As Hornets go to West, title shot may go south

ON THE NBA

March 07, 2004|By MILTON KENT

Some teams can talk theoretically about a closing window of opportunity, but for the New Orleans Hornets, that talk is reality.

The Hornets, thought in some corners to be the most talented team in the Eastern Conference, will be going to the West next season as part of expansion that will return the NBA to Charlotte, where the franchise left before last season.

And while the Hornets' 33-29 record has them in the middle of the postseason pack in the East, New Orleans would be scrambling to make the playoffs in the West.

In other words, the time is now for the Hornets to make a championship move.

"That window is closing," said point guard Baron Davis. "Who knows how long we're going to be together, especially when we go to the West and see better ballclubs? We have a golden opportunity this year with the team we have. We've been together for a while and we have experience. Barring injury, we can make a great run in these playoffs and we're going to put ourselves in position throughout the regular season to do that."

The Hornets, who have played their preseason projected starting lineup of Davis, shooting guard David Wesley, small forward Jamal Mashburn, power forward P.J. Brown and center Jamaal Magloire together for only three games because of injuries, have been inconsistent throughout the season because of the ailments.

Mashburn, for instance, missed the first 44 games because of arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and is just now getting back into game shape and into the rotation, while the rest of the Hornets have been getting used to new coach Tim Floyd's system.

Mashburn, a 6-foot-8 forward who hit a game-winning shot in Wednesday's overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls, brushed off concerns that he and Davis will be unable to share the ball in critical moments.

"I think the people who were saying that aren't talking about winning," Mashburn said. "I always go back to the Sacramento team and Chris Webber. When you're really serious about winning, I don't think that comes up. I haven't heard anybody say this is Peja Stojakovic's team or Chris Webber's team. They just embrace the guy back and they know that he is a big piece, an important piece to help them win games. The people who are worried about that aren't looking at the big picture, and that's how I look at things. It's the only picture I know."

Quiz

Four players have averaged at least 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in their rookie seasons in the past 25 years. Name them.

Road trip

So, let's see if we have this straight: The Washington Wizards don't play any games in Baltimore. Their games don't air on the radio or on an over-the-air television station here, and the team doesn't buy newspaper ads or billboard space here.

Yet, when a local player, Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets, comes to town, as he will Tuesday night, the Wizards suddenly remember a certain large city on the other end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and use two players with local ties, Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, to try to hawk tickets to the game.

Here's an idea: Baltimoreans will promise to get out of Washington's way for Major League Baseball relocation/expansion, if Washington will do the same for an NBA team here.

Don't hold your breath.

Labor movements

The NBA has picked a strange time to battle with the players and referees unions, especially when it is trying to get both to sign new deals.

The referees are upset with the league over the treatment of Michael Henderson, who was kept out of three games last week after he made a mistake near the end of the Denver-Los Angeles Lakers game.

Henderson ruled that a jumper from Andre Miller did not touch the rim and called a 24-second violation on the Nuggets, a call that was subsequently ruled an inadvertent whistle by the officiating crew. A resulting jump ball was won by the Lakers, who hit a three-pointer to win the game by one, setting off angry protests by the Nuggets.

In an unusual move, the league apologized to the Nuggets, and summoned Henderson in for a meeting, after which he was taken out of the rotation for three games, while keeping his pay.

The referees, whose contract with the league expires at the end of the season, protested the apology and the punishment by turning their shirts inside-out at games a week ago Friday.

The NBA has taken unusual steps to humanize the oft-criticized referees this year, going so far as to publish a media guide for the gray shirts. Still, there are rumblings in some corners that the league wouldn't be all that heartbroken to see some of the officials take a walk, and may take a hard line in negotiations.

Meanwhile, the players union is up in arms over a memo sent to the clubs by the league office, saying that former Boston forward Vin Baker cannot be signed until an arbitrator decides whether his Celtics contract is enforceable.

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