A year ago, it seemed unimaginable. Trade Chris Paul? Fans in New Orleans would sooner ban jazz and jambalaya than see the Hornets deal their franchise's cornerstone. In 2008--09 Paul averaged 22.8 points and a league-high 11.0 assists, numbers that earned him a third consecutive All-Star nod. Yet the emergence this season of rookie point guard Darren Collison has opened the door for a possible post-Paul future in New Orleans.
Collison, the 21st pick, out of UCLA, is making a compelling case that he can handle the job. With Paul, 24, sidelined since Jan. 30 with an injured left knee, Collison, 22, has seamlessly moved into the starting role. Freed from the Bruins' structured system, he has thrived in the Hornets' pick-and-roll-heavy offense. In 32 games as a starter he is averaging 18.2 points and 9.1 assists, not far from Paul's averages of 20.4 and 11.2. Scouts praise his D and decision making while expressing surprise at his J: Collison is shooting 46.0% from the floor. Says Hornets coach and G.M. Jeff Bower, "He understands the job of the point guard, and he handles the responsibilities well." The rest of the league has noticed. Two team executives told SI that they planned on calling New Orleans about Collison in the off-season. The Hornets could package Collison with a bad contract (James Posey or Emeka Okafor) to gain financial flexibility.
Or the Hornets could keep both point guards. Contact on the perimeter has become an almost automatic whistle in the NBA, putting a premium on quicker guards. Bower says he plans on trying a Paul-Collison backcourt—even though both are just 6 feet tall—when Paul returns. "It's a dynamic situation," says Bower. "Both of them have speed and quickness and an ability to attack defenders. I'm excited to try it out."
Still, moving Paul is an option. With average attendance down nearly 2,000 from last year, ownership ordered the front office to pare enough payroll to get under the luxury tax. Multiple sources say the team is under the same mandate for next season, which as of now would begin with the Hornets' roughly $6 million over the tax threshold. Paul—who is due $14.9 million next season—has already expressed frustration over the cost-cutting moves. If the team isn't willing to build around him, it could opt to rebuild without him. If so, Paul would become, in the words of one G.M., "the most sought-after trade piece in history." The Hornets could name their price. Says a Western Conference G.M., "Every team in the league would call and offer to take on all their bad contracts with Paul."
Bower says that he won't rush, hinting that he might use part of next season to evaluate whether Paul and Collison can work in tandem. Perhaps he is buying time to find an answer to this question: Just how much is the face of the franchise worth?
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A Western Conference scout on Philadelphia, which has lost 12 of 14: "They are having dunk contests before games; they are running plays sloppily or not all the way through; and they aren't listening to [coach] Eddie Jordan(below). They have quit. They know Eddie is gone [after the season], and they think they don't have to listen to him anymore. The thing is, they are making themselves look like a-------. These guys think that just because Eddie is gone they will be back [next year]. But nobody wants guys who give up when things go bad. Eddie's offense was a bad fit for this roster—they have to find a way to play more up-tempo—but these guys are embarrassing themselves. And everyone around the league knows it."
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STEPPING UP Since the All-Star break, Collison is third in the NBA with 9.9 assists per game.