When a team goes from 56-26 and a couple of shots away from the Western Conference Finals to a laughingstock within two years, there is plenty of blame to go around. On Thursday, New Orleans Hornets head coach Byron Scott took the fall for his team’s disastrous 3-6 start when the Hornets fired him after five-plus years at the helm. Scott will be replaced by New Orleans GM Jeff Bower, who has served two previous stints as an assistant for the team in addition to his lengthy run in the front office. The Hornets also added Tim Floyd–their head coach in 2003-04, when Bower was his assistant–to their coaching staff to serve as Bower’s lead assistant.
There are plenty of explanations that can be offered in Scott’s defense. The Hornets’ wing positions have atrophied over the last two years, with Peja Stojakovic aging in dog years, Morris Peterson struggling to live up to the mid-level deal he signed with New Orleans prior to the 2007-08 season and Rasual Butler now with the Clippers, a victim of the Hornets’ high payroll. Injuries haven’t helped. Emeka Okafor missed all of training camp, making it difficult to get him comfortable in the system and with his teammates (surely part of the reason New Orleans is a dismal 28th in the league in Defensive Rating), and Ike Diogu has yet to play.
Ultimately, though, Scott sealed his own fate with his reluctance to trust young players. Part of an optimistic assessment of the Hornets in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 was the belief that Bower had upgraded the team’s bench by signing Diogu, trading for Darius Songaila and drafting Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton. Though Diogu has been unable to play, Collison and Thornton have been biding their time on the bench. Instead, the Browns–Bobby and Devin–have been given entirely too many minutes. Bobby Brown has the team’s second-highest usage rate (26.2 percent of possessions while on the floor) despite a dismal 44.4 percent True Shooting Percentage. All of that is consistent with his miserable rookie season split between Sacramento and Minnesota. Why was he playing over Collison, the Hornets’ NBA-ready first-round pick? Brown is nothing more than a replacement-level stopgap at shooting guard, and while he might be better than Thornton right now, Thornton at least deserves an opportunity–especially with the team struggling so badly.
Add in the fact that New Orleans apparently quit on Scott–as first witnessed by their unthinkable 44-point loss to Denver in Game 4 of last year’s playoff series, which probably should have signaled the end of Scott’s run as head coach–and a change on the sidelines was long overdue. We have little idea of Bower’s Xs and Os ability, and I would certainly feel more comfortable if Floyd was not prominently involved. However, one consistent trait when GMs are asked to coach their own teams is that they tend to play guys they’ve drafted. If Bower simply does that, the Hornets have a chance to get better. I still believe there’s enough talent on the roster–if only because of Chris Paul, who is having an MVP season–to not only make the playoffs but contend in the Western Conference. Last year’s study of midseason coaching changes showed they were best done by past playoff teams early in the season. By making a move now, New Orleans has given itself a chance to right the ship before it’s too late.