Things can change very quickly in the NBA.
At least that’s what Hornets fans have had to learn over the past year.
Fourth of July weekend in 2008 was one of the most optimistic periods in Hornets' franchise history.
The bad taste of a Game Seven loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals had just worn off, and the Hornets seemed as if they were well on their way to bringing New Orleans its first professional sports title.
People were putting the Hornets in the conversation, along with the Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers, as potential contenders for the Western Conference crown going into 2009.
Chris Paul was one of the early favorites to win the MVP award.
A couple of weeks later, the Hornets signed forward James Posey, one of the prizes among the crop of free agents available last offseason. He had just finished winning his second NBA championship and was brought in to be the veteran leader on a young Hornets team that did not know how to win the big game quite yet.
This was the move that was going to put this team over the hump, right?
Giving him a contract worth four years and $25 million may have been a bit much, but winning a championship was the main focus for this team, not saving money—which is the mindset an organization needs if they want to achieve this goal.
The loss of major playoff contributors Jannero Pargo and Bonzi Wells seemed inevitable, but after the addition of Posey and the presence of a veteran point guard like Mike James still on the roster, it was only an afterthought at the time.
The Hornets were going to make New Orleans the home of a world champion.
At least that was what everyone thought.
Almost a year later, the thinking in New Orleans is vastly different.
An extremely disappointing 49-33 regular season, which consisted of 58 combined games missed by starters Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic and the overworking of Chris Paul and David West to make up for their absence, ending with a quick first round exit at the hands of the Denver Nuggets.
James was traded early in the season for Antonio Daniels due to his ineffectiveness.
Then Daniels came in and was, well, ineffective.
Posey played well, but, with the team lacking other players to assist West and Paul in the scoring effort, he was asked to do too much at times. Posey could not play the same role he did on his two previous championship teams.
They just need to sign another veteran, right?
That should solve their problems.
Well, there is one little problem with that theory. The Hornets are on schedule to have over $77 million in payroll going into the 2009 season. That figure puts them $7 million over the expected luxury tax threshold.
Adding another salary anywhere near what they gave to Posey last offseason will make owner George Shinn have to pony up a large chunk of cash (nearly $10 million) in luxury tax.
Shinn definitely doesn’t want to do that—no owner does—and especially not for a team that does not look like a surefire contender.
New Orleans General Manager Jeff Bower can hope that a free agent, such as Brandon Bass, is willing to take the mid-level exception or less to come to New Orleans and make the Hornets look as if they are trying to keep up with their Western Conference foes.
Weren’t they supposed to be celebrating a championship right around this time?
Times have changed.
One thing is for certain, the Hornets will not be in the conversation of teams who are expected to be celebrating a championship around this time next year.
After all the movement involving the top teams in the West this offseason, New Orleans has fallen farther behind.
Ron Artest has left Houston for the Lakers.
Richard Jefferson exits Milwaukee to join the Spurs.
Up-and-comer Trevor Ariza will sign with the Rockets.
Not to mention Shaq joining the Cavs and Vince Carter being traded to the Magic out East, and we see contenders adding firepower while the Hornets are handcuffed.
All these franchises had better records than the Hornets last year before making these huge additions to their respective teams. They are putting the pedal to the metal in an effort to win next year’s title, and the Hornets are struggling to get out of neutral.
Weren’t they supposed to be in the fast lane not too long ago?
The question now is, what do the Hornets plan on doing to try and catch up with the elite teams in the league so they can be competitive come playoff-time next season?
Trade Chandler to give the team some breathing room under the cap?
Trade an All-Star in David West?
Hope to convince someone into trading for an over-the-hill, highly-paid player like Stojakovic, Morris Peterson, or Antonio Daniels?
All of these scenarios seem unlikely to materialize anytime soon.
But Bower will have to figure something out, or his team will not be a contender in the West with the abundance of quality players and teams currently littered throughout the conference.
The additions of Blake Griffin to the Clippers and Zach Randolph to the Grizzlies will only deepen the challenges in the West.
If Hornets fans think life changed from good to bad really fast last season, they’ll be shocked to see how things can change from bad to worse even quicker.
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