Big questions remain in Big Easy

So … what’s really going on in New Orleans?

There’s been some bad feng shui on the bayou since last season’s playoffs, when the team laid down in historic fashion in a first-round loss to Denver. After a 3-6 start the other shoe dropped when New Orleans dismissed Byron Scott on Thursday. Additionally, the Hornets “McHaled” general manager Jeff Bower, pushing him to wear both the coach and GM hats. In a sign that perhaps not all his well here, it appears they didn’t even tell their star player about it.

Virtually everyone believes Bower was put in charge because the cost-trimming Hornets didn’t want to pay another coach after cashiering Scott. To help him out they hired a former Hornets coach, Tim Floyd, who didn’t exactly earn rave reviews during his first stint in the Big Easy. In fact, he was only available because he resigned at USC over allegations of payments to then-recruit and current Memphis Grizzly O.J. Mayo. Or maybe that’s part of ownership’s new financial strategy: Have Floyd pay the players so they don’t have to.

Making this arrangement particularly unwieldy is that Bower has virtually no support system -- the Hornets have the league’s smallest front office. In fact calling it an “office” is probably too generous; it’s more like a spare closet in the basement. Presumably personnel director Brian Hagen will take on a bit more responsibility on some of the personnel nitty-gritty while Bower focuses on his other full-time job. Director of Basketball Administration Andrew Loomis, who has basically been a cap specialist, may also take on some new responsibility.

According to the Hornets’ media guide, that’s it – with Bower coaching, those two men are now the entire full-time braintrust. And a pair of college scouts – yes, just two, again based on their media guide – comb the landscape for talent. Based on that information, it’s hardly any wonder that they’ve blown so many important personnel decisions in recent years.

Nonetheless, we have more questions than answer about the state of the Hornets at the moment. I’ll try to dig deeper into a few of them when they visit Atlanta on Saturday, but in the mean time chew on these items:

1) Who was responsible for the mistakes? It’s unclear how many of the botched personnel decisions were Scott’s calls and how many were Bower’s, but a lot of the moves sure seemed to have Scott connections. The team traded J.R. Smith and let Brandon Bass go after Scott soured on them, for instance, and the acquisitions of Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson came with a strong whiff of Scott’s Sacramento connections.

Those moves and the more recent free-agent misfires on Morris Peterson and James Posey are the main reason the Hornets are in this predicament despite having a once-in-a-generation point guard who is currently leading the league in PER. However, I should emphasize the lack of smoking guns here. While it would be really odd to dismiss Scott if Bower had been the one pushing for these moves, Hornets owner George Shinn is no stranger to the really odd.

2) Will the young guys play? One of the great ironies of Scott’s dismissal was that his refusal to play rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton. Combined with his reluctance to use Bass and Julian Wright in recent years, that greased the skids for his ouster.

Yet this is the same coach who led a New Jersey team with rookies Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brian Scalabrine and second-year pro Kenyon Martin to consecutive Finals trips, playing all four extensively en route. He even found minutes for another rookie, Brandon Armstrong, who couldn’t play at all. Somewhere along the line he changed his colors.

For New Orleans now, it seems their best hope is playing the kids and figuring out if they’re any good, because we already have pretty definitive “no” answers for most of their veterans. I expect Bower to use Collison heavily as the backup point guard and to pair him with Paul at times, and for Thornton and Wright to see heavy doses of playing time on the wings. Collison and Thornton had very strong summer league and preseason campaigns, for what it’s worth, though we’ve been duped by such results before.

3) Is Bower next on the chopping block? Bower presumably will hold the gig for the remainder of the season. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Team president Hugh Weber certainly didn’t seem overly positive about the long-term possibilities in today’s statements.

“Accountability is key,” he said. “I told Jeff, ‘The genie is out of the bottle.’ Nobody can say he doesn’t have the right players for the right reason. Jeff has hand-selected this team and we like the idea that now Jeff will be held accountable for results.”

Despite the Hornets’ fiscal problems, prospective candidates will circle like vultures around this team because they already have an all-world point guard and a quality power forward as building blocks. New Orleans native Avery Johnson looms as one obvious possibility, and several others could get in on the game too. The one limitation would seem to be the Hornets’ reluctance to pay top dollar for coaching and GM talent.

4) What’s CP think about all this? Like I said, Paul didn’t know about the firing and had a tight bond with his coach. Despite the team’s struggles he’s having an epic season thus far, so the worst-case scenario for the Hornets would be for Paul to try to force his way out via trade or free agency and leave New Orleans without its lone star.

Fortunately, time is on the Hornets’ side. Paul can’t opt out of his contract until 2012, so making trade demands at this point would be futile unless he’s willing to go the scorched-earth route and severely diminish his own reputation, which he’s unlikely to do. That gives the Hornets a two-year window to put a decent supporting cast together around him. In the meantime, he appears to be on a Garnett-like trajectory, where his team’s weakness renders him basically invisible despite being ranking among the game’s best players. One can only hope for his sake that he state of affairs changes soon. If it doesn’t Scott’s dismissal coul be the first step toward Paul wrangling his own way out of town.