Over the summer Chris Paul said he'd consider leaving New Orleans unless the Hornets made a commitment to get better. The team listened—and now it's riding high
Last week in New Orleans the surprising Hornets were trying to win without Chris Paul—though not completely without him, which seemed likely to be the case just a few months ago. As their All-Star point guard rested patiently on the bench, they maintained a small advantage over the Mavericks throughout the fourth quarter on Nov. 17 until 6:20 remained. That's when Paul made his return. But even with a 84--80 lead Paul saw no need to take over as in years past; down the stretch he contributed a scant two points and two assists to help finish off Dallas 99--97.
Just five months after Paul opened the door to a potential LeBron-like departure from New Orleans, the Hornets are trying their best to slam that door shut with an 11--1 start built on an ethic of teamwork that Paul adores. A flurry of moves by new general manager Dell Demps has improved the frontcourt and deepened the bench, while rookie coach Monty Williams has transformed the high-scoring Hornets into a team that wins at the other end of the floor. At week's end they ranked first in field-goal defense (42.5%) and second in points allowed per game (90.4). "This thing we're doing here is about our defense," says Paul, who was enjoying the best team start of his six NBA seasons at week's end while averaging a career-low 34.4 minutes, 10.5 assists and a four-year low of 16.8 points. "We don't necessarily have to rely on making shots and making plays every night. I scored 11 points or 13 points in [three] of these wins, and that says a lot about our team and what we're doing."
But Paul's biggest contribution to the Hornets' success came back on June 23, when he threatened to leave after their victory total declined from 56 in 2007--08 to 37 last season. "If we're not committed to winning and trying to get better so we can contend with the Lakers, the Celtics and all these other top teams," Paul told ESPN's Chris Broussard, "then I'm open to being traded."
That statement precipitated a deluge of rumors and had fans in New Orleans assuming that he was all but gone—even though Paul never insisted that he be moved. In fact he insisted that his first choice was to remain with the Hornets. Yet the impact of his comment was entirely positive, because the team listened carefully to his message and embarked on a frenetic overhaul of the entire operation, building a young roster around Paul and All-Star forward David West while overhauling the front office. "Making those normal tweaks in the organization wasn't going to work anymore," says Hugh Weber, the Hornets' president since 2007. "The analogy I use is that for 22 years, we remodeled the house here and there. But it was going to take a foundational and a structural change to rebuild the house from the ground up."
The rebuilding process began in June, two weeks before Paul's statement, when Weber hired the 39-year-old Williams, a former journeyman forward who had spent five years as an assistant with the Trail Blazers. Five weeks later Weber fired G.M. Jeff Bower, and on July 21 he replaced him with the 40-year-old Demps, a former Spurs teammate of Williams's who had spent the past five seasons as director of pro player personnel with San Antonio. "The whole structure we were trying to build is not your typical sports hierarchy, which is, coach reports to G.M., G.M. reports to president," says Weber. "We wanted to build a triangle decision-making process where Monty, Dell and I would collaborate."
Their first 100 days together were Rooseveltian. Only four of the 28 employees in the basketball operations department are holdovers from the previous regime. And the 15-man roster includes 10 new players, including guard Jarrett Jack and 6'11" David Andersen, who were acquired last Saturday in a five-player deal with the Raptors for forward Peja Stojakovic and guard Jerryd Bayless. (Altogether, these renovations have added $15 million in long-term commitments to the payroll.) Demps also found time to upgrade the weight room, locker room and training room while working with architects to finalize plans for a new practice facility. Demps, Weber and Williams also called a meeting with Paul in late July, at which they laid out their vision. "From the jump I told Chris, 'Look, I'm a rookie coach. I don't know if I can coach.' I was just honest with him," says Williams. "But I said, 'I'll work my tail off for you. I'll be prepared, I'll be disciplined.' And I said, 'This is what I guarantee: I'll create an atmosphere where guys can get better.'"
That unvarnished approach meant everything to Paul, who had been disappointed with the franchise since November 2009, when he learned from watching TV in the trainer's room that the Hornets were firing his close friend and coach, Byron Scott. "I'm somebody who's smart enough to know if you're being honest with me or not," says Paul. "I respect Coach for that, and the things that him and Dell have done around here have been remarkable."
Though Paul is under contract for $49.1 million over the next three years (he can opt out and become a free agent in 2012), his June comments created the impression that he would become the next LeBron James or Chris Bosh—a big name chasing a championship in a new city. "So many people wanted to twist it and say that he said he wants out," says Paul. "It turned into, 'He's demanding a trade.' Well, I never demanded anything." But Paul did contribute to the frenzy. The New York Post reported that at Carmelo Anthony's New York City wedding on July 10, Paul gave a toast in which he said that he, Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire were going to "form our own Big Three" with the Knicks. "We was there having a good time," says Paul, who doesn't deny saying it. "You're joking around, all different types of stuff is said."
He insists his original, carefully worded contend-or-else remark was meant to bring about changes—and better results—from the entire organization, himself included. "I'm very hard on myself, and if I'm putting any pressure on the team, I expect it from myself," says Paul. At 25, he has learned to focus on the game in front of him. "I haven't done that in the past," he admits. "I've always looked at the schedule and said, If we could win three out of these next four.... Now it's all about tonight: How can we win this one tonight?"
That demanding nature is evident whenever Paul turns the ball over: He tries to immediately make amends by stealing it back. "But I'm still going to have a turnover in the books when the game is over, and I can't stand it." After a 107--87 defeat of the Trail Blazers on Nov. 13, in which Paul turned the ball over five times, he got a text from his mom, Robin: "Great game son minus the turnovers." Says Paul, "I already beat myself up about the turnovers, but that was the dagger that goes just a little bit deeper when my mom tells me. I might not have even texted her back because I was mad that she pointed that out."
Williams, who played for nine years with five NBA teams, is quickly developing with Paul the type of relationship that is crucial to winning franchises. In the victory over Portland, Paul earned a technical foul for losing his temper and complaining to the officials. "This is going to seem like a little thing, but 50 years from now I will never forget what he said to me," recalls Paul. "I got a technical and just about everybody is saying, 'CP, calm down, calm down.' And Coach pulled me to the side and said, 'Listen, everybody else is saying calm down, I want you to keep doing what you're doing.' He could have yelled at me for getting a technical. But him just telling me to stay in that mode went a long way with me."
Williams admits being overwhelmed by the pervasive rumors of Paul's exit, along with the pressure to instantly create a winning environment. "All of that [trade] stuff started coming out and I kind of backed off [my relationship with Paul] because I didn't know how to deal with that," says Williams. "Instead of getting a rebuild for my first job, I get two All-Stars. It's like, All right, you got to be sharp right from the jump—which I'm not."
That's an odd thing to hear from a coach who has won 11 of his first 12 career games. But as a former player he is ultrasensitive about taking too much credit at the expense of his stars: "I've said to Chris, 'If I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do, you should look for another team.'"
Instead of demanding a trade to a rival franchise that would have to surrender valuable assets to acquire him, Paul now recognizes that a playoff contender is developing around him in New Orleans. Before the Hornets can challenge the Lakers and the Celtics, they are going to need at least one more star—a scoring center or an explosive wing—to complement Paul and West, who has also seen a small reduction in his offense (17.8 points per game through Sunday, his lowest average since 2005--06) and a much larger drop in minutes (to 32.2, from 36.4 last season). The scoring drop-offs have been more than offset by a defensive upgrade, which began with an off-season trade for small forward Trevor Ariza, whose deflections in the passing lanes helped the Lakers win the 2009 championship. The once-skimpy frontcourt has been bolstered by Andersen and 7-foot Jason Smith, and the roster has been rejuvenated—West and Andersen are the oldest Hornets, at 30, while Paul, Ariza and revitalized shooting guard Marco Bellinelli (12.7 points per game) head a promising group of seven Hornets who are 25 or younger. "It's not a fluke," says Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who inflicted the Hornets' first loss, in Dallas, after an 8--0 start. "They're planting the seeds."
This team is more suited for a deep run than the 2007--08 edition, which pushed San Antonio to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. That postseason, Paul and West were each forced to average more than 40 minutes while combining for more than 45 points per game. After undergoing left knee surgery last February that contributed to his missing 37 games last season, Paul—who continues to wear a protective knee brace—has been liberated by the deepened roster. "Most definitely, most definitely," he says when asked whether the small-market Hornets can contend for a championship. "Because it's a team game, and we have a lot of hungry players on this team."
Still, several questions remain unanswered. Are they going to uphold their newfound commitment to defense? How will Williams and his young staff respond to the injuries and losing streaks that are sure to come over the five months ahead? And most important of all, will there be a change in ownership? With George Shinn eager to sell and minority partner Gary Chouest hesitant to buy him out, league sources say the board of governors recently discussed the possibility of the NBA's temporarily buying the Hornets, much as Major League Baseball took control of the Montreal Expos before selling and moving them to Washington in 2005. "David Stern, I don't think he likes the idea of running organizations like this," responds Weber, who believes Chouest will go through with his purchase of the team this season. "I'll just tell you we continue to make changes and do things and make trades. We continue to work along and let the rumors and buzz happen."
Paul is aware of the dangers ahead, and he's not ruling out leaving New Orleans in 2012 just because the Hornets have jumped out to a fast start—even if it means absorbing a public flogging similar to that inflicted on James last summer. "I hope that day never comes," says Paul. "But I got a whole lot of clarity just talking with family, and I started to realize I can't necessarily worry about what other people think. I can't make decisions worrying about if this person is going to like it, are they going to talk bad about me in the media. Because at the end of the day the people who truly know you and know what type of person you are, they know. They know."
What Paul knows and appreciates most of all is that the Hornets have another game on the schedule. It is the only game that really matters, as he now sees it, and he has never been more likely to win it than with the team he's on today.
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WILLIAMS TOLD PAUL, "IF I'M NOT DOING WHAT I'M SUPPOSED TO, YOU SHOULD LOOK FOR ANOTHER TEAM."
PAUL INSISTS THE SMALL-MARKET HORNETS CAN MAKE A TITLE RUN: "WE HAVE A LOT OF HUNGRY PLAYERS."
Photograph by GREG NELSON
MORE FROM LESS Taking advantage of the Hornets' deeper rotation, Paul has led New Orleans to an 11--1 start while playing fewer minutes than ever.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
SHOW RUNNER Paul has scored fewer than 15 points in five of New Orleans's 12 games, but he is second in the league with 10.5 assists per game.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
TWO-WAY PLAYER Paul is spearheading a defense that is second in points allowed—19 spots better than last year's team.