Picture not positive for Hornets in New Orleans

New Orleans certainly has seen better days. Tragically, it also has seen worse. Life in pro basketball remains difficult in the Big Easy. Last week, the Hornets became the first franchise in NBA history to be owned by the league.

New Orleans certainly has seen better days. Tragically, it also has seen worse.

Life in pro basketball remains difficult in the Big Easy. Last week, the Hornets became the first franchise in NBA history to be owned by the league.

You’d think this team might be an asset, given its franchise-record start this season and two recent All-Stars. The Hornets were the league’s last unbeaten this year at 8-0 and once stood 11-1. They have since lost nine of their last 13. The franchise also has lost owner George Shinn, probably has lost potential owner Gary Chouest and has lost an average of roughly 1,500 fans each game since last season.

The Hornets rank near the bottom of the league in home attendance at less than 14,000 fans per game, a number that no doubt will plummet after last week’s transaction.

Sadly, things could get worse. All-Star point guard Chris Paul might demand a trade any minute now, which likely would cause All-Star power forward David West to depart with his option year awaiting next season.

If the team loses Paul and West, it’s all but certain New Orleans will lose its second NBA franchise, having previously lost the Jazz to Utah in 1979.

NBA commissioner David Stern said he wants the Hornets to remain in New Orleans, though that seems like financial suicide.

An audit of the Hornets’ finances shows $111 million in long-term debt and a negative operating income the past two years. This vat of red ink could serve as Exhibit A to confirm the league’s argument it lost roughly $400 million last season, which is the crux of negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement. Stern also claimed the league lost at least $200 million per season in the first four years of the current CBA (2005-09).

The entire New Orleans drama is dripping with irony. Stern and Shinn never saw eye-to-eye, yet Shinn’s former franchise could serve as an important pawn for the NBA in upcoming negotiations with the players union.

Furthermore, if Stern somehow can stabilize the franchise while remaining in New Orleans, he will prove Shinn’s incompetence.

The NBA purchased the Hornets for $300 million (pending approval from the league’s Board of Governors) and Stern claims he will seek local ownership in New Orleans.

However, the league likely will not pursue new ownership until the new collective bargaining agreement is in place. The current CBA expires June 30, 2011.

If the Hornets can’t survive in New Orleans, it figures to open the door for Kansas City, Mo., and a host of other suitors.

In the meantime, the NBA now is in charge of the Hornets’ books and those within the front office will continue to do their jobs as best they can under difficult circumstances. The president will preside, the general manager will manage, the coaches will coach and the players will play.

But what will the fans do?

Destinations?

l 1. Kansas City, Mo.: The Sprint Center is ready, willing and capable of having a big-time tenant. Downtown is in tip-top shape. City and the surrounding areas love hoops. Town has an NBA track record with Kings (1972-85), who played in the Municipal Auditorium and Kemper Arena. Primary question is can Kansas City possibly support three major-league franchises in the Chiefs, Royals and the NBA?

l 2. Las Vegas: When All-Star Weekend was held there three years ago, the city had multiple offers from investors willing to build an arena that met NBA standards. There are mixed signals about Las Vegas, with a metro population of two million. League has an anti-gambling stance, yet held its All-Star Game there? If the NBA can keep the local team off the betting board (a la UNLV), this town could join the league.

l 3. St. Louis: This historic locale served as home of the NBA Hawks (1955-68) before relocating to Atlanta. Led by Cliff Hagan, Bob Pettit and Slater Martin, the Hawks won the 1958 NBA title over the Boston Celtics with Pettit scoring 50 in Game 6. Also was home to the Spirits of St. Louis for the final two seasons of the ABA, featuring Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. The Scottrade Center seats 22,612 for basketball.