Hornets now one of NBA's most promising franchises (cont.)
Why was NBA commissioner David Stern committed to keeping the Hornets in New Orleans? Like NFL commissioners Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell, who didn't want their franchise to abandon the city in distress, Stern believed he needed to make a stand on behalf of New Orleans.
But league sources say that Stern also wanted to use the Hornets to send a message to other owners and franchises. If the Hornets under interim NBA ownership could be run efficiently, despite all of the calamities around them, then what excuse did other teams have?
After the NBA took control of the Hornets, Stern installed sports attorney Jac Sperling as his representative in charge of the franchise. Sperling, a New Orleans native who is vice chairman of the NHL's Minnesota Wild, was charged with finding a new owner who would keep the team in New Orleans. He also served as Stern's representative in negotiations with state and local government to renegotiate the lease and make the team more hospitable to the next owner.
Stern also sent representatives of his team marketing and business operations division -- known as TMBO -- to help hire sales employees and oversee management of the team. Hornets officials say TMBO was invaluable in helping to guide the Hornets by using information from other clubs to inform Sperling and Weber of business practices that worked or failed elsewhere in the NBA.
The Hornets have become a franchise that, like its host city, "punches way above its weight," according to Landrieu. Parallel to the recent CBA negotiations, the NBA owners negotiated a new system of revenue sharing in which the richer clubs funnel profits to teams that are underperforming in the NBA market. Not so long ago, the imperiled Hornets would have seemed to be the franchise most likely to benefit from revenue sharing, but no longer. As it stands now, they will not be entitled to participate, and by as early as next year they are projected to achieve profitability.
In his meetings with owners and executives of the other 29 teams, league sources say that Stern has been able to point out -- bluntly and with no little pride -- the financial success of his Hornets. New Orleans is the smallest market to have two franchises from among the NFL, baseball and the NBA, and yet within the NBA the diminutive Hornets rank in the upper half of ticket sales, in the middle of the pack in sponsorships and No. 19 in overall revenue. As Stern prepares to leave office in the next few years, the Hornets have emerged as an example that he can use to compel other franchises to perform more efficiently, and thereby drive up league revenues overall.
The most controversial aspect of the Hornets' turnaround was their trade of Paul to the Clippers, which was consummated after Stern ended previous negotiations that would have sent the point guard to the Lakers.
In its original form, Paul would have gone to the Lakers in a three-team deal involving the Rockets, who would have received All-Star power forward Pau Gasol from Los Angeles. When teams were allowed to begin negotiations in December after the lockout resolution, the Hornets pursued a strategy to trade Paul for players who could keep the team in playoff contention. The original Lakers trade would have left the Hornets with a more expensive roster built around newcomers Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and an unhappy Lamar Odom; a league source says the Hornets had three adjunct deals lined up to move Odom onto another team.
Stern was widely accused of vetoing the Lakers' trade amid suspicions that he wanted no part of a deal that would help one of the NBA's richest teams become more dangerous and younger while saving money in the process. But league sources involved with the Hornets insist that the trade had not been consummated officially because it hadn't been reviewed and approved by Stern, in his role as the Hornets' de facto owner.
One highly placed source believes there was simply a breakdown in communications between the Hornets and Stern, as information about the potential trade never reached Stern until he decided to halt negotiations with the Lakers on Dec. 8, following the meeting with NBA owners to ratify the new CBA. It wasn't a matter of conspiracy but of priorities: The pressing demands of the CBA and revenue-sharing negotiations -- both highly contentious -- prevented Stern from receiving specific information about the developing trade until the Hornets, Rockets and Lakers had agreed in principle on the general terms, according to the source.
It is important to note that the proposed deal could not have been deemed official because the exchange of salaries involving the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets did not meet NBA rules. Another $2.5 million in salary still needed to be worked into the complicated trade before it could be finalized.
Six days later, Stern agreed to the trade that sent Paul to the Clippers in exchange for Gordon, the expiring contract of center Chris Kaman, second-year forward Aminu and the Timberwolves' unprotected No. 1 pick in June. This package of young talents, an expiring contract and a draft pick was the kind of deal sought routinely by teams that are up for sale, as a means of creating cheap, promising assets that would make the Hornets more attractive to a buyer.
The Hornets are expected to announce in the next month that they will be sold to either Los Angeles businessman Raj Bhathal or Gary Chouest, a former minority owner from New Orleans. This summer, the Hornets will attempt to sign Gordon to a long-term contract while maintaining maximum cap space to go with their two first-round picks in the draft.
There are no assurances that Weber, Demps and Williams will remain in their current roles. At the same time, there is no reason to replace three team leaders who have developed relationships with fans and sponsors that have helped transform the Hornets from victims into community partners.
The most interesting decision of the new owner may be whether to rebrand the franchise. Will the "Hornets" nickname be relinquished and enabled to return to Charlotte, where owner Michael Jordan could rebrand his own underperforming franchise?
If so, how would the basketball team of New Orleans rename itself? No suggestions will be made here, for the new name would have to represent the resilient spirit of New Orleans and its fans. It would be the finishing act of a franchise that has been reinvented, a team committed to the city that wouldn't let go.
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