Wednesday January 23rd, 2008

The votes aren't cast, yet Boston's Danny Ainge is already the runaway winner for the Executive of the Year award. And deservedly so: He assembled the trades and free-agent signings that have turned the NBA's second-worst team into the league leader at 33-6.

But answer me this: If Ainge hadn't succeeded in landing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, then who would be receiving his votes as the league's top administrator? A leading candidate would have been Jeff Bower.

Which then might have turned the Executive of the Year into a trivia question: Who is Jeff Bower exactly, and which team employs him?

That team turns out to be 28-12 so far despite more upheaval over the last six years than the rest of the league put together. They are the New Orleans Hornets, and Bower is the general manager who deserves much credit for pulling them together.

In 2004-05, Bower was the player personnel director whose scouting laid the foundation for New Orleans to use the No. 4 pick on Chris Paul, who at the time wasn't loved by most teams picking high in the lottery. Now midway through his third year, Paul is challenging Kevin Garnett for league MVP.

Despite their back-and-forth existence between New Orleans and Oklahoma City amid the desolation of Hurricane Katrina, Bower reinvented the Hornets last season by acquiring Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson before investing this year in starting guard Morris Peterson, who has filled out the starting lineup of one of the league's most surprising teams. Good health and a balanced lineup have put New Orleans on track to win 57 games.

Peterson's individual numbers (8.8 points, 39.6 percent shooting) aren't nearly as impressive as his positive impact on the team. With Paul, Chandler and power forward David West having career years, the rest of the Hornets are being asked to defend (New Orleans is fourth in scoring defense at 93.1 points allowed), keep up with Paul in transition and keep defenders honest.

"He was a veteran who was hungry to play, with a set of skills that blended in really well with the players that we already had on the roster,'' Bower said of Peterson. "We felt that his ability to spread the floor would help Chris Paul and David West, and we liked the fact that he had some toughness and was proven.''

Bower was named GM on the eve of the 2005-06 season, inheriting a team that won 18 games the year before Katrina. He won 38 and 39 games over his first two years while applying the lessons of former GM Bob Bass, who never had a losing season over his nine years in charge of the Hornets. Bass didn't believe in long-term rebuilding plans, and Bower knows the Hornets can't afford them.

Bower's strengths are his humility, as proved by his scrupulously low profile, and his ability to see past the numbers in order to gauge the personality of each player and the team as a whole. He is, in the words of owner George Shinn, a "carbon copy'' of Bass in that both believe in chemistry.

"Bob was always in jobs that required him to be creative and to make the most out of the talent he was able to acquire,'' said Bower, who feels more comfortable talking about Bass than about himself. "I was able to see that first hand, how he could capitalize on his assets.''

Bower clearly shares Bass' innate feel for the game. Though Stojakovic has yet to regain his shooting touch since undergoing surgery in December 2006 to repair a disc fragment in his lower back, Bower notes that he still commands the respect of the defense -- which is crucial to creating space for Paul and West.

"Peja does a wonderful job as a passer, and he even puts the ball on the floor a little bit,'' Bower said. "From when he was first injured to when we got started this season, he went through a lot of months of not playing competitively, and that was the thing that slowed him down.''

Upon joining the Charlotte Hornets as an advance scout in 1995, Bower worked his way up from director of scouting, to assistant coach to Paul Silas, and then to assistant GM to Bass. In 2003, he was considering a return to the college bench as an assistant to his friend Ed DeChellis, who had been named head coach at Penn State.

"At the time, I really wanted to go back into college coaching and was planning to do that,'' he said. "Then Tim Floyd [the new head coach of the Hornets] talked me out of it and convinced me to stay and coach with him on his staff.

"It was a hard decision. I never actually left, but I was scheduled to leave following the draft. I had always planned long term to go back to the college game. The way things have turned out, it's worked out very well.''

To say the least: Two years later, Hornets GM Allan Bristow abruptly resigned, citing health reasons (amid speculation that he was pushed out), and Bower was upgraded to not only replace him but also oversee the sudden move to Oklahoma City.

Now the Hornets are facing yet another potential move. A recent amendment to their lease would enable them to leave New Orleans in 2009 if paid attendance fails to average 14,735 from December 2007 through next season. The Hornets are currently 29th in attendance with 12,216 per game this season.

But the franchise is hoping to exploit an elevated profile push when All-Star Weekend arrives in New Orleans next month, followed by a playoff run led by Paul, who is in a dead heat with Steve Nash as the best point guard in the league. With Paul averaging 21.1 points and 10.4 assists, he is trying to become the first 20-and-10 point guard since Tim Hardaway in 1992-93.

"Our players and coaches have handled everything that's been put in front of them, and nobody has made excuses for anything,'' Bower said of the franchise's long-term uncertainty. "We accept this is what our job is and we're going to make it work."

The prevailing health of the starters has blunted concerns about the Hornets' skimpy bench. While Bower continues to seek out trades to improve their depth, he also believes that backup center Hilton Armstrong and rookie Julian Wright -- as well as starters Stojakovic and Peterson -- can improve as they grow more comfortable over the second half.

"We've having a good start, but we know how long the season is and we're not sitting back at all," Bower said. "We know we need to get better in a lot of areas.''

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