Whether in Charlotte or New Orleans, the Hornets franchise is where dynasties never begin.
For the better part of two decades, the Hornets have managed to acquire- either via the draft or through trades- a number of gifted players, in or before their primes, often in groups of two or three.
Over that same stretch, the Hornets have consistently been seen as an up-and-coming team “on the cusp of greatness.”
Each of their successes, particularly in the postseason, tend to be overrated, while their shortcomings are deemed “learning experiences,” as observers envision a time in the near future when this team is a legitimate contender.
The pattern began in 1992, a year after selecting Larry Johnson with the top pick in the draft, as the Hornets selected Alonzo Mourning with the second overall pick. The team now had perhaps the most talented and powerful frontcourt in the league, to combine with sharpshooter Dell Curry, pint-sized PG Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and Kendall Gill on the wing.
The dynasty appeared to be well on its way, as the Hornets posted a then-franchise-record 44 wins, and secured the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs. Optimism was ratcheted up further in the postseason’s opening round, as the Hornets dramatically knocked off the Boston Celtics on a Game 4 buzzer-beater from Mourning. That they fell to the Knicks in the conference semifinals was not a big deal- the dynasty was ahead of schedule.
The team hit a speed bump the following season, finishing 41-41 and missing the playoffs by a single game, as injuries robbed Mourning and Larry Johnson of a combined 53 games.
The Hornets overcame the hiccup in 1994-95, securing the first 50-win season in franchise history and home court in the first round of the playoffs, where they fell 3-1 to the Chicago Bulls and a returning Michael Jordan from his baseball sabbatical. Though no one knew it at the time, Mourning and Johnson would never play together again, as friction between the two stars led to Mourning being traded to Miami in the offseason, in exchange for sharpshooter Glen Rice.
An incredibly optimistic chapter for the Hornets had come to an abrupt end.
Despite missing the playoffs after another 41-41 finish, the Hornets would ride the talents of several talented young players- Rice, Anthony Mason, Eddie Jones, Baron Davis, David Wesley, and Jamal Mashburn, among others- to seven playoff appearances in the next eight seasons. While it’s debatable whether they were ever truly title contenders, just three trips to the second round during this stretch qualifies as a disappointing end to another potentially great era.
A quick tangent before we return to “Potential Unrealized: The Hornets’ Story.” In the midst of the aforementioned run (before the 2002-03 season), the Hornets were relocated from Charlotte to New Orleans, amid waning attendance and local politics (in which owner George Shinn won himself no friends) derailing plans for a new arena. As a result of his role in the Hornets sudden departure from Charlotte, Shinn, who has not returned to Charlotte since the move, is still a pariah in Charlotte.
Now, back to the “happier” portion of our story.
In the summer of 2003, heading into the final playoff season in the Baron Davis-Jamal Mashburn era, the Hornets used the 18th pick in the draft to steal David West, a standout power forward from Xavier. West would get limited burn in his first two seasons, the first of which included another first round playoff exit.
The following year the Hornets stumbled to an atrocious (but later fortuitous) 18-64 record, during which Baron Davis was traded to the Golden State Warriors. The trade, along with a few cooperative ping-pong balls and Billy Knight’s disdain for point guards paved the way for the arrival of Chris Paul, a legitimate superstar and the best lead guard to enter the NBA in years.
After being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets turned in a pair of sub-.500 seasons in Oklahoma City, before returning to the Crescent City.
In 2007-08, the Hornets- now powered by Paul, West, Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler- ripped off 56 wins and came out of left field to grab the #2 seed in Western Conference. Paul led the way as the upstart Hornets dismantled the Dallas Mavericks and pushed the veteran Spurs to seven games in Round 2.
No big deal- the dynasty was ahead of schedule.
Not so fast!
In 2008-09, the Hornets, now carrying the weight of expectations, turned in a respectable 49-win regular season (good for 7th in the West) and drew the Denver Nuggets. What followed will be remembered as one of the most savage beatings in playoff history. The Nuggets not only dismantled the Hornets in five games- four wins coming by an average of 31 points, including a 58-point demolition (121-63)- but effectively ended the ascendancy of Hornets’ latest talented young core.
For Hornets’ fans, if the pattern holds, the best and worst part of all this is that lots more optimism is likely not too far off.