- Sam Smith
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Look, this Game 7 between the New Orleans Hornets and Miami Heat in the series that time, the NBA and America forgot -- heck, we're almost halfway through the conference semifinals already in some places -- is just about who gets the opportunity to get the crap kicked out of them by the Indiana Pacers.
Assuming the Pacers all come back from semester break without sunburns.
Game 7's are exciting. But they're usually more exciting when one of the teams wins, say, 44 games during the regular season. What it mostly means in this series is that two mediocre teams, even though Miami has been a pleasant surprise this season with its strong finish, is looking for a chance to say, "Hey, if we were in the West we could even make the playoffs."
Which takes us to the Hornets, who will be in the Western Conference next season and don't look like they'll be in the playoffs next spring. Which is also why this Game 7, though of not particular interest to most because neither team is expected to advance much beyond it, may be the most important game in these NBA playoffs.
Because it'll not only determine the fate of the head coach, but the future of a team and perhaps an entire franchise.
Win and the season is saved for the underachieving Hornets, who were a first-round playoff victim last season. The early exit cost coach Paul Silas his job after a 47-win season and set the stage for what screwball owner George Shinn predicted would be the best season in franchise history. Win and the season could be the Hornets' best ever, in a farcical way, since the franchise has never been beyond the second round and never played more than 10 postseason games in any season. A victory would guarantee at least 11 playoff games.
But a loss? It could be the beginning of the end of the franchise in New Orleans.
Sure, NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik was in New Orleans the other day to assure the community that the NBA stands behind the franchise and he's optimistic about the future. I like Russ, but he'll need a nose job if he keeps this up any longer.
This franchise could be on the move out of New Orleans before too long if the defeats on and off the court keep piling up.
The Hornets' franchise has become one big embarrassment to the NBA. Not only would the league love to get Shinn out, but it has to be asking itself why it approved the team's relocation. Everyone knows why. Never has a community abhored ownership as the city of Charlotte did with Shinn. Owners aren't popular anywhere. They always spend too little and the players are our heroes.
But Charlotte was too embarrassed by Shinn's antics, from his awful sexual assault trial (he was acquitted) to his demeaning attitude toward players and coaches (he once said coach Allan Bristow should be "flippin' hamburgers"). The community was quick to build a new arena for an NBA team, one that promises to be one of the worst ever in the expansion Bobcats, than build one for Shinn's team, which should have been pretty good.
And Charlotte had been a heck of an NBA city, setting league attendance records almost every season until it turned on Shinn, who was run out of town like no owner ever has been in the NBA.
So he got New Orleans to offer a sweetheart deal with an arena and all kinds of stuff, and rarely has a new team been greeted with such a long and loud yawn.
During the 2002-2003 season, the Hornets' first in New Orleans, the average home attendance ranked 19th in the 29-team league at 15,650 for the regular season. This season, the Hornets fell to 28th with an average home attendance of 14,332. Rarely has a community cooled on a new team so quickly.
And this was the season Shinn said would be the Hornets' best ever. And it should have been.
The Hornets have arguably the best talent in the Eastern Conference.
With center Jamaal Magloire making the All-Star team and performing well in the game, that gave the Hornets two of the conference's top players along with Baron Davis, the league's best player the first couple of months. They also had former All-Star Jamal Mashburn. He was injured and played just 19 games, but that was a quarter of the season with another All-Star. The champion Spurs were dying to get P.J. Brown, but he took the best offer to remain in New Orleans. One of the league's best sixth men, Darrell Armstrong, was added. George Lynch is one of the league's elite role players.
This is a .500 team?
Would this have been a .500 team with Larry Brown as coach? With Pat Riley? Rick Carlisle?
Shinn is known to be notoriously cheap, so he went the cheapest route and hired former Bulls coach Tim Floyd, who didn't have quite that much leverage with the worst coaching record in league history.
So Floyd got one of the lowest contracts in the league. The New Orleans theory was good ol' boy Floyd from Mississippi, who'd coached at the U. of New Orleans, would be an attraction. But as everyone knows no one comes to see anyone coach. They come to see the team win. Few were less qualified to help achieve that than Floyd.
During the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, there has been behind-the-scenes talk that Floyd would be fired unless the Hornets won their first-round series. It was apparent that the Hornets weren't using the great advantage they have -- the inside strength of Magloire and Brown. They finally began to do so the last two games against the Heat, but where has that been all season? The reason: Floyd is so afraid of Davis, who is often seen stalking to the bench when taken out and glaring at Floyd, that he's allowed Davis to run an offense not suited to the team's talent. Davis couldn't get away with that if they had a respected, veteran coach. Armstrong even said during the playoffs that Floyd was still learning the team.
But it's much bigger than who'll be the head coach.
This is an old Hornets team. Forget that. This is a team that naps in the afternoon after watching "Matlock" reruns. Hubie Brown played with some of these guys. Half the roster and the bulk of the rotation players are 33 years old or older. They could be the parents of some of the players coming into the league now.
In total playoff games experience, the Hornets had a 414-167 edge against the Heat before the series started. Experience is said to be important in playoff games, but only if you can run and jump. And this is a team that's clearly been ignored, if not dismissed, by the public.
You had to love some of the excuses about why they weren't selling out any home playoff games, like there was an LSU spring football game in regional base Baton Rouge. I did not make that one up. Everyone knew basketball was going to be a hard sell in New Orleans. It's a convention city, and those people don't go to ballgames. Not when the French Quarter is open and all it takes is dropping a set of beads for someone to drop some of their garments. The Southeast is a tough sell for basketball anywhere -- ask them in Atlanta and Miami. It's football and auto racing country.
But it's been more than that. The community has rejected this Hornets team. Who knows exactly why: Too old, too indifferent, unexciting with no true stars? It's certainly hard to get behind the Hornets with the way they've played.
This should have been a 50-plus win team this season. Shinn agreed. He expected the best season ever. Silas was fired, also in part, because 47 wins with that talent was not good enough. He also wanted more money than Floyd ever sought. And Shinn acknowledged the Hornets were moving West after this season to accommodate expansion Charlotte.
The Hornets finished 11-17 against Western Conference teams this season and 4-12 against the playoff teams. This had to be the season. Which is why Tuesday is the biggest game in franchise history for the Hornets.
It would be a nice win for an exciting little Miami team. But a loss won't hurt that much. The Heat wasn't supposed to make the playoffs after Pat Riley left the bench, let alone get a home-court edge and finish fourth in the East. The Heat returned some basketball excitement to the community and has a nice nucleus in place. Its season is a success.
For the Hornets, losing would be a disaster.
It probably would mean the firing of Floyd, that is, if Shinn could eat two years of a contract, something he rarely does. It would mean the breakup of the team, the notion that so many aging players cannot play together. It would also be necessary for marketing reasons. How do you sell these guys? Already, some of their top marketing and selling staff has taken off. The Hornets would be losers -- knocked out by a Miami team no one expected much.
Attendance would plummet. You would soon hear how the franchise isn't viable there, and there are no shortage of cities -- Las Vegas among them -- ready to pounce on an NBA team.
But win, and there's hope. They're one Jermaine O'Neal sprained ankle away from the conference finals. Put together a month of playoff games and who knows how the community reacts. There can't be spring football games every weekend. Get a month's worth of playoff games and who knows what happens. Coaches don't get fired when they're in the playoffs that long. Players become savvy instead of old. Money comes pouring in. Cities go looking elsewhere.
It all comes down to one game, and none has been bigger for the Hornets.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
10hMatt Walks, ESPN.com