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Hornets not retreating in the West

The Tyson Chandler trade stuck this time. Physical passed, deal completed, Hornets moving on. Clarity for all.

Chandler is in Charlotte with a team that covets his defense, athleticism and versatility to play power forward as well as center; Emeka Okafor is in New Orleans; and everyone is in agreement that this is not the widely predicted Hornets salary dump. The July 28 swap of centers with a string of similarities was a basketball move all the way, and more.

It was a statement. New Orleans is still in business in the Western Conference, is still spending rather than going duck and cover, is still part of the pack trying to chase down the Lakers.

Maybe, as the Hornets suggest, there was no need to play the perception game close to home. From their perspective, it had been made clear to fans there that the team once considered a contender, before last season's hard fall punctuated by an ugly first-round loss in the playoffs, would be given the financial backing to reclaim former ground. It's just that not a lot of people outside the Gulf Coast got the memo. More important, a lot within the NBA didn't either -- one rival executive, noting Chandler's injury history and the $25 million remaining on the books the next two seasons, predicted dealing him would mean "getting 60 cents on the dollar. The financial thing is so big. It's bigger than life. It should be easier to move him than that because he's a good player. But it's going to be real tough to get value for him."

Okafor is definitely not 60 cents on the dollar. Hornets general manager Jeff Bower did much better than acquire equal value. He acquired equal value in such a strong buyer's market that peers didn't think it possible.

So much for the consensus that New Orleans' priority was to extricate itself from Chandler to save money. While he will make $1 million more than Okafor in 2009-10 in an immediate saving for the Hornets, the deal potentially puts them on the hook for $40 million more in the final three years of Okafor's deal, depending on whether the former No. 2 pick in the draft exercises a '13-14 option.

"I think locally, it's understood," Bower said. "The people closest to the team understand that, based on the moves [owner George Shinn] authorized us to make. I think where there's a misconception is from people farther away from the situation. They're basing their opinions on, maybe, heresay or general perceptions that just are not true.

"The best way I can deal with it is with actions. I can show you a whole lot better than I can tell you. I think the actions of Mr. Shinn show that we are committed to putting a winning team on the court."

In that case, so much, as well, for the consensus that the trade marked a policy shift. The Hornets don't see taking on Okafor's contract as a dramatic change of direction because they didn't look at the previous move as a salary dump. Within the front office, Bower said, dealing Chandler to Oklahoma City in February, before Chandler flunked his physical and the Thunder called off the trade, was for the additional frontcourt depth that would have come with the arrival of Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. It just so happened that Smith and Wilcox had expiring deals.

"My comments at the time, even though they were not believed, were consistent," Bower said.

The perception that Chandler was trade bait for cap relief was furthered in the offseason as reports circulated that the Hornets got deep into talks with the Suns to acquire Ben Wallace, with the understanding that Wallace would take a buyout and save New Orleans millions. But Bower said, "The discussions that were reported with Phoenix regarding Ben Wallace did not take place."

As it turned out, the Suns did the Wallace buyout, Wallace agreed to sign with the Pistons ... and the Hornets spent more money.

Shinn is now officially impossible for outsiders to read. That's the other part of the perception game of the moment. In Charlotte, he went from beloved to detested and hypocritical and the primary reason fans who once supported the Hornets in record numbers shunned them to the point that a deal for a new arena was impossible. In New Orleans, after the relocation, he surprised most around the league by spending big to sign Peja Stojakovic in '07. And now this.

Okafor (Sept. 28) and Chandler (Oct. 2) were born days apart in 1982. Both make similar money in '09-10. Both have a history of being very effective on the boards, though Chandler fell to 8.7 rebounds last season while limited by a badly sprained ankle, and Okafor finished fifth in the league at 10.1. The differences, though, are striking and the reasons each team made the deal.

Okafor, though never confused with a feared inside scoring threat and having averaged more than 14 points only twice in five seasons, is the better offensive player, and the Hornets need offense; even with Chris Paul at the point, they finished 26th in scoring last season. They feel like defenses will have to show Okafor more respect as a low-post presence than Chandler ever got, thereby creating better looks on the perimeter.

If it isn't the policy shift by Shinn and the front office that many expected, it is a style change. They're still on course to be a team paying the luxury tax, after all, but they also just got a lot more interesting on the court with a shakeup that will likely keep them among the West's second tier, in some order after the Lakers and Spurs and possibly the Nuggets, in preseason predictions. That perception thing again.

For all their problems and the bottoming out of the effortless 58-point home loss to Denver in Game 4 of the first round when they had a chance to get back in the series, the Hornets did finish 49-33, all of five games behind the second-seeded Nuggets. Paul is 24. David West will be 29 when camp opens. Okafor will be 27. New Orleans plans to stick around for a while, a statement now understood everywhere.

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