The New Orleans Hornets bit the bullet and traded Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, ending CP3's six-year career with the franchise. Over those six years, the Hornets haven't always been good (usually because of injuries to CP3), but they have been a threat; in 2008, the Hornets were a win away from the No. 1 seed in the West as Paul challenged Kobe Bryant for the NBA MVP award. As such, the Hornets haven't been a rebuilding club since 2004-05, the season before Paul arrived with the No. 4 pick in the draft. Having projected cap space and vital draft assets is something new for New Orleans.
There's something bitter about the timing of all of this. The NBA took over the club in December 2010 on account of founding owner George Shinn falling apart financially; NBA commissioner David Stern revealed on Wednesday that there were concerns Shinn couldn't make payroll for the entire 2010-11 season. Along with the NBA's capital takeover, one that simply allowed the Hornets to pay their bills, make payroll and function as a (relatively) normal NBA club, the league sent in one of its vaunted swat teams of salesmen.
The NBA does this in the most troubled markets, where teams need help selling tickets and sponsorship rights: it sends in a team of executives and marketers to change the culture of the sales office and make gains. That's why the league has sold 10,000 season tickets for the 2011-12 Hornets, and nearly that many for the Sacramento Kings (which it began helping in May). The NBA knows how to sell NBA basketball, all over the world an in its markets.
The bitter part is that those 10,000 fans in New Orleans were probably sold some version of NBA basketball that included a heavy dose of Chris Paul, one of the league's most exciting players. Instead, they will have legitimately one player worth watching for his performance alone. Eric Gordon is a brilliant young player, a kid you would swear is a Mitch Richmond clone if he didn't dunk with authority so frequently. But ... that's going to be it this season.
Chris Kaman is effective, but plays (and often looks) like a sedated zombie. Emeka Okafor is a fine defender, but has tambourines for hands and a game more Earthbound than Ness. Al-Farouq Aminu is certainly worth watching ... if you enjoyed the 2005-06 Atlanta Hawks. (Any hands go up? No? OK.) Trevor Ariza is probably going to be taking 15 shots a game once again, so uh, good luck escaping a home game without a concussion if you have good baseline seats. Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli and Quincy Pondexter are exactly what is says on the box: Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli and Quincy Pondexter. Did I lose any of you to a catnap in that sentence?
The Hornets are going to be bad. Like 9-57 bad. Monty Williams is a good coach who will make sure that this team plays defense, and Kaman, Okafor and Ariza are solid veterans who between them, with Gordon, can keep the Hornets competitive on some nights. But the frontcourt scoring will be abysmal, Ariza and Kaman are going to shoot the team out of a good share of games, and if Gordon has an off-night -- it happens -- the team is doomed. This isn't a historically bad team -- they'd need to go 7-59 to finish with a worse winning percentage than the 1973 Sixers -- but it's a bad, bad team.
For a rebuilding team, it's OK to be awful. In fact, it might be preferred. The draft is how a team wins, and the worse you are, the better the pick. If the Minnesota Timberwolves remain awful, it's conceivable that the Hornets (who took Minnesota's unprotected pick in the CP3 deal) could enter the NBA draft lottery with the two best chances at the No. 1 pick, and they could very well come out with the No. 1 and No. 2 picks. At worst, you expect them to have two of the top seven picks; in a great draft, that's huge.
But the Hornets and their fans still have to get there. As a fan of a team whose last playoff bid came in 2006, a team that took too long to rebuild and spread the culling over far too many years, the rebuilding part sucks. Warm thoughts of tomorrow, watching college games to mentally grade prospects, gearing up for the lottery -- all of that can only distract from awful, painful basketball so much, and for so long. For those 10,000 season ticket holders and the hundreds of thousands more in southern Louisiana and elsewhere who live and die with Hornets basketball, this season is going to be awful and painful to watch. When Stern talks about competitive balance, he glosses over the disconnect between the golden ideal of parity and the reality that this -- the disgusting depths teams must reach to get better -- is the only way to rebuild.
The good news for the NBA and New Orleans is that fans are so much smarter than anyone gives them credit for. Fans know why the Hornets will suck this season. Most of those season ticket holders will be fine with this trade, they will embrace Gordon and Aminu from Day 1, they will take the losses in stride and they will spend as much time as kindness allows rooting hard against the Timberwolves. The era of the informed fan allows teams to "get away" with the scorched Earth rebuild without any backlash; hell, these days it is often the case the fans are calling for a scorched Earth rebuild before teams are ready to make the dive. The timing on all of this stinks for all of those fans in New Orleans, because there is nothing like attending an NBA playoff game, and a lot of fans who plunked down thousands of dollars on tickets will be missing out on that for three, four years. But they understand, and they'll understand, and they will stick around. The saving grace of the NBA's weird takeover of the New Orleans Hornets is that the league has built a base that can survive this fire and come out green -- or make that Creole blue -- on the other side.
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