Long before the New Orleans Hornets fired Byron Scott on Thursday, it was clear to NBA fans in Oklahoma that this state is better off with the Thunder here and the Bees in the Big Easy. Scott’s dismissal served as simply the most recent confirmation, the latest in a string of setbacks and slip ups the Hornets have succumbed to.
Losing the first pro franchise this state has ever seen was gut-wrenching, though, on April 13, 2007, when the Hornets played their last game inside the Ford Center as “New Orleans/Oklahoma City” and uncertainty still remained about whether the Sonics would soon shuffle south as a substitute. The disappointment dialed up when the Hornets, in their first full season back in New Orleans, assembled a franchise-best season, a record of 56 wins and 26 losses and a trip to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. It became almost unbearable while watching Chris Paul turn in an MVP-caliber season and establish himself as the league’s best point guard.
But the Hornets are now in full tailspin mode, with a 3-6 record, a roster compiled of a batch of players that don’t fit, an owner who’s diagnosed with prostate cancer and dire financial concerns and now a new coach who has no NBA head coaching experience but happens to be the GM who put this team together.
Add it all up and the troubles in New Orleans function as the ultimate faux pas for the league’s 29 other franchises. And the reason Thunder fans should be grateful management and ownership has taken the complete opposite approach in Oklahoma City, deploying a patient plan rather than the Hornets’ failed attempt at a quick championship chase.
Hard as it is to fathom, not a single transaction by the Hornets has panned out over the past four years, since the time they made their way to Oklahoma City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Paul, remember, was drafted in the summer of 2005, before there became a slash in the team’s temporary name.
The team’s current financial quandary — the Hornets sit more than $3 million over the luxury tax line — can be traced back to the regrettable signing of Peja Stojakovic in the summer of 2006 to a five-year $64 million contract. The former three-time All-Star has only regressed since joining the franchise, and he has one more year left on his deal worth $15.3 million. The 2006 draft was even worse for New Orleans, as two top 15 picks resulted in Hilton Armstrong at No. 12 and Cedric Simmons at No. 15. Nice guys, but not nice basketball players.
Tyson Chandler harmed the Hornets three times, the first time in 2006 when New Orleans acquired Chandler’s $54 million, five-year contract in a trade that sent J.R. Smith and P.J. Brown to Chicago. Chandler then put together two good seasons before nagging injuries ultimately destroyed his dexterity and damaged the Hornets’ interior defense. His injuries killed his trade value, allowing the Hornets to acquire only another ill-fitting piece, Emeka Okafor, in a trade with Charlotte last summer.
But the Hornets’ 56-win season in 2007-08 masked their flaws, and New Orleans assumed it was a few pieces away from title contention. Apparently neglecting the lessons of the Stojakovic signing, the Hornets continued to add over-the-hill veterans who no longer could carry the big roles being asked of them in New Orleans. GM Jeff Bower, who’s now the coach, signed a then 30-year-old Morris Peterson to a four-year, $23 million deal. Peterson, who’s averaging 6.5 points and 1.8 rebounds, is owed $6.2 million this season and $6.6 in 2010-11. Bower then traded Bobby Jackson and fillers for Bonzi Wells and Mike James in an attempt to shore up the team’s bench. Both were ineffective, and James had one year left on his deal at $6.4 million that instantly became a problem. The Hornets traded him for an even more ineffective and aging Antonio Daniels.
Meanwhile, the 2007 draft resulting in Julian Wright with the 13th overall pick is quickly proving to be another wasted top 15 selection. But the truth is Scott has never cared for young players not named Chris Paul. Smith was on a short leash before blossoming in Denver. So, too, was Brandon Bass before defecting to Dallas and now Orlando. So who knows what Armstrong, Simmons and Wright could have developed into if given the opportunity, perhaps the Hornets’ starting frontcourt in the future?
The list of blunders goes on and on, as each one contributed to the Hornets slipping further and further away from contention…The signing of a 31-year-old James Posey to a four-year, $25 million deal…the cost-cutting trade of sharp-shooter Rasual Butler to the Clippers for a second-round pick….The trade of the 27th overall pick in the 2008 draft to Portland as opposed to adding young talent and depth to the roster.
The only move that comes close to adding up is the five-year, reasonably-priced, $45-million extension David West signed before the start of the 2006-07 season. The best thing to come out of that deal, other than it finally being a contract that the Hornets signed a player to for market value, was that West’s contract was front-loaded and decreases each year to take some pressure off New Orleans’ cap situation. But even West, who was an All-Star in 2009, got exposed against a tougher, more athletic Denver frontline in last year’s playoffs.
The 58-point home loss to the Nuggets in Game 4 of the West Quarterfinals exposed all the Hornets.
Suddenly, in the span of two short seasons, Oklahoma fans are tremendously thankful for how removed they now are from the first franchise they called their own.