- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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There isn't a more cinematic team out there than the New Orleans Hornets, whose heroes are dropping like the cowboys in "The Magnificent Seven" and need to win to stay together like the Indians in "Major League."
Their drama revolves around two simultaneous plots: The injury-ravaged Hornets are fighting for a top Western Conference playoff seed, while economic challenges threaten the existence of the roster as we know it.
The story so far (I wish I could make this scroll to a vanishing point near the top of the screen like the "Star Wars" intros): The Hornets have been struggling to keep pace with the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets in the Southwest Division. The Hornets are in third, a game behind the Spurs. The first-place winner is guaranteed at least a No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Further complicating matters is a string of injuries to key Hornets players: Tyson Chandler has a sore left ankle that could keep him out until the final regular-season games, James Posey has a sprained left elbow and Peja Stojakovic has back spasms. By all rights David West should be doing nothing more than sitting in a room, icing and elevating the left ankle he sprained Tuesday night in Sacramento. But he's out there on the court, limping around like Willis Reed.
It's a testament to Chris Paul's willpower and the surprising effectiveness of the rest of the crew that the Hornets keep eking out victories to maintain any hope of the division championship.
Winning an NBA championship might seem like too much of a long shot but it could be the only way to keep this group intact. Even though attendance is up to 16,945 fans a game (98.6 percent of capacity, 16.2 percent more than last season) and Hornets owner George Shinn says the season ticket renewal rate is among the best in the NBA, he still wants to wants to avoid the luxury tax next season. The Hornets are currently committed to more than $76 million for 10 players in 2009-10. The luxury tax threshold this year is $71 million and is expected to decrease next year. You do the math. It looks like it has to be subtraction.
They already tried to move Tyson Chandler (owed almost $12 million next season) before the trading deadline, but the Oklahoma City Thunder voided the trade after Chandler did not clear their physical examination. The Hornets are expected to attempt more salary-shedding this summer. Stojakovic has the largest contract, but good luck trying to find a taker for a deal with two years and almost $30 million remaining for a player who has missed 21 games with injuries this season. Antonio Daniels ($6.6 million) and Rasual Butler ($3.9 million) have contracts that expire after next season, which could make them move-out candidates.
"We're running a business," Shinn said. "We want to win; we've just got to use good judgment. If you're asking are we going to try to trade Chandler, the answer right now is no.
"We're going to do everything we can to make this work. If we have to make other moves, we'll make them. I'm going to leave that up to [general manager] Jeff Bower and my basketball guys, and the coach.
"We stepped up and spent a lot on payroll. We're going to try to keep from getting in the luxury tax, because it really hits you hard when you do that. So we're just trying to use good judgment, and if we have to spend to win we're going to do it.
"What happens between now and how far we go in the playoffs is going to determine what we're going to do. Jeff Bower is going to make that call along with our other basketball folks.
"I try to get them to stay under [the luxury tax]. If we get to a point, they come to me and I let them know if we can go over it or not. But if we've got a chance to win, I'll take the chance."
Owners have emotions too. They see the team winning, the fans dancing in the seats, confetti falling from the rafters, and they get addicted. Even Donald Sterling became less averse to big contracts when the Clippers made the playoffs three years ago.
So are the Hornets fighting to stay the Hornets?
"I've got so many other things to deal with, worrying about the future of the team is the least of my concerns," coach Byron Scott said. "We have some pieces here that should be here for a long period of time. We have great pieces to build off of. We need some other pieces that we've got to add to this team. I just hope we can get it done. With Chris and David -- and I look at Tyson as one of those pieces as well -- hopefully this summer we don't make any crazy mistakes and we try to keep these guys together as long as possible and we try to add to it.
"I understand how tough times are right now and I understand how much money a lot of businesses are losing, that includes the NBA. I do understand all that. But from a coach's perspective, you want to win. You want to try to get the best guys you can to compete on a night-to-night basis."
Right now the Hornets are competing, regardless of whom they do or don't have. Without three of their top six players, they won by one in Sacramento on Tuesday, then came back the next night and held off the Clippers in Los Angeles.
Paul is logging more than 40 minutes a game most nights, trying to conserve energy where he can. He skips his usual pregame workout on the second of back-to-back games, waiting until the last minute to change into his uniform. Once the blue jersey goes on, it's as if he can't help himself.
"I'm tired, but when they throw that ball up, I always tell people it all goes out the window," Paul said. "I don't think about it until that horn sounds."
Paul keeps finding new ways to elevate his team. When Chandler was in trade limbo, Paul hit a game-winning shot against Oklahoma City, then went for 36 points and 10 assists in a victory over Orlando the next night. With the key players going down lately, Paul keeps finding ways to get the fill-ins shots they can make to build their confidence; he's averaging 12.2 assists over the past five games.
"I feel like I'm playing better right now than I did last year," said Paul, the runner-up to Kobe Bryant in the 2008 MVP balloting. "You're sort of forced to. The thing that I understand more now is that you can't be all sad that guys are hurt and injured. You've still got to play the games. That's what's driving me."
Don't underestimate the commitment these players have to each other, the bond that's formed in a locker room that seems as loose and collegial as ever despite their predicament. Haircuts or even the way someone walks across the room is subject to roasting -- and the person laughing the loudest is often the subject of the ridicule. Paul is often the emcee, showing the flip side of the guy who glares at teammates and demands perfection on every play on the court.
"I just know that as long as that guy's in here, he's going to motivate everybody to play their best," said West, nodding toward Paul's locker a few stalls down. "We want to be in the situation where we've got the best shot to win. We feel like the guys we have, that's our best shot. We don't think about [the future]. We're just going to go with the guys that are in here, the guys that are willing to play the way the coach wants us to play and just go from there. We're not going to think about whether our team will look different next year. In our minds we can't afford to focus on anything but the game right now."
Once they determine the ending, then they can get around to selling the rights to the movie.
4dEthan Sherwood Strauss
5dMatt Walks, ESPN.com