In some ways, this started back in November, when an obscure executive named Hugh Weber embraced the microphone with all the eagerness of a teenager playing spin-the-bottle and proceeded to dump all over the new coach of the Hornets, Jeff Bower. Weber, the Hornets' president, which was news to me, had all kinds of tough language for Bower that day -- a day that was already humiliating enough for the GM who had been ordered to coach the roster he had put together.
|Hugh Weber's uneasy relationship with Jeff Bower only spelled trouble for the axed GM ... which is unfortunate for New Orleans. (US Presswire)|
Big words from another little man trying to show the boss who's in charge. Only what do those words mean now? Bower did a good job coaching the Hornets to a 34-39 record the rest of the way, which can be considered an accomplishment when you're coaching a team with among the fewest resources in the NBA. More important than the record and another trip to the lottery for George Shinn was the fact that Bower managed to keep All-Star Chris Paul from going off the deep end with his promising career in crisis.
Eight months later, Scott has landed on his feet in Cleveland amid a whirlwind of coaching and front-office chaos that has swept across the NBA. Monty Williams, a promising young coach, has Scott's and Bower's old job, and now Bower counts himself among a murderer's row of capable -- no, excellent -- GMs who are looking for work.
A news release from the Hornets took us for fools with some mumbo-gumbo, so to speak, about Bower and the Hornets mutually parting ways. These sports teams really do think we are the dumbest of the dumb -- and that means you, too. Bower was fired Monday, the latest talented executive sent packing in a pandemic of ego trips and meddling among owners and their pets from the executive suites who always think they're smarter than the guy making the decisions.
"In the absence of leadership, somebody steps up and tries to impress the boss and doesn't put the organization first," one front-office person told CBSSports.com Monday night. "It's like owners gone wild right now."
Bower joins Rod Thorn, Danny Ferry, Kevin Pritchard, Steve Kerr and David Griffin in a who's-who of quality front-office people who've been forced out of their jobs this summer, one way or another. Soon, 2009 executive of the year Mark Warkentien will join them when his contract expires Aug. 31 -- if not before.
Each situation has its own unique characteristics. In Bower's case, an uneasy relationship with Weber -- who clearly had it in for him from the start -- led to his predictable demise. Now Weber is the front man again, saying Monday that the search already is under way for "basketball minds that are highly respected in the basketball circles and someone that will help in our pursuit of building a championship team." But people like Weber, Suns owner Robert Sarver, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, Trail Blazers president Larry Miller and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov are hard-pressed to find a basketball mind that shines brighter than their own.
Just ask them.
"Basketball people are being, I think, aced out of a lot of decision making," another front-office person said. "There's a new trend in ownership to want to do everything and make all of the decisions. And that's very difficult for people who think they're good at making decisions."
The Blazers fired Pritchard, who'd built the team into one of the NBA's most successful both on the court and at the box office, literally an hour before the draft. In the vacuum, someone in Portland thought it would be a good idea to give a five-year, $34 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Wesley Mathews, who might wind up being the second shooting guard off Nate McMillan's bench. The Suns, coming off an appearance in the Western Conference finals, entered the final stages of a critical contract negotiation with Amar'e Stoudemire without their top two basketball people, Kerr and Griffin, who'd navigated the process from the beginning. The Suns lost Stoudemire to the Knicks, then grossly overpaid Hakim Warrick (four years, $18 million) and Channing Frye (five years, $30 million).
"When you don't have a GM," one of the front office people said, "agents can get to you."
For whatever reason, the Nets decided to embark on the recruitment of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade after it became known that longtime executive Rod Thorn would be leaving the organization July 15. The Heat got the Big Three; the Nets got Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw and Johan Petro. Soon -- perhaps as soon as Wednesday -- they'll be getting a new GM. League sources say it's between Ferry and former 76ers GM Billy King, with strong signs pointing toward King. The person who has sprinted into the power vacuum in New Jersey -- to no one's surprise -- is coach Avery Johnson, who is calling the shots and wants a figurehead GM to execute his personnel decisions, the way King did for Larry Brown in Philly.
"Avery is controlling the process," a person familiar with the Nets' organizational dynamics said. "He's got the Russians loving him. They think he walks on water."
Just like they do.
But amid all the dysfunction, no team faces more peril in its current rudderless state than the Hornets, who are facing the very real possibility of alienating the person who matters most in the organization. Someone should tell Weber that it isn't him, but rather Paul, who takes one dribble closer to the end of his wits with each puzzling decision by the New Orleans brass.
Paul has spoken openly about having no choice but to seek a way out of New Orleans if the Hornets aren't committed to building a championship team -- something to this point they've only achieved via press release lip service. Magic center Dwight Howard recently gave GM Otis Smith a list of players he wants management to acquire, and Paul's name was right there at the top of it. At Carmelo Anthony's wedding Saturday in New York, Paul went so far as to toast the notion of forming "our own Big Three" with Anthony and Stoudemire on the Knicks.
Now someone is trying to save face by blaming Bower's "mutual parting of ways" on his supposed desire to trade Paul, which is laughable. The only way Bower would've traded Paul this summer, rival executives say, was if there was a directive from ownership to do so for financial reasons. The irony will be this: Decisions made by people unqualified to make are more likely to result in Paul forcing his way out than anything Bower would've done had he stayed.
"Peter Holt wins for a reason," a front office executive said of the Spurs' owner, who has kept GM R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich in lock step through San Antonio's run of success. "Jerry Buss wins for a reason. They're letting basketball people make basketball decisions. Oklahoma City is the best team in Western Conference for the next 10 years, in theory, and it's because the owner is allowing Sam Presti to do his job."
That's not the case in New Orleans, just as it wasn't the case in Portland or Phoenix. Reacting to the firing of Bower Monday, one person familiar with the Hornets' power structure said, "What's surprising is that Weber actually had the juice to fire him."
But in this NBA, during this crazy summer, that actually was the least surprising thing of all.