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Talking With The Big Heads

By on January 21, 2012

On January 20, 2010, Hornets radio voice, Sean Kelley hosted a live interactive fan conference call with Hornets President, Hugh Weber, Vice-President and General Manager, Dell Demps, and scores of season ticket holders. Over the hour-long call, both men established that they are committed to building not just a new Hornets team, but a new image, a new culture, and a new identify for the Hornets organization.

Each of the key pieces to the Hornet’s front office has his own watchwords. Weber’s are my least favorite; to him, it’s all about products, investments, markets, and branding. I understand that as a businessman, those words probably mean are as casually thrown around as the words “pass” and “score” at a Hornets practice, and perhaps they help him gauge strategy and success in a purely financial capacity. For one though, I hate thinking of a business made of up people (the coaches, staff, and players), as a “product.” If you listen to any speech by Weber, he uses these words repeatedly, as if he’s trying to figure out how to market a suitcase company’s new brand of luggage. (I counted his use of the word “brand” 4 times during the call.) Although Hornets head coach, Monty Williams, wasn’t on the call, he has his word too: defense. It is a mantra he instills in each of his players, and not just on the court; clearly, for Williams, they need to use the word every time they talk as part of an all-encompassing philosophy. Listen to interviews with Hornets players; you’d think they get fined if they speak without using the word “defense.” I particularly love it when the question has nothing to do with defense and that is their answer anyway (“Jarrett, how were you able to penetrate the Mavs’ 2-3 zone all night?” “Well, we made big stops on defense and used that to spark our offense in transition.”) Dell’s word is my favorite, though: culture. He, at least, seems to understand that it is about people. He understands it is about attitude, teamwork, and grit. Throughout the conference call he made it clear that he is doing everything possible to get this team on the right track ,and, despite the team’s struggles so far this year, it is not hard to see that Demps and company have things moving in the right direction.

Almost as soon as the call began, the question of who will buy the Hornets from the NBA was asked. Personally, I expected Chouest to re-surface shortly after the CBA was inked, but it appears the NBA is unwilling to sell the team until a new lease for the Arena is inked. While neither Weber or Demps indicated who might ultimately buy the team, they did say that they hoped to announce an owner by February, and said they want to hold a press conference with the Governor to announce both a new owner and a new lease for the Arena. A new lease for this new owner would include no benchmarks, and would expect to run through 2024 or 2025. Weber indicated he wanted the new lease to show that:

Fans can rest at ease that this is their team, and a team that they can count on for many generations to come.

Indeed, Weber is so confident about getting the new lease done, he said the team wasn’t even watching the benchmark situation at all, as the new lease would supersede the current lease. He was concerned about the contract with Cox Sports, though, as currently the amount of fans that can watch the game is limited. Currently, CST, which shows all the games, is only available on Cox Cable, Charter, and Dish Network, but not DirectTV or U-Verse. Weber stressed that this was not a Northshore-Southshore thing, but just a matter of contractual disputes between different providers. As Weber said, “if [people] cannot watch our games, they cannot become fans.” At any rate, the contract with Cox expires this year, so hopefully the Hornets will strong arm it into accepting better terms for the team.

Another issue that was asked about was the naming rights for the Arena. While Weber refused to comment on any ongoing negotiations, or the rumor that one proposal was the “Louisiana Seafood Arena Seasoned by Zatarain’s,” he indicated that Louisiana Seafood (full name Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, a 15 member governmental board formed in 1984 to strengthen and revitalize the Louisiana seafood industry) and Zatarain’s a major sponsors of the Hornets, and that the Hornets would be proud to have either of their names on the Arena. Nonetheless, Weber was clear that nothing was in place with anyone yet. Weber did indicate, however, that naming the Arena was a key step of the organization’s plan; “a big piece of the future,” as he put it, and part of the “legacy” they are trying to create as a successful franchise.

Before long, the conversation turned to New Orleans being a small market, and the impact that had on creating a winning team. Demps said the new CBA gives teams like New Orleans a fair chance to win with the players it drafts, because rookie contracts typically allow teams to keep a player 4 years; and, even after that, the player is a restricted free agent, making it possible for a team to re-sign the player for another 3-5 years. When asked what it takes to lure free agents to New Orleans, that is, to make this team a preferred destination, Demps had an interesting answer. Demps indicated that under the new CBA it is hard to get free agents. A lot of the available ones, he said, are restricted free agents, and teams end up overpaying to get those guys. Also, he mentioned that the unrestricted free agents are usually older, around 29, and you have to consider that when you go after them. At the end of the day, he said you just have to build a good team, and have a winning culture, which makes players want to be here.

When asked about Eric Gordon , Demps responded that Gordon wants to be here, and that he likes New Orleans. Gordon obviously has a bruised patella, which continues to swell, and Demps did not know when he would return to the court, indictating that extra tests would be done this weekend. Demps said that the team is more concerned with protecting Gordon’s long-term health, rather than trying to get him back too soon. Demps said that hoped for a resolution on Gordon soon. Whether he was referring to the injury or a possible contract extension was unclear.

One brave fan asked about Jarrett Jack as a long-term starter at point guard. Demps indicated that Jack has embraced his role, and is playing well, and that the team has no plans to change their point guard. Nonetheless, he said you can never say you won’t change. Reading between the lines: we have no choice.

There were also plenty of questions about the Hornets bigs. No surprise that the questions began with the team’s presumptive starter at the power forward position this year, Carl Landry. Demps admitted that Landry has had an up and down season, but that he will get his chance to earn his minutes, just like everyone else. Demps also discussed brief the fact that Kaman and and Okafor play differently, and that each brings something to the table, and that Monty is still experimenting with what works best. Demps added that Jason Smith has really stepped up, surprising them–but then he caught himself and rephrased, saying that Smith had developed ahead of schedule. Dell also seemed really happy to have Gustavo Ayon, and said that Ayon’s not knowing Engilsh hasn’t really been impediment, based on his high basketball IQ, and having an assistant who speaks both languages (and added that he’s learning English quickly). Ultimately, Demps seemed to acknowledge that the team has a problem may teams wish they had: too many bigs.. The key, though, seems not figuring out what each one can do, but what they can do together. As Dell put it:

[It] Doesn’t matter about the name on the back of the jersey, we’re more concerned about the name on the front of the jersey.

Someone else asked if Demps if he thought the Hornets were weak at the small forward position. He quickly responded that the team had a quality 3 in Trevor Ariza, who had, until recently, been injured. Demps made the good point that, against Houston, Kevin Martin exploded for 27 points in the first half; but, in the second, the Hornets switched Ariza onto him, and Martin was was held to only 5 points that half. Interestingly, of the “wing” position in generally, as Demps referred to the 2 and 3 spots, he said “In our system, the shooting guard and small forward are interchangeable.” What makes that even more interesting is Demps’ and Williams’ preference also to play combo 1/2 guards at the shooting guard spot, blurring that line, too.

One fan asked about the team’s early struggles, and whether that means Monty should play more of the younger players, and maybe go for that draft pick. Demps immediately answered he wanted to win, but admitted that “playing young players is important.” Particularly, he said the team needed to figure out how well Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith, Xavier Henry, Dajuan Summers, and Gustavo Ayon can play, to better know what to look for in the draft. Regarding the struggles, though, he pointed out that the team has continued to play with passion, and that if they keep giving the amount of energy they did the other night in Houston, that he expects more wins will follow. He did point out, though, that the team’s full line-up has yet to be healthy at any point this year. Speaking of the road game at Houston, Demps said that he had never seen a bench so energized, jumping up and rooting on their teammates, and generally going crazy over every good play. I thought the same thing at the time, and I’m glad to know that this team is hungry for it.

At home, one thing that fans love is the new live music played at Arena time-outs. Weber indicated the small side stage they play on may become a thing of the past, as a more prominent stage could be developed. Significantly, he said of the decision to bring music to the Arena that:

We stop and reflect about who we are and what our brand is, and over the offseason we really looked at what this city is about and our community is about.

And that led to the music. Bravo. All the fans ask is that the live music is played more often. Why play any non-live music at all? Fans will wait and see. Now, if they can just get the food to match.

Fortunately, one fan brought up the concessions at the Arena, and asked if the Hornets would be improving them anytime soon. While Weber said they are “always trying to press a little harder to make sure that the concessions offered in the Arena are reflective of…the community,” which goes in line with what he said about the music, this may be a harder goal to achieve. Weber mentioned that they brought in Louisiana Seafood as a partner on concessions, but that is a marketing board, not a vendor, and he said that efforts to bring in higher quality items were controlled by Centerplate and SMG, which means you won’t see Emeril grilling in the Arena anytime soon. While I love the fact that Weber wants to add great food to the New Orleans experience, as long as they essentially have a generic cafeteria service providing the food, it won’t matter, if the sign says “French Quarter Franks” or “Bob’s Hot Dogs,” the product will be the same. Weber added that he believes the Arena food should be the best of any Arena in the country. No one’s disputing that. But the team needs a new concessions contract to achieve that goal. With this, the Cox contract, and the lease, it makes you wonder who the Hornets’ lawyers are, and if they even read these contracts before telling then-owner, George Shinn, to sign.

At the end of the hour, the season ticket holders listening had reason to feel good about their team. I, for one, was convinced that this team is going in the right directions. Said Dell Demps: “I’m a bad loser.” That’s what Hornets fans want to hear. Another great thing to hear was Weber indicating that the front office is spending three to four times more on scouting and talent development than prior iterations of the team. That has been a huge problem in the past, and if snagging Ayon, and the fast-development of Smith are any indication, the problem may be solved.

Weber told listeners that one of his goals is that when people come to visit the city, he wants seeing a Hornets game to be at the top of their list of things to do. With all that is going on in New Orleans, that will be a tough goal to achieve. But, if this front office keeps building on their current successes, they may well achieve that goal.



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