
Street and Smith's thinks Scott will make a difference: "Scott is a confident leader who borders on cockiness, a trait that rubbed off from his mentor and coach with the Lakers, Pat Riley. If the Hornets need anything, it is to take the floor with a bit of an edge to their game."
Rookie shooting guard J.R. Smith, picked 18th in the draft, is highly regarded. "There is no doubt that he possesses the athletic skills to succeed," says Street and Smith's. "At 6-6, this 18-year-old has a 44-inch vertical leap the Hornets will look to groom him as their star of the future." David Wesley, who turns 34 in November, will show him the ropes.
"Rodney Rogers is expected to battle George Lynch for the starting small forward spot," says FOXSports.com. "Regardless of who starts, the players will split value and neither will be a primary option in the Hornets' offense."
At power forward, "P.J. Brown has been extremely popular at each of his three NBA stops," notes CBSSportsLine.com. "He's also a Louisiana native Hornets are hoping Brown will be the perfect role model for second-year power forward David West." Overall, Street and Smith's Stuart Miller says Coach Scott "won't adapt his style to the team he has, instead expecting to find personnel who can fit his style of play," which means, "he plans to 'hammer home the importance of defense'." CBSSportsLine.com says, "How Magliore adjusts to dealing with Yao Ming, Michael Olowokandi and Brad Miller will be key to how far the Hornets can go. At least Shaquille O'Neal has moved to the Eastern Conference."