- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The rugged Western Conference should only get rougher in the 2004-05 season if league owners, as expected, approve the NBA's plan to move the New Orleans Hornets to the West to make room for the forthcoming expansion franchise in Charlotte.
A vote on the proposal is scheduled Tuesday at the NBA Board of Governors meetings in New York, ESPN.com has learned, after a committee formed to recommend one franchise for relocation to the West settled on the Hornets. Once a committee recommendation gets to this stage, it is typically approved with minimum opposition.
This is the Hornets' first season in New Orleans, after 14 seasons in Charlotte ended in a bitter divorce last spring, and owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge are bound to protest a switch to the wilder West. New Orleans' current 42-34 record, which still has the Hornets in the running for home-court advantage in the first round of the East playoffs, would only put them eighth in today's West.
For the East, though, the plan -- trading a perennial playoff team for an expansion team -- would make the landscape slightly more forgiving for a pack of long-suffering franchises. New York, Indiana, Philadelphia and New Jersey have combined to win just four games in the NBA Finals since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls won the last of their six titles in 1998.
Apparently not yet at the voting stage, however, is the NBA's plan for divisional realignment when it expands to 30 teams. Commissioner David Stern, at the Hornets' opening game in New Orleans on Oct. 30, said he thinks the league "should go to six divisions and start some real trouble" once Charlotte returns as an expansion team. Yet at present, the agenda for next week's Board of Governors meetings only calls for discussion on realignment possibilities.
If Stern does not push through a new six-division format, similar to what the NHL adopted in 1998-99, the Hornets could simply be moved into the current Midwest Division alongside the teams from nearby Texas.
It remains unclear whether Minnesota and Memphis will have any shot now to move to the East once the Hornets swap places with the not-yet-named Charlotte franchise. The Timberwolves and Grizzlies have been lobbying league officials for a move out of the West, arguing that they belong geographically in the weaker conference.
The rugged Western Conference will get tougher with the addition of the Hornets in 2004-05.