BY LES EAST
July 15, 2012
In one week the New Orleans Hornets will make perhaps the most important personnel acquisition in franchise history when they select Kentucky forward Anthony Davis with the first pick in the NBA draft.
New Hornets owner Tom Benson could not have scripted a better way for his tenure to begin. The NBA is bound to New Orleans through 2024 and the Hornets, who also have the 10th and 46th picks in the draft, suddenly look like playoff contenders again.
This is the beginning of a new era for the Hornets and the future may well be the brightest it has been since the franchise moved from Charlotte, N.C., a decade ago. But the regime change produced another personnel move that’s disappointing.
Earlier this week, Benson replaced Hornets president Hugh Weber with Dennis Lauscha, who holds a similar position with Benson’s New Orleans Saints.
Although it’s understandable that Benson would want to utilize Lauscha, one of his key lieutenants during the most successful run in Saints history, and Benson did acknowledge Weber’s significant contributions in a statement, it’s hard to imagine that the Hornets won’t be worse for the loss of Weber.
The franchise was in one of the least stable periods in its history when the NBA stepped in and bought it from George Shinn in December 2010. Shinn was antsy to sell and the league bought the franchise and time to find a suitable owner who would commit to a long-term lease.
The lockout was looming about six months down the road and the team’s two best players — guard Chris Paul and forward David West — were less committed to New Orleans long-term than any prospective owner.
NBA Commissioner David Stern charged Weber — and league-appointed liaison Jac Sperling — with stabilizing the franchise enough to make it attractive to the right owner.
Their most tangible goal was to raise season-ticket sales to more than 10,000 (an increase of about 3,000) with a campaign that launched as the lockout was about to begin, jeopardizing the entire 2011-12 season.
The sales effort had some momentum thanks to the team’s unexpected playoff berth in 2010-11, and Weber deserves some credit for that because it was his astute hiring of a little-known assistant named Monty Williams as head coach that got the basketball operation back on the right track.
The Hornets reached their sales goal and the lockout ended in time to salvage 80 percent of the season. Stability returned to the business operation even as West left in free agency and Paul was traded before he could do the same. Their departures and a series of injuries contributed to a 21-45 record, but Benson’s recent purchase of the franchise, the luck in the lottery and Wednesday’s trade with Washington have the business and basketball prospects looking up.
There’s reason to believe the Hornets’ best days in New Orleans are just beginning, and that wouldn’t be if not for Hugh Weber.