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For the past two months, everyone's been speculating on Carmelo Anthony's short-term future in Denver, but what of Chris Paul's outlook with the Hornets? They are 6-0 after upending the Miami Heat's Big Three last Friday and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, and the most impressive stat of the Hornets' fast start is Paul's minutes -- he's down to 35 per game, an early career-low pace.
This reflects the larger plan to lessen Paul's burden, a further sign that being The Man isn't all it's cracked up to be. When James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh went to Miami, all three openly looked forward to taking pressure off one another and not having to carry his team play after play after play. Paul feels the same way about the new Hornets schemes at both ends of the floor.
"If we come out and run our game plan, we have a chance to win every game," Paul said. "Definitely, this is the best defensive team we've had since I've been here."
By taking the ball out of his point guard's hands on occasion, 39-year-old rookie coach Monty Williams hasn't been looking to reduce Paul's role but rather to enhance it.
"I don't want him to give up his game to fit what I'm trying to do," Williams said. "I'm trying to get teams not to key in on him so much -- so he gets rid of it and gets it back and [then] he goes to work.
"He has to give it up, then somebody has to go free him up [with a screen] so he can get it back. The last thing I want to do is run an offense where he doesn't have the ball. But we also need to get other guys involved, and I think he's at a point in his career -- all those guys are -- where they realize they can't do it by themselves."
Williams and 40-year-old GM Dell Demps (who was hired in July, six weeks after Williams had been recruited to coach the Hornets) have been working frenetically to improve the franchise around Paul since he declared last June that he would be open to a trade if New Orleans isn't able to contend for championships. The Hornets upgraded their weight room, locker room and training room, and are on the verge of breaking ground on a new practice facility. They also turned over the basketball office, bringing on 24 new employees while keeping only four from the previous administration. Most of the hires are on the young side, imbuing the Hornets with newfound energy while keeping the payroll tight.
"More than anything, it gives you new information and different perspectives," All-Star power forward David West said. "We knew things were go to operate a little differently."
Demps has made five trades to bring in nine players in pursuit of a deeper bench, and so far, the Hornets have been winning with a rotation of 10 to 11 men. The need for fresh legs goes with Williams' promise to emphasize defense as a way to ignite Paul on the break.
"He's trying to change the culture in terms of how we think about defense and how we approach the game," West said during the preseason. "All we're practicing is defense."
Through Nov. 7, Paul (18.7 point per game) has looked strong after undergoing left knee surgery and missing 37 games last season. He is shooting 50.6 percent (his career best is 50.3) and has a 10.2-to-1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. West is shooting 54.9 percent for his 18.3 points. The career of Italian shooter Marco Belinelli (11.0 points per game) has been salvaged, while defensive small forward Trevor Ariza is second in minutes with 33.5 per game.
Paul was unhappy with the firing of coach Byron Scott following a 3-6 start 12 months ago, but he has been on board with the organizational changes and is no longer talking about wanting to leave New Orleans. After a preseason practice last month, he pointed to his teammates out on the court doing individual work with the coaches.
"The biggest thing you see right now is practice is over and guys are still out here working," he said. "We didn't used to have that too much, but now guys are out here getting extra shots and working hard after practice."
But the issue of Paul's future hasn't been locked down. He is going to continue to keep pressure on the franchise to build a contender. When I asked if the upcoming collective bargaining agreement -- expected to enable small markets like New Orleans to compete with the richer franchises after this season -- will help arrest the Hornets' decline of the last two years, Paul was noncommital.
"It may," he said. "I don't think about that too much when it comes to that luxury-tax stuff. I think it's got to be about [being] efficient. At the end of the day, players are going to play. It doesn't matter if you're going to be over the luxury tax or not -- you've still got to compete."
No excuses will be accepted. The Hornets needed a strong start to create a positive attitude around the new program, but it isn't taking pressure off anyone. They aren't going to win a championship this year, but they must show they're on track to build a contender when the CBA rules turn their way next summer, or whenever the lockout comes to end.
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