- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The unknowns facing the first team ever owned by the NBA are almost as plentiful as the thousands of empty seats, in various shades of blue, that ringed the floor at the new regime's first game.
It was impossible to miss Wednesday night, not far from where the locally treasured Saints play, that New Orleans Arena had so many vacancies during the Hornets' 93-74 trouncing of the Detroit Pistons.
The season-low crowd count: 10,823.
"We'd love for more people to be here," Hornets star Chris Paul said, letting out a resigned chuckle that suggested he knew he'd be getting some attendance questions with so many reporters and cameras in the building.
"But like I said: 'We control what we can.'"
Paul and other Hornets players have been saying that a lot this week as they soak in the strange and unprecedented circumstances that have positioned the NBA to quite literally sign their checks. The collapse of longtime owner George Shinn's deal to sell the Hornets to minority partner Gary Chouest convinced NBA commissioner David Stern that he had to step in quickly and buy a team for the first time in league history, Montreal Expos-style, in hopes of stabilizing the organization for the rest of the season so someone else with deep Louisiana ties like Chouest will emerge to try to keep the Hornets here.
Whether that actually will happen is one of those many unknowns confronting a franchise that has been through a lot -- more than any franchise should have to endure -- during Shinn's 23 seasons and change in charge as the NBA's Donald Sterling of the South (and Southwest). Five of the biggest question marks in the wake of Shinn's ouster, in a season in which fears about Paul's future have quickly been replaced by fears that the sport itself will be dribbling out of town just like the Jazz did in 1979, are tackled below:
How does the NBA's purchase of the Hornets affect Chris Paul's future?
Paul certainly doesn't feel this way yet and might never let us know when he does. The suddenness of the news and the drastic nature of the ownership change, coupled with his well-chronicled fondness for the city and the locals of New Orleans, pretty much guarantee that any declarations of triumph aren't exactly imminent.
Yet we've seen enough on the ground here already to know he's clearly the big winner in this takeover. Short term, long term, whatever.
The Hornets already had decided they weren't even going to entertain the thought of dealing Paul this season. Not with the hammer of free agency more than a year away for Paul, who remains a year behind Carmelo Anthony, unable to head for the open market until the summer of 2012 at the earliest.
Now? He's even less likely to be dealt during the next 77 days, if that's possible, no matter how many teams try to capitalize on the presumed chaos by bombarding the Hornets with fresh trade interest. They can pretty much forget it with the league office holding final say on what the Hornets do and given that having Paul on the roster obviously ranks as one of the most attractive lures for buying this team, which surely has dawned on the commissioner after he publicly guaranteed this week that the eventual sell-on of the franchise will bring a profit to the NBA.
But the broader picture has to hold considerable appeal for Paul, once the initial shock wears off, because the down-the-road hypotheticals are almost all pro-CP3. Maybe the league finds a buyer with the resources to truly spend what it takes to compete and ensure the Hornets' viability in a city he loves. If not? If there's no local savior to replace the savior he thought he was getting in Chouest? Leaving New Orleans -- something that everyone close to Paul continues to insist would be painful for him even if he were joining, say, his good buddy Melo somewhere -- will have been taken out of his hands.
It would be taken out of his hands whether he stayed with the franchise or not. Perhaps Paul simply moves with the Hornets to play for a high-rolling, culture-changing new owner somewhere else. Perhaps he's finally convinced, after the years of instability, to push for a trade elsewhere once the Hornets land in their new home ... which hasn't happened yet, despite an offseason teeming with such speculation. Either way? No one could ever say that he abandoned New Orleans. And who could knock him, after nearly six seasons of stomaching Shinn's mismanagement and a sale gone so wrong that Stern had to intervene, for wanting to try something different?
Not that Paul is willing to engage in a what-if discussion about any of these hypotheticals yet.
"That's a bridge I'll cross when I'll get to it," Paul told ESPN.com on Wednesday night. "But right now I'm here, you know what I mean? I'm one of those guys that I'm too close to my teammates and with this city -- and my family's the same way -- to ever even think about being somewhere else.
"Everything right now is about how we can get our team to win a championship; I can't distance myself from that. 'Cause I feel like if I take my mind to another place to be with another team, then I have to distance myself. I can't do that. I've never been that person.
"This hasn't impacted [my future]," Paul continued. "I think it's about the now. That's all I'm worried about. I don't think about [the future] too much. I really don't."
What city is in the lead to land the Hornets if a local buyer can't be found?
There is no front-runner. Not yet. No matter what you've heard to the contrary.
For two reasons:
1. There are substantive issues to resolve in every current available city believed to be on the league's radar.
• Seattle is a proven NBA market -- and a highly sympathetic choice to get another team after the contentious departure of the Sonics in 2008 -- but still lacks the modernized building that might have kept the Sonics from leaving for Oklahoma City.
• Kansas City has a sparkling new arena well-regarded in league circles but also suffers from the stigma of NBA failure after the Kings left for Sacramento in 1985.
• Las Vegas has been crushed, as a city, by the recent economic downturn and would have to concede that its facilities, in any case, fall short of what Seattle currently can offer.
• Anaheim and San Jose, meanwhile, are destinations said to respectively appeal to the likes of Kings co-owners Joe and Gavin Maloof and unsuccessful Golden State bidder Larry Ellison ... but the existing teams in those markets undoubtedly would lobby Stern and fellow owners hard to block moves there.
(Sports Illustrated has identified Chicago as the hot new wild card in this discussion, but it's rather early in the game to know whether the Windy City has two-team potential like the greater New York and Los Angeles areas.)
2. Even if you assume the Hornets are doomed in New Orleans now that the NBA has assumed operational control of the organization, there can't be a leading destination until the identity and intentions of the next owner are known. And Jac Sperling, in his role as NBA-appointed team administrator, keeps saying it's too soon to solicit offers for the Hornets, local or otherwise, until the debt-ridden franchise is healthier.
Why did the NBA step in to buy the Hornets when it has never taken this step with any other up-for-sale team? Calling it "a fair question," Stern countered with the claim that the league had little choice. The NBA maintains that the crippling combination of Shinn's deal to sell the Hornets to Chouest collapsing along with the club's accumulated sea of debt made Shinn's ongoing ownership untenable and forced the takeover reminiscent of MLB's purchase of the Expos.
"I'm not engaging in purchase discussions," Sperling added Wednesday, "because we've got to get the asset more valuable.
"You could go out and try to sell it out now, but that's probably not going to yield a good result. So we're going to do what we can to try to make it attractive to prospective buyers."
Which brings us to the good news ... at least for the league: This will be an attractive franchise to out-of-state bidders if, as feared, no one in Louisiana emerges as the new Chouest. When the NBA eventually hammers out a new labor agreement with its players -- however long that takes -- it's safe to assume increased revenue sharing and more favorable conditions for owners will be in place. Which many experts expect to lead to an increase in franchise values, especially if Stern opens up new frontiers as he's contemplating by weighing how strongly to field deep-pocketed interest from the Middle East and other outposts abroad.
Chances are sky high, furthermore, that Paul still will be on the roster as a very marketable face of the franchise.
If that combo isn't sufficiently enticing, there's this: The Hornets are on course to have the freedom to opt out of their lease as early as March 1 if they don't average 14,213 over a span of 13 home games from Dec. 1 through Jan. 17. The average for the first three games in that window is a mere 11,903 after the Hornets, despite their surprising start, attracted the crowd of just 10,823 to the rout of Detroit.
Sperling, then, basically has the rest of the season to pursue more significant state and city business engagement with the Hornets and work on an attendance plunge that has seen the season-ticket base drop from 10,400 after a 56-win season in 2007-08 to its current 6,000-plus.
But a half-empty building against the Pistons and some ominous words from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- who responded to Stern's plea for the sort of funding that has helped keep the NFL's Saints strong by announcing that "the state is facing significant financial pressure" and that "we're not going to do anything that jeopardizes funding for higher education or health care" -- have only added to the fretting that this week is beginning of the end of the NBA's second stint in the bayou.
Only a cold soul could root for the locals to be stripped of the Hornets, after everything else they've been through in recent years, but it's clearly harder than ever for the Hornets to operate in the Saints' shadow since their Super Bowl XLIV breakthrough.
"I grew up here," Sperling said Tuesday at a news conference. "[Stern] asked me to help. Read into that what you want, but I think the commissioner, he's been very positive about this city going back to when the team was awarded in 2002, [then moving the team back from Oklahoma City] after Katrina ... and also the awarding of the 2008 All-Star Game.
"We're in a difficult spot, yes, but I think his selection of me is a further indication of what is in his mind. He wants to try to make this asset more attractive so perhaps a local buyer will step up."
In a subsequent conversation with ESPN.com, Sperling said: "There's no guarantee we'll be able to [find that local buyer]. But I'm an optimist by nature and personality."
Our advice? Don't assume anything. Especially this early.
Ellison's presumed slam-dunk pursuit of the Warriors, who instead went to a group fronted by Joe Lacob for a record $450 million as opposed to one of the richest men in the world, should have taught us that.
Are the Hornets at serious risk for contraction?
It is widely assumed that the threat of contracting the Hornets, which presumably has been made far easier to execute now that the team is in the NBA's possession, will be lobbed at the players this summer in labor negotiations.
Not without reason, either. Stern has publicly acknowledged since October that contraction has to be a consideration given the financial losses the league says it is suffering. He said more than once in his conference call Monday with the national media that no one should expect the Hornets to be bought by new ownership before July.
"I think that we're not in any hurry," Stern said when asked for a timetable on finding a buyer for the Hornets. "And so it may well be that this team does not get transferred before the successful conclusion of collective bargaining."
The reality, though, is that contraction talk has not yet reached the point of serious threat.
You can't completely discount the prospect of the Hornets being erased from the NBA because Stern has publicly raised contraction as an option. He wouldn't have addressed it out loud, veteran Stern-watchers will tell you, if there wasn't some chance.
Yet it's also true that Stern publicly admitted in October, in the same discussion in which he acknowledged contraction as a possibility, that he doesn't anticipate that he and his lawyers will spend "a lot of time on it." Stern then muddled the issue even further, as recently as the day before Halloween, by repeating his long-held belief that a five-team division in Europe is still a real down-the-road dream for the NBA.
Taking operational control of a team is a first Stern certainly wanted to avoid, despite his attempt to downplay the severity of the situation by joking that he was jealous that commissioner counterparts Bud Selig in baseball and Gary Bettman in hockey "were having all the fun" with their leagues' prior purchases of the Montreal Expos and Phoenix Coyotes.
Yet you can safely assume that subtracting even one team from a league that has grown from 23 teams to 30 in his 26 years as a commissioner is something Stern badly wants to keep off his résumé in the twilight of his reign.
How will the Hornets' front office function when the sport's commissioner is widely regarded as the owner?
The jokes have already begun about Stern handing the trophy to himself if the Hornets miraculously manage to win the championship this season. Another joke topic among Hornets players: Maybe we'll start getting more calls.
Even Stern couldn't resist a crack of his own during Monday's conference call, when he launched into the topic of basketball operations thusly: "I'm going to refrain from saying we're one player away."
This, though, appears to be the area in which it's easiest to believe the business-as-usual claims that have been coming all week from the league office and the Hornets. Reason being: You can argue that the Hornets have been operating in the face of greater instability for months with neither Shinn nor Chouest completely in charge ... and have still managed to make numerous moves since the end of last season. The job can't be harder without Shinn.
Hornets president Hugh Weber hired Monty Williams as his coach in May, fired general manager Jeff Bower during summer league and hired Dell Demps from San Antonio as Bower's replacement July 21. Demps, meanwhile, has swung five trades in his first five-plus months on the job in a perpetual attempt to revamp the supporting cast around Paul in hopes of convincing the star guard to recommit to the franchise.
The Hornets have not shied away from long-term contracts as part of their roster shakeup (Trevor Ariza and Jarrett Jack) while also managing, in the short term, to drop nearly $4 million under this season's luxury-tax threshold. And sources close to the situation insisted to ESPN.com this week that Demps will continue to have the latitude to make deals between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline -- even to go over the luxury tax if the right opportunity presents itself -- because the Hornets belong to the league now.
Translation: Stern agrees that putting a good product on the floor is the fastest way to raise the value of the asset.
"We're going to continue to build this team for the long term," Demps said. "We're not going to make short-term decisions. There are always limits for any team, but I really don't feel like anything has changed since Monty and I started working together."
"From everyone I've talked to," Williams added, "we're not changing the way we do anything."
Coach and GM, if that proves true, will continue to report primarily to Weber, with the league-appointed Sperling -- whose primary assignment is making the franchise more attractive to prospective bidders (and preferably local bidders) -- serving as Stern's eyes and ears in the French Quarter.
The New Orleans native freely admits he's not a basketball guy, but Sperling counters by pointing out that he began a successful stint bringing the Minnesota Wild into the NHL in similar conditions.
"I didn't have a hockey background, either," Sperling said. "What you do is hire really good people. And Hugh has hired two really good people. You let them run it. You let them run it, you let Hugh run it and that's what we're going to do here."
The commish is making similar vows. Should another trade be recommended by Weber and Sperling in the near future, Stern said this week, "then we're going to be approving it."
And the Hornets, sources say, are still looking for deals with vigor. One source close to the situation says they are "aggressively" trying to use the $9.7 million trade exception created in the recent deal with Toronto headlined by Peja Stojakovic and Jack to add "a significant player."
Hornets forward David West over the weekend openly described the team's plight as "a mess." How much will uncertainty about the team's future affect its on-court performance?
Few franchises have endured the sort of sustained barrage of chaos and sadness that the Hornets have faced ... in multiple cities.
They've been hit by true tragedy at least twice. After Bobby Phills' in-season death in Charlotte in an auto accident in January 2000, Hurricane Katrina struck in the late summer of 2005 and forced the Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City for the better part of two years.
What's happening now isn't on the level of either of those unspeakably sad chapters in Hornets history. As Williams said Wednesday night before New Orleans' rout of Detroit at home: "My thing is [that] there could be a lot worse things going on. Nobody lost their job. I always talk about the [post-Katrina] plight of this city. We're obviously in a better situation."
Yet no one is claiming that it's a comfortable situation.
The best you can say, again, is that Hornets coaches, players and staffers indeed have more clarity than they've been dealing with since the end of last season. They've seemingly been ownerless after the verbally agreed sale from Shinn to Chouest stalled in May and was never updated or even discussed publicly by the parties involved over the next six months. League ownership is unquestionably better than Shinn ownership.
But West says it's impossible for the locker room residents here to resist the urge to ask questions after seeing the crowd numbers lately.
Lots of what-next questions are inevitable, no matter how many times Williams insists he'll stay on his players to focus on "the business of basketball."
"We're human," West said. "We're going to read, we're going to listen to commentary and we're going to have opinions. We have a right to. I just don't think we can totally say, 'Let's just put the blinders on and go out and play.' That'd just be unrealistic. There's a whole bunch of people that are affected by this, and I don't think it's going to be something that's just gonna go away and fade into the dark.
"I try to be optimistic in terms of thinking that there'll be something good to come out of this. A lot of the stuff that's going on is out of my control and out of the players' control. But we definitely have ideas and we're thinking about it. It'd just be idiotic not to be concerned with who your boss is if you're working somewhere."
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann