New Orleans Hornets end turbulent NBA era (part one)
The New Orleans Hornets’ selection of Anthony Davis with the number one overall pick in today’s NBA draft will in part mark an end to a turbulent period in their history.
Before we move into the next era, let’s take a look back at the extraordinary one the Hornets just shut the door on.
Coming off an 18-64 season, the Hornets selected Chris Paul with the fourth overall pick at the 2005 NBA Draft. The people of New Orleans would barely see the future star point guard play during his first two seasons.
It was the same year Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, devastating the city and forcing the Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City adopted the Hornets as their own, and their crowd turned out to be one of the best and loudest in the league. It became evident that Oklahoma City could more than support a professional basketball team, and the city rallied to keep the Hornets.
However, the Hornets returned to The Big Easy full time just before the 2007/08 season. New Orleans was still early in the process of recovering from Katrina, but at least their NBA team was on its way home.
The 2007/08 season turned out to be their best in New Orleans to date. Paul, along with players like as David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic, propelled the team to a 56-26 season, shocking the league and finishing second in the West.
New Orleans celebrated the rebuilding and recovery of the city as well as the return of the Hornets by hosting the 2008 All-Star game. Paul and West were both selected for the first time.
Paul finished second in MVP voting that season (behind only Kobe Bryant) following a truly spectacular season which included a spine-tingling playoff campaign. The Hornets disposed of Dallas in five games, before coming up against the evergreen Spurs in round two, where they lost the deciding game seven at home. Despite the premature ending, it was a special season.
The 2008/09 team featured much of the same personnel with the addition of James Posey, a key piece and the glue guy of the Celtics team which won the championship the previous season.
No longer the ‘surprise team’ of the league, New Orleans was predicted to be a championship contender. Unlike the previous season, they simply were not able to stay healthy.
The team finished with a still decent 49-33 record, but their playoff run was halted in five games to Denver, including a 58-point whipping and an average loss margin of 30 points.
2009/10 is when adversity started to set in again. Head coach Byron Scott was fired after a 3-6 start and general manager Jeff Bower took over coaching duties for the remainder of the season.
Paul missed 37 games due to a serious knee injury which resulted in him having a piece of cartilage removed.
While his situation was not a severe as Brandon Roy’s, Hornets fans worried that something similar could happen to Paul and that he may never be the same player again.
Meantime, Paul’s absence gave rookie point guard Darren Collison an unexpected starting role. Collison, who was drafted 21st overall, played well above expectations, playing 40 minutes a game and averaging 18.8 points and 9.1 assists.
Fellow rookie Marcus Thornton, originally drafted by Miami with the 43rd pick, also turned out to be a shining light. He scored with such ease, averaging 14 points in just 25 minutes per game.
Despite these pleasant surprises, the team missed the playoffs, finishing 37-45. But missing the playoffs was less important than attendance benchmarks.
Various numbers had to be met throughout multiple seasons, or the team would cut short its lease with the city and leave town. The benchmarks were met in the end.
Rumours were running rampant during the 2010 offseason that Paul, arguably the best point guard in the league, wanted out. The rumours obviously eventually proved to be true.
Before the 2010/11 season, the Hornets fired Bower and brought in Monty Williams and Dell Demps as head coach and general manager respectively. Williams and Demps came to the Hornets with many similarities. Both were coming off assistant roles, Williams as a coach and Demps as a GM. Both spent time with the San Antonio Spurs in their respective roles.
The Spurs’ front office and coaching staff are widely regarded as the best in the league. San Antonio’s four championships since 1999 have been well documented and their current astounding streak of 13 seasons with 50 or more wins speaks for itself. Williams and Demps had the best possible background.
Demps was thrown in the deep end. His first task? Convince disgruntled star Chris Paul to stay. No one is sure quite how he did it, but soon after Demps and Paul met, the rumours completely stopped and the Hornets were able to get on with their planning for the upcoming season.
On August 11 2010, the Hornets sent their emerging point guard Darren Collison to Indiana along with James Posey. They received Trevor Ariza in return from Houston in a four-team trade. The Hornets needed to put enough talent around Paul to convince him to stay.
In December 2010, just over a month into the season, the NBA took the unprecedented step of buying the Hornets. David Stern headed the purchase of around $300m in an attempt to keep the team, unable to find a local owner at the time. The fact that nothing like this had ever happened before in the NBA made it big news on its own. Not to mention the questions it raised, including ones surrounding possible conflicts of interests for Stern and the league, as well as whether Hornets employees such as Dell Demps had the authority to do their jobs or whether the league would interfere.
During 2010/11 season, the Marcus Thornton and Monty Williams didn’t always see eye to eye. Thornton was an offensive player and Williams was a defensive coach. Williams didn’t feel Thornton was buying into his intensive defensive system, resulting in disagreements and Thornton’s playing time being reduced from 25 minutes per game to 16.
Four months into the season, the Hornets traded Thornton to Sacramento in exchange for Carl Landry. The move saddened and angered many fans in New Orleans. They were already angry before the trade due to Thornton’s limited court time, especially in contrast to the previous season. When Thornton emerged from the bench, the arena would erupt.
Not only was Thornton scintillating on the offensive end the previous year as a rookie, he was adored even more by fans due to being a Louisiana native. Thornton was from Baton Rouge and played for his hometown Louisiana State University (LSU), a big name school in college sports and much loved throughout Louisiana. Not surprisingly, most Hornets fans were furious about the trade.
While some believed the Hornets to be a better with Ariza and Landry, the anger and disappointment was understandable. In many fans eyes, their team had just traded away their two young shining lights including a local for two admittedly decent players, but with little guarantee they’d stick around long term.
In the final days of the regular season, the Hornets officially booked their ticket to playoffs. However in a late season game in Utah, David West landed awkwardly following a drive to the basket. West clutched his knee in agony while the city of New Orleans held its breath, fearing for the worst. Their fears were soon realised when it was revealed that West had torn his ACL, ruling him out of playoff action. West would be out for at least eight months.
The team finished with a 46-36 record, giving them the seventh seed and a first round match-up with the Lakers. The Hornets fought valiantly without West, winning games 1 and three. However, in the end the Lakers’ size was just too much, LA prevailing in six games.
The following offseason was a dramatic one. The lockout wiped out two months of the season. It was full of drama, PR wars, mind games, heated encounters and 16 hour meetings with no progress. It’s a story for another day, but as Bill Simmons from Grantland said at the time, it was so ridiculous that there’ll be books written about how poorly it was handled.
Once teams were allowed to start talking to players again, New Orleans fan’s attention turned from the lockout to Chris Paul. Paul had one year left on his deal but talk resurfaced about his unhappiness with his situation, feeling as though the Hornets had not put enough talent around him to contend for a championship. Eventually, Paul asked for a trade.
The Hornets completed a deal which would have sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Rockets, and Kevin Martin, Louis Scola, Goran Dragic and Lamar Odom to New Orleans. The deal was vetoed by David Stern, who of course, was technically the owner of the Hornets. Another trade was completed days later, which sent Paul to the Clippers in exchange for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and Minnesota’s 2012 first round pick.
The was an uproar among the media and the public, with people pointing back to their original concerns of conflicts of interest on the league’s part and whether or not the league was denying Demps the ability to do his job. Controversy surrounded the league as well as the Hornets indirectly.
To add further pain for Hornets fans, free agent David West, the two time All Star who had been with New Orleans since his rookie season in 2003/04, signed with Indiana.
The Clippers trade was undoubtedly better for the Hornets than the Lakers one would’ve been. Acquiring Kevin Martin, Louis Scola, Goran Dragic and Lamar Odom would have caused them remain an eighth seed team. In the NBA, being middle of the pack is the worst place a team can be. You aren’t very good, but haven’t finished low enough to get an influential draft pick.
The Clippers trade gave the Hornets a young star in Gordon, a young cheap asset in Aminu, Kaman’s expiring contract and a high draft pick which turned out to be number 10. This allows the Hornets to build from the ground up with young talent, cap space and high draft picks. They wouldn’t be very good this upcoming season, but that is half the point. Finishing towards the bottom would give them yet another asset in the form a high draft pick, which of course turned out to be the number one pick with which they drafted Anthony Davis. The Hornets may suffer in the short term, but their ceiling is much higher than the eighth seed.
For the rest of this story, check back tomorrow.
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