By Nick Peruffo
For approximately 24 hours earlier this week, the future of the New Orleans Hornets was looking the brightest it had been since their 2008 run to the conference semifinals.
In addition to new head coach Monty Williams, whose impressive player-development resume from Portland figures to benefit the Hornets crop of young, unpolished talents, new general manager Dell Demps seems to be a natural fit for the small-market Hornets. The R.C Buford understudy presumably understands the nuts-and-bolts of building a championship-caliber ball club in a city that is neither a major free agent destination nor a generator of big-market revenue.
The rapport between Williams and Demps from their playing days together in San Antonio suggests a certain level of cohesion philosophically between the two that certainly did not exist under the Bower-Scott regime.
Earlier this week their plan seemed clear: surround the superstar by scouting and developing players better than anyone else in the league.
All this, however, changed Thursday morning as New Orleans awoke to the news that Chris Paul was asking to be shipped out of town, citing his belief that the Hornets were not fully committed to winning.
While the staled ownership transfer is a legitimate cause for concern, Paul knows that the Hornets’ hands are tied until next offseason when Peja Stojakovic’s contract comes off the books. The Hornets also don’t have the assets for an impact sign-and-trade and forcing a bad deal to try to appease Paul a la Danny Ferry in Cleveland only hurts the franchise long-term.
If Paul was a good soldier for another year, the Hornets would have the cap space next season to add an top-tier free agent (cough, Carmelo Anthony, cough), especially considering the cachet that Paul carries around the league.
Besides, a trade to New York would still leave Paul a year away from legitimately competing for a championship, and even then any potential Paul-Stoudemire-Anthony trio would still have to get through the juggernaut on South Beach.
Now, the Hornets could be faced with a repeat of the Baron Davis debacle that nearly destroyed the team in 2005. There are very few things that can destroy a young, developing ball club as quickly as a veteran superstar developing a toxic attitude. At this point, the best Hornets fans can hope for is a repeat of the pre-Pau Gasol sulking that Kobe Bryant put the Lakers through.
Paul has no real leverage because he is under contract for two more seasons, and its hard to imagine a competitor of Paul’s caliber wasting two seasons of his prime because he couldn’t force a trade. Demps is smart enough to realize that it is impossible to get equal value for an elite superstar. The obvious example of this is the Minnesota Timberwolves after shipping Kevin Garnett to Boston. They received as generous a package of young talent a draft picks as one could realistically hope for and haven’t sniffed contention ever sense.
The white elephant in the room here is that, even with Chris Paul, the Hornets struggle for relevancy in their small, football-centric market. By trading Paul, they run the risk of alienating their fragile fan base beyond repair. Without a marquee name like Chris Paul to draw people to the arena, there are simply too many other things to do and not enough people to support a bad NBA franchise for 82 games. Even with the young, positive energy of Williams and Demps, there is simply no way to sell this city on the other players they currently have on their roster.
Ultimately, a trade doesn’t seem to make much sense for either Chris Paul or the New Orleans Hornets. If Paul gets his wish and joins forces with another group of Super-Best-Friends, he could potentially be remembered for killing basketball in New Orleans with no guarantee of championship hardware to show for it. For the Hornets, holding on to Chris Paul for the remainder of his contract not only demonstrates an actual commitment to winning, but actually has an extremely legitimate chance of producing results (especially if Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton continue to develop under Williams).
If it doesn’t work out and Paul walks in two years, both he and the organization will be credited with not giving up, and even though the Hornets will suffer through a terrible season like New Jersey in 2009, they will at least escape the limbo of NBA mediocrity have a chance at a franchise-changing draft pick.