Five Steps To Making New Orleans a Perennial Playoff Contender

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Five Steps To Making New Orleans a Perennial Playoff Contender
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In the 22 years the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets have been in existence, they have reached the postseason 11 times, and the longest they’ve gone without reaching the postseason was a four year span from 2003 to 2007.  Even more impressive, they’ve made the cut six times this decade. 

So what’s there to complain about, you ask? 

No hardware, for one. 

The team has also never been able to keep their stars happy (Alonzo Mourning, Kobe Bryant, and Baron Davis come to mind), whether it be because of shoddy ownership, failures by an incompetent coaching staff (Tim Floyd, Byron Scott), or general franchise disarray (goodbye Charlotte, hello New Orleans/Oklahoma City!).  I fear Chris Paul (the most talented and transcendent player this franchise has ever seen) may eventually go down a similar path. 

The team’s owner, George Shinn, foolishly ostracized himself from the city of Charlotte (and a franchise that once sold out 358 consecutive games and sported one of the most rowdy arenas in the NBA). He somehow managed to alienate fans to the point where he was forced to move the team to New Orleans after a dispute over building a new arena. 

Of the Hornets’ 11 playoff appearances, they’ve gotten bounced in the first round six times, never seeming to reach their full potential as a team for one reason or another.

So, as a lifelong Hornets fan (from New Jersey, mind you) who is tired of watching his squad languish in mediocrity and first round exits, I’ve outlined the following itinerary to guide the Hornets into becoming a perennial playoff contender, and eventually NBA champions. 

Continue Drafting Well.

The Hornets lucked out in the 2009 draft for the first time in a long time (see: Chris Paul, 2005), stealing UCLA point guard Darren Collison with the No. 21 pick in the first round, even though he’s clearly displaying top-10 value. And hometown boy Marcus Thornton out of LSU (second round, 43rd pick) has already been handed the reigns as the team’s full-time starting shooting guard, and hasn’t disappointed thus far. So the future of the franchise is in the right hands.  

As for their picks in between 2005 and 2009? Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, Marcus Vinicius, Julian Wright, Adam Huluska. 

Bleh.  

While the core of Paul, David West, and Emeka Okafor are still relatively fleet of foot, the Hornets’ remaining contributors–Peja Stojakovic, Morris Peterson, and James Posey – all clearly have expiration dates marked on their foreheads, and the bench beyond that is paper thin. 

Contrary to what Chad Ford believes, it’s too early to speculate where the Hornets will be drafting in 2010 and who might be available too them (although he does have 6’11’’ freshman Hassan Whiteside from Marshall falling to N.O. with the No. 12 pick), especially given their volatile future with Paul sidelined for the next month. But their needs (frontcourt, small forward) are glaringly obvious, and fans can only pray that the same team of scouts who saw something in Collison and Thornton will once again strike gold in 2010. 

Find a Coach Who Can Win in the Playoffs.

Interesting fact: Five separate head coaches have guided the Hornets into the playoffs, and not one of them left the team with a winning playoff record. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re consistently getting serviced in the first round. 

Is Jeff Bower the answer? Hard to say. 

On the surface, Bower looks like a rare mix of Humpty Dumpty and Hitler. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find the man who shrewdly selected Chris Paul with the No. 4 pick in 2005, brought in Paul’s alley-oop target, Tyson Chandler for disgruntled J.R. Smith. He later dispensed of an injury-plagued Chandler just in time, since he knew a healthy Okafor would be more beneficial to his team than Chandler in street clothes.

But this is also the same man who grossly overpaid for a past-his-prime Peja Stojakovic, and has been inserting the corpse of Morris Peterson into his starting lineup since 2007.  

Bottom line:  Little is known about Bower’s coaching history prior to his time with the Hornets (where he started out as a scout in 1995), but having been close to the franchise for 15 years, he looks like the right man for the job, and fans aren’t calling for his head just yet. 

Attack Free Agency to Keep Chris Paul Happy.

This may be the most important corollary of all, because if the Hornets lost Paul (I dare not even mention such blasphemy), the franchise would cease to exist. 

The remaining players would be shipped off to various other squads in an expansion draft, and owner George Shinn would have to sleep with one eye open for the remainder of his life. 

The Hornets have Paul locked up for the next four years, and there’s surely nothing the Hornets’ brass wouldn’t do to keep him in Creole blue for the remainder of his career.   

It remains to be seen how well the Hornets survive without the services of Paul for the next month, but regardless of how they fare, it’s foolish to think this current New Orleans roster is a championship-worthy one. 

Once a sexy finals pick back in 2007, the Hornets have fallen back into the middle of the pack after getting trounced by the Nuggets in the first round last season. 

So where do they go from here?   

The Hornets really don’t have many movable pieces this season. They have their current core (Paul, West, Okafor), their rookies, who are untradeable (Collison and Thornton), overpaid veterans who are also untradeable for different reasons which I’ll elude to in a minute (Mo Peterson, Peja Stojakovic, James Posey), and a relatively weak bench of expendable role players (Julian Wright, Darius Songalia, Sean Marks, Aaron Gray, Jason Hart).  

Yet over the past month and a half, the Hornets have been dumping salaries left and right–basically trimming the fat by moving players whose salaries clearly aren’t matching their production.

Bower did an excellent job since the end of last season, managing to cut the Hornets’ payroll enough to get below the NBA’s luxury tax while not moving any core pieces, rather improving the Hornets by giving away expendable assets. 

Lets be real here; the Brown’s (Devin and Bobby) and Hilton Armstrong belong in the D-League, while Rasual Butler and Antonio Daniels are both easily replaceable. 

So, with the Hornets officially under the luxury tax (and eventually receiving the estimated $4.5 million the NBA rewards all non-luxury tax teams with on Feb. 18), it’s time to consider potential free agents during the “Summer of Lebron.” 

A young, athletic big man who can spell both Okafor and West, such as Tyrus Thomas comes to mind. Older but reliable bigs like Udonis Haslem and Joel Pryzbilla will also be available.  

And the plethora of available wing scorers are vast, with any of the names below being an upgrade over Stojakovic for the 2010-11 season: Marquis Daniels, Josh Howard, Anthony Morrow, Hakim Warrick, Al Harrington, Matt Barnes, Ronnie Brewer, and Mike Miller all fit the bill relatively well. 

Signing any of these second-tier free agents would prove to Paul that the Hornets intend to try to win now, while he’s in his prime, rather than clean house and try again a few years down the road. 

Trade Julian Wright.

The 22 year-old versatile swingman may be the Hornets’ only realistic trading chip this season, although his value has taken a hit after losing his starting gig early in the year after disappointing play. 

Regardless, Wright is young, active, and could be a nice fit for the right team (think Trevor Ariza to the Rockets, minus some of the scoring). 

The Hornets don’t need any more young pieces, their corp is in place, and they’re clearly playing for the moment, so why not make a run at an experienced (but not old) swingman with relative upside who can score but won’t demand the ball? 

Players like Richard Jefferson and Josh Howard come to mind, but the Mavs. and Spurs would need to take on an undesirable contract for a trade to work. 

Former Hornet J.R. Smith may demand the ball, but he’s a legitimate scoring threat, who can switch off with Thornton playing the 2 or a small 3. I’m no ESPN Trade Machine expert like Bill Simmons, but unloading Wright and the mid-level contract of a productive body like Darius Songalia for one more season to the Nuggets for Smith matches up salary-wise, and a change of scenery may be exactly what Smith needs.

Make Profit From the “Three Ps.”

Numerous Hornets blogs across the Internet mention the “Three Ps” when addressing the team’s future. 

(P)eja, James (P)osey, and Morris (P)eterson represent three of the Hornets’ highest paid players (with Peja actually being the highest paid Hornet), and more importantly a glut of money that the Hornets are desperate to unload.

Stojakovic and his remaining two-year, $29.5 million salary is the major culprit, and it looks like New Orleans is stuck with the aging sharpshooter until 2011.

Peterson really hasn’t been an effective NBA player since 2006, yet the Hornets keep trotting him onto the court because, well, he’s just…there. He’s averaging a career low 4.4 PPG this season, yet is being paid $6.2 million this year, and actually will see a spike at $6.6 million his final year in 2011. Find me a team willing to take on that contract with that sort of production, and kindly direct them to Brooklyn, where I have a bridge I’m looking to sell. 

Finally, it’s time for the Hornets to quit paying Posey (three years, $18 million) for elaborate pre-game rituals and locker room presence. The magic from his Celtics days has worn off, and he better be handing out gold plated donuts in the locker room to merit such a fat contract.  

It’s more than likely no team is willing to absorb any of these contracts unless they enjoy watching aging, overpaid, glorified backups rot away on their bench. It seems the only way for the Hornets to unload Peja would be in a package deal with another core piece, or (gasp!) with Paul. Certainly somebody like Mavs owner Marc Cuban would be willing to absorb Peja’s salary if the price were right. 

If Bower can somehow find a way to unload any of the “Three Ps” for reasonable value before the end of 2010, without touching their core, the Hornets may be looking at an upper-tier free agent signing.  

 

 

 

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