"I was in Greece," Hornets guard/forward Peja Stojakovic recalls. "I was in my hometown. And I got a call from my agent saying the Hornets were interested. When I heard, I just started thinking, who do I know? What kind of team is it? And after a couple minutes I told my agent I'm very happy with everything and I would like to play for that organization."
That ripple had become a wave by the time the news crashed onto the shores of the United States. And it didn't take long to reach Stojakovic's new teammates.
"I was at my house in North Carolina," point guard Chris Paul says. "My family was up pretty late and I remember the phone ringing and I'm like, who in the world is calling me? And it was Coach (Byron Scott). He broke the news to me and I remember -- I went nuts. I was just so excited. And why not get excited? One of the best shooters probably to ever play the game."
The Hornets signed Stojakovic, a three-time All-Star, to a five-year $64 million contract that represented the most daring off-season acquisition in team history. To many league observers, it was a stunning move that immediately placed the Hornets in a rarefied stratum of NBA teams -- those with a voracious appetite for talent and a willingness to pay top dollar for it.
"Once that was done, I think a lot of other players were like, wow, they are serious," head coach Byron Scott says. "A lot of other (general managers) were the same way."
And the Hornets were just getting started.
A day later the Hornets agreed to terms with free agent guard Bobby Jackson on a three-year contract worth $18 million.
The next maneuver was the most complicated -- a multi-player swap that sent forward/center P.J. Brown and guard J.R. Smith to the Chicago Bulls for center Tyson Chandler, who had five years and $54 million remaining on his contract.
But the shopping spree didn't stop there. The Hornets also signed free agent reserve guard Jannero Pargo from the Bulls and re-signed sweet-shooting reserve swingman Rasual Butler.
A lot of NBA teams talk about paying the price in the off-season to ensure regular season success. In the case of the Hornets, that price was prodigious -- nearly $150 million dollars in new aggregate salaries.
Through the NBA draft, the Hornets added a pair of promising post players -- 6-foot-11 center Hilton Armstrong from the University of Connecticut and 6-foot-9 power forward Cedric Simmons from North Carolina State. Both are active, defensive-minded big men who will provide the Hornets with much-needed depth and flexibility in the frontcourt.
In 2005, the Hornets finished with a record of 38-44, which was 20 victories better than the previous season. They narrowly missed securing the final playoff berth in the Western Conference. The flurry of off-season moves shocked many league observers, including the players themselves.
"I don't know if anyone saw an overhaul of the roster, but I think we're headed in the right direction," forward David West says. "I think we made some improvements that will translate into wins."
TWO PLAYERS EMERGED AS CATALYSTS for the Hornets' remarkable turnaround. Paul and West are now the nucleus around which the new-look team will be built.
It didn't take long for Paul to assert his status as a prodigy during his rookie season. The fourth overall draft pick from Wake Forest played with a poise and self-assurance that belied his youth.
As a first-year player, the cashmere-smooth Paul averaged 16.1 points, 7.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.24 steals per game. He easily won NBA Rookie of the Year honors, garnering 124 of the 125 first-place votes, the largest percentage of votes since David Robinson won the award in 1990.
According to West, Paul's relentless style of play is what makes him so effective.
"He plays at a pace that guys usually can't keep up for a season, let alone a game," West says. "He puts pressure on opposing point guards and really just breaks teams down with a consistent attack where he's just trying to get to the basket. You feed off of somebody like that."
Stojakovic, who's known for having one of the itchiest trigger fingers in the league, can't wait to start firing away with Paul alongside him.
"When you're a shooter, you always want to play with a good point guard who's going to find you," Stojakovic says. "And Chris showed that last year. He showed that right away. And most of us thought he's going to be great. He really led this team and we all expect him to be a real leader this year, too."
If Paul's precocity wasn't a surprise, the development of teammate David West was.
During his first two NBA seasons, the former first-round draft pick averaged five points and 15 minutes per game. But in 2005, West traded timidity for intimidation. The 6-foot-9 power forward became the Hornets' leading scorer and rebounder, posting new career highs of 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds.
The Hornets also return starting small forward Desmond Mason, a former NBA Slam Dunk champion who's determined to bounce back from a lackluster offensive season in 2005.
In fact, he spent the off-season retooling his jump shot.
"I hurt my shoulder a few years ago and I think that's when it started, giving me a hitch in my shot," Mason says. "As time went on I think it became more of a mental issue than anything. So I just went in, got in the gym and pretty much started from scratch. I think people will see a big difference when I step on the floor."
Byron Scott will pair Paul with the 6-foot-10 Stojakovic in the backcourt this season. Stojakovic is one of the league's most prolific jump shooters and is a threat to score from virtually anywhere on the floor. He's one of only two NBA players to make 100 3-pointers in each of the last seven seasons.
After playing his first seven seasons with the Sacramento Kings, he was traded to the Indiana Pacers during the middle of last season. He averaged 19.5 points for the Pacers but missed four of Indiana's six playoff games with a right knee injury.
Critics of the 29-year-old Stojakovic have declared him a declining star whose new salary is not commensurate with his contributions.
"I feel it's going to be a new beginning in my career," Stojakovic says. "I still feel very good. I had some small injuries last year. But hopefully I can stay like that."
One of his new teammates is thankful that they'll both be wearing the same uniform this season.
"Six years now I've been playing and I've guarded Peja every year I've been in the NBA," Desmond Mason says. "So I think the main thing for me is he's going to spread the defense out. Guys usually don't leave Peja and that's kind of the history of me playing against him, you don't leave Peja Stojakovic open."
In 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler, the Hornets will have a true center for the first time since Jamaal Magloire. During last season, veteran P.J. Brown was forced to play center, instead of his natural power forward position.
Although he's only 24 years old, Chandler is no NBA neophyte. The second overall pick in the 2001 draft, he was a high school phenomenon from Compton, Calif. But his five seasons with the Chicago Bulls were marked by uneven play.
While he never averaged more than nine points a game, he did establish himself as a gifted shot blocker and tenacious rebounder. In fact, he led the NBA in rebounds per 48 minutes in 2005. The Hornets view Chandler as a future gem that needs burnishing in the right system in order to sparkle.
"I told him to go back to thinking about your high school days when he just dominated everybody," Scott says. "And I think he has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. His last three or four years weren't really good and I think he feels he's a lot better than what people think he is, and I think he wants to show everybody."
Once again the prospect of playing with Chris Paul played a valuable role in luring Chandler to New Orleans.
"I'm loving it," Chandler says. "I feel like there will be a lot of open shots, a lot of easy dunks. I feel like we're going to, in our own way and in our own manner, try to recreate what coach (Byron Scott) did in Jersey (with the New Jersey Nets) to take them to the finals between (point guard Jason) Kidd and (power forward Kenyon) Martin."
The Hornets also wanted to make sure the team maintains its rhythm when its maestro is on the bench this season. To that end, they signed point guard Bobby Jackson, a hard-nosed veteran with a deft shooting touch and a resume replete with playoff experience. Last season Jackson averaged 11.4 points and shot 39 percent from 3-point range, mostly coming off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies.
To add more depth at point guard, the Hornets also signed Jannero Pargo to a two-year contract. Pargo averaged 4.8 points and shot 38 percent from 3-point range last season with the Chicago Bulls.
The Hornets' approach to the 2006 NBA draft can be summed up in one pithy sentiment -- size matters.
With the 12th overall pick, New Orleans selected Hilton Armstrong, a 6-foot-11 forward/center from the University of Connecticut. Armstrong was a defensive stalwart for the Huskies, averaging 9.7 points as a senior and posting 6.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. He was named the Big East Conference defensive player of the year.
Three picks later, the Hornets selected another formidable physical presence in Cedric Simmons, a 6-foot-9 power forward from N.C. State. Simmons impressed the Hornets with his leaping ability and a wingspan that rivals the Causeway. He blocked 80 shots last season, but he is seen even more as a player with a surplus of offensive potential. Simmons averaged 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds as a college sophomore.
Former LSU star forward Brandon Bass, former Tulane forward Linton Johnson and veteran forward/center Marc Jackson also will compete for playing time in reserve roles.
THE HORNETS' MYRIAD OFF-SEASON additions necessitated the requisite subtractions.
The most significant loss was that of forward/center P.J. Brown. Universally loved by fans and respected by his peers, the Louisiana native was the lone holdover from the Hornets' days in Charlotte. But the 14-year veteran's most productive years were unquestionably behind him.
Along with Brown, the Hornets also traded swingman J.R. Smith to the Bulls.
Smith was an enigmatic talent. A former first-round draft pick out of high school, he possessed extraterrestrial leaping ability and a tantalizing 3-point stroke. But his erratic work ethic and frequent mental lapses infuriated Byron Scott. The coach seemed determined to harness Smith's considerable abilities through discipline, but Smith failed to respond to Scott's brand of tough love. Less than a week after Smith was traded to Chicago, the Bulls dealt him to the Denver Nuggets.
Guard Kirk Snyder also fell out of favor with Scott during this year's NBA summer league in Las Vegas.
Although Snyder started 40 consecutive games for the Hornets last season, Scott thought he had become a selfish teammate who didn't play well with others. The Hornets traded Snyder to the Rockets for cash and a conditional second-round draft pick.
Despite a superb 2005 from reserve guard Speedy Claxton, the Hornets deemed him expendable when they signed Bobby Jackson. Claxton averaged 12.3 points last season and was runner-up for the NBA's Sixth Man Award. During the summer, he signed with the Atlanta Hawks.
The sudden preponderance of talent on the Hornets roster immediately elevated expectations to new heights.
"We definitely have the potential, but we have to go out there on the floor and begin to jell together," forward Rasual Butler says. "That's going to be pivotal for us -- if we can get the chemistry early enough in the season to get the ball rolling."
How quickly the Hornets chemistry experiment produces the right reaction will go a long way in determining the team's playoff potential.
"When you have a coach like you have and then you have a point guard like Chris Paul, you have those two personalities, you come together a lot faster," Tyson Chandler says. "Because there's no egos there, it's just guys trying to bring everyone together."
The Hornets play in the talent-rich Southwest Division, which is arguably the toughest division in the NBA. Despite their immense improvement in 2005, the Hornets were quite obviously a team in need -- in need of more size, more athleticism and more outside shooting ability to become playoff contenders.
"Last year against some of those (divisional opponents), you could just tell the talent level that they had compared to what we had, no matter how hard we played we had to play almost perfect basketball to beat some of those teams," Coach Scott says. "This year I don't think that's the case."
The Hornets will maintain their dual citizenship for one more season. In an effort to give the franchise the best possible chance to thrive in New Orleans, the NBA and the Hornets decided to delay a complete return to the Crescent City until the 2007-08 season. They will play 35 home games at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, where they temporarily relocated after Hurricane Katrina, and six home games at the New Orleans Arena, including the Nov. 5 home opener against the Houston Rockets.
The Hornets recently requested an option that would allow the team to spend a third season in Oklahoma City if it is unable to return to New Orleans. While the move raised some eyebrows in Louisiana, owner George Shinn says it's simply a wise business decision.
"I think a lot of people have looked at it in a very negative way, but it's ridiculous," Shinn says. "I'm a businessman. And with the tragedy that we had hit us here with Katrina, I never dreamed it would happen and it did. And it could happen again. So I need to have a back-up plan. And that's all we've done. It doesn't mean anything other than that."
NBA commissioner David Stern says he expects the Hornets to play all of their home games in New Orleans in 2007-08. The Hornets have a lease agreement with the state of Louisiana that requires the team to play in the New Orleans Arena through 2012.
"Last year was so up in the air," Scott says. "Nobody really knew anything. Nobody was telling us anything. But this year we have a good idea of what's going on. Like Mr. Stern said, 2007-08, we'll be back here and I think everybody has that plan in place. So I just went to my house (in Kenner) a little while ago and I have to take that (for sale) sign down and say, OK, we're coming back -- so let's get ready."
Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.
- NBA Photos
- Chris Paul built enviable statistics during his first season for the Hornets last year and won NBA Rookie of the Year with 124 of 125 first-place votes.
- NBA Photos
- Forward David West last year became the Hornets' leading scorer and rebounder with career-highs of 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.
- NBA Photos
- The Hornets signed former Indiana pacers guard/forward and three-time All-Star Peja Stojakovic, who point guard Chris Paul characterizes as "One of the best shooters probably to ever play the game," to a five-year, $64 million contract this summer.
- NBA Photos
- Center Tyson Chandler came to the Hornets from the Chicago Bulls via a swap in which the Bulls got P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith in exchange for Chandler, who had five years and $54 million left on his contract.
- NBA Photos
- In his first year with the Hornets, Chris Paul averaged 16.1 points and 5.1 rebounds a game. He and David West are now considered the nucleus of the team.