For many NBA teams, the bottom line is costly

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

Walk into the New Orleans Hornets’ practice facility, an old recreation center where Chris Paul’s genius can be pre-empted for bird fairs and reptile expos, and you’ll find the Alario Center suggests everything about the efficiency with which general manager Jeff Bower has to run his franchise for the sheerest of basketball survival. Never mind success.

As franchises go, the Hornets have the most streamlined front office in the NBA. Beyond the practice gym, there are modest connecting offices with thin walls between Bower and his assistant GM, Brian Hagen. There’s the front office, just a GM and his assistant. The Hornets have two full-time scouts on the road. And that’s it. Most teams have three and four times the personnel, but not the New Orleans Hornets.

They’re the barest-bones operation in the NBA, and yet under Bower they’ve shown themselves to be a model of resourcefulness and resolve.

George Shinn is the one NBA owner without another industry where he makes his money. The Hornets are his business, and Shinn runs this organization like the corner Mom and Pop. The Hornets hire cheap, and hire cheaper when those talented people move up and out to the rest of the NBA.

Against all odds, bouncing between Oklahoma City and New Orleans, Bower made the Hornets one of the most thrilling young teams in the NBA and a contender in the Western Conference. Maybe the greatest validation of his work was that Paul passed on a chance to become a free agent, a chance to leave perhaps for the cash-flushed Portland Trail Blazers and signed a contract extension with the Hornets.

So, yes, it felt odd to click to the Hornets’ team website on Tuesday night; next to the modest administrative masthead, there were links to several unsanctioned Hornets blogs. In the middle of it all, there was a photo of Bower with the word “MORON” stamped on his forehead. Yes, this abuse is part of a GM’s job, but the shortsightedness from die-hard Hornets fans had to leave even fair-minded folks exasperated and thinking: Come on, you think Bower desperately wanted to trade Tyson Chandler to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox?

“Teams like us have to be able to get value for our players,” Bower said by phone Tuesday.

Yes, the Hornets payroll would’ve been over $76 million next season with the 7-foot Chandler on it. Still, New Orleans is 30th in the NBA in rebounding, and Chandler, who blossomed into a terrific pro as a Hornet, had lost productivity and an ability to stay healthy. As much as people wanted to portray this trade as a pure salary dump – and yes, that had a lot to do with it – Bower was still banking that he had gotten the most out of Chandler and it was time to reshuffle his frontcourt.

“We needed change,” Bower insisted. “We needed to show improvement over our first 50 games.”

Across the NBA, the landscape is dramatically changing. The excess of old is going fast, and those unable to get fit in the short and long run promise to pay a steep price. The luxury-tax threshold will drop lower next year. Season tickets, corporate sponsorships and arena suite renewals could be off 50 percent. Owners are desperately trying to dump salary, and the haves are determined to fleece the have-nots on talent that richer teams can afford.

SportsBusiness Journal reported the NBA just secured an additional $175 million leaguewide line of credit – on top of the $1.7 billion it had – to assist the 15 teams that told the commissioner’s office they’d like to tap into the fresh borrowing. Three NBA front-office executives told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday that it’s believed as many as seven NBA teams could need that money to cover operating and payroll costs by the summer.

“Owners just can’t meet the payrolls with some of these high-salaried players, and they’re going to be forced to give guys away,” one Eastern Conference GM said. “I can tell you that things around the league are dire for some teams.”

So much so, one Western Conference GM says he’s heard peers discussing the elimination of several staples that they always took for granted, such as summer-league teams. “Owners are on the GMs’ asses, saying, ‘Show me something,’ ” one Western Conference GM said. “One of the immediate things I think you’re going to see are teams just bagging summer league and not entering teams. You can save a couple of hundred grand that way. Guys are talking, ‘Hey, I can cut summer league and I won’t need to get rid of a scout or two.’ ”

It won’t be long until GMs like Bower are in greater demand because owners will want executives who can make the most out of their dwindling resources. Everyone doesn’t have Paul Allen as an owner, buying up people’s picks and squirreling away prospects in Europe. Everyone doesn’t have Mark Cuban with endless front-office and scouting staffs, or Cablevision with its ability to get a GM out of every bad contract with a buyout.

Coaches’ contracts promise to be shorter and cheaper now, and a greater premium than ever will be on drafting, discovering and securing young, inexpensive players. “Everyone wants draft picks because they’re cheap labor,” another Western Conference GM said.

Of course, Bower had to sell his 2008 first-round pick to Portland for $3 million so he’d have the cash to pay free-agent James Posey. Many in the NBA are already grumbling about living on the cheap, about fewer people doing more work, but that’s business as usual for the Hornets. They’re the Mom and Pop that won 56 games, that came within a Game 7 of reaching the Western Conference finals, that convinced the best point guard on the planet it was worth dribbling through the bird shows and reptile expos to stay the course.

The Hornets had to cut payroll on Tuesday, and chances are they’ll have to cut deeper this summer. A few executives said they were planning to call New Orleans with messages of condolence, hang-in-there’s, but there’s no need. Whatever the economic downturn, Jeff Bower will rent his midsize cars on the road, stay in his Courtyards and make those snowy drives to upstate New York from Manhattan on scouting trips to save some money on flights. He’ll do it all because he always has. Only now, maybe he’ll start to have company in the NBA.

“We’ll try to do,” Bower said simply Tuesday night, “what we’ve always done.”

Less with more.

No one needs to worry about the Hornets after a salary dump on Tyson Chandler. Truth be told, the problems for franchises will come with those who’ve lived on the excesses of the league for too long, who always had such massive margins of error. Those days are gone. Only the smart, the strong, and maybe the most resourceful will survive.

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