LAS VEGAS — The perception is that it’s a new day in New Orleans. New owner. New lottery picks to build around. New sense of self for the Hornets.
Monty Williams isn’t buying all of that.
“That’s a little extreme and drastic,” the Hornets third-year coach said from NBA Summer League this week. “We never felt we were in a bad spot. I know everybody else did, but we always felt we were in good hands with the NBA.
“Obviously you want to win more games, but we thought we had a bit of a vision. Once we made the trade we could see where we were going. With the two draft picks of Anthony and Austin, along with Darius, it gives us a better foundation.”
The trade, of course, being Chris Paul’s controversial relocation to the Los Angeles Clippers during the NBA’s ownership of the Hornets. The draft picks are No. 1 overall selection Anthony Davis, 10th pick Austin Rivers and second-rounder Darius Miller.
Davis and Rivers are the torchbearers for the future, providing an inside-outside punch to build the franchise around. Williams couldn’t ask for a better anchor down low than Davis, a 6-foot-10 force who swept every major college award last season and led Kentucky to another national title. (Miller also played for the Wildcats.) Rivers, son of Boston coach Doc Rivers, is as NBA-ready as any rookie in the one-and-done age of college basketball.
Just don’t plan any parades down Bourbon Street yet. Davis and Rivers are each 19 years old. And while time is on their side, winning won’t come overnight. The Hornets missed the playoffs last season and are coming off their worst year since 2004-05.
“One of things we pride ourselves on is our player development program,” Williams said. “That’s only as good as the players are willing to work and we feel we have young guys who are really hungry to get better. We’ve also have some vets in our program that help us do that.
“I can talk all day about the young guys and our potential, but at the same time the NBA is a cruel league. While everybody is talking about potential, at the end of the day we’ve got to get the job done. I like that kind of objective.”
The youngsters won’t be carrying the burden alone. New owner Tom Benson, also title-holder of the New Orleans Saints, stepped up to match an offer sheet for Eric Gordon despite pleas from Gordon to let him go to Phoenix. Many wondered if Gordon’s heart was ever in the Big Easy. He played in only nine games last season after coming over from the Clippers in the Paul trade.
And while some smoothing over of feelings has to take place before training camp in October, Gordon does have 58 million reasons to get over it. Benson’s deep pockets are a welcome sight for an organization that’s traditionally been run on a shoestring budget.
“Mr. Benson certainly brings us stability, also brings you credibility in Louisiana because it’s local ownership,” Williams said. “Along with re-signing Eric Gordon, two draft picks, re-signing Drew Brees, it gives New Orleans something that it hasn’t had, I don’t think, ever when you look at two teams being able to acquire or keep these caliber of players.
“I don’t think this has ever happened, so the buzz is crazy in New Orleans. But at the same time as a coach, I don’t deal in buzz. I deal in the reality of the amount of work that it’s going take to develop our program. Those are good problems to have.”
Williams is dealing with an overhauled roster. Chris Kaman, Jarrett Jack, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor are gone. Free agents Marco Belinelli and Carl Landry aren’t coming back. The Hornets did snag Ryan Anderson, a power forward who’s done nothing but get better during his four years in the league. Big man Jason Smith and swingman Greivis Vasquez are also taking on bigger roles.
“Our young core is about as good as any young core around the league,” Williams said. “Now we’ve just got to grow up.”
No offense, Monty, but it does kind of sound like a New Day in New Orleans.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Rivers asserted. “We have a new beginning-type feel. A lot of new pieces with myself and Anthony and Darius and Ryan Anderson and we have Eric back. You look at all these exciting things that are happening. We just have to keep working. That’s basically the vibe right now. People can be as excited as they want, but at the end of the day we have to go out there and play and earn it.”