COMMENTARY | It began with a victory against the city's previous NBA team in the raucous, sold-out New Orleans Arena on the day before Halloween in 2002 and it ended with a loss on April 17, 2013 following a 1-7 final month of the season. After 11 seasons in the Big Easy, the New Orleans Hornets era is officially over.
For over a decade, the Hornets struggled to shake off the pollen they gathered in Charlotte and they failed to capture the imagination of New Orleans sports fans enamored with the Saints. However, the Hornets were far more successful in New Orleans than most NBA fans realize and hopefully, history will be kind to this franchise.
In 11 seasons in New Orleans, the Hornets made the NBA playoffs five times. Although most NBA teams qualify for the postseason each year, the Hornets also won the competitive Southwest Division in 2008 with a 56-26 record. In fact, the Hornets are the only team besides the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks to win the Southwest Division.
Like most small market teams, the Hornets were unable to attract the NBA's best free agents. So New Orleans used the draft and trades to stay competitive. This strategy enabled the Hornets to assemble the 2007-08 squad that included Chris Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler, and Peja Stojakovic.
After dispatching the Dallas Mavericks in the 2008 NBA playoffs, the Hornets took the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Hornets trailed by 17 late in the third quarter, but pulled to within three with a minute left. The atmosphere in the New Orleans Arena that night was comparable to a Saints playoff game.
Unfortunately, the magic of the 2007-08 squad left New Orleans quickly as the Hornets lost a playoff game to the Denver Nuggets the following year by a whopping 58 points. After a surprising trip back to the NBA playoffs in 2011, the Hornets lost David West via free agency and traded Chris Paul.
The low point in franchise history occurred when David Stern and the NBA assumed ownership of the Hornets to keep the team in New Orleans. Although this move prevented relocation, its necessity was still an embarrassment for both the Hornets and the city of New Orleans.
Now that Tom Benson is the new owner, there is renewed hope and promise for the franchise's future. Although relocation is no longer a major concern, putting a winning product on the floor and improving attendance remain serious challenges. Although it won't help the team attract free agents, the name change to Pelicans may gradually help New Orleans identify with its NBA team.
Nobody thinks of the old Cleveland Browns as a two-time Super Bowl champion NFL franchise. That's because the team changed its name to the Ravens immediately after moving. Although some local New Orleans fans don't think the Pelicans name is fierce, there is no team with a less fierce name than the Saints and that hasn't stopped locals from supporting that team.
Benson has taken the extraordinary step of reducing ticket prices for the Pelicans' inaugural season. Although this step and the new uniforms may spur a spike in New Orleans ticket sales, fans will only keep coming back if they like the product on the floor. Somehow, the Pelicans must improve upon the Hornets' average NBA attendance rank of 25th while playing in New Orleans.
From Hurricane Katrina to low attendance, the Hornets faced insurmountable odds in New Orleans. But through it all, the Hornets fought valiantly for 11 years and people in New Orleans should be proud of their team. The Hornets made New Orleans an even greater city than it already was, which is certainly no small feat.
Patrick Michael was born in New Orleans and currently resides in the Big Easy. Patrick has followed the Hornets since they moved to New Orleans and has covered the team since 2010. He was in attendance the night the Hornets were one win away from the Western Conference Finals. Follow Patrick Michael on Twitter at patmichael84.
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