Once doubtful, Paul has many reasons to stay in New Orleans
Chris Paul's relationships with David West, Monty Williams may keep him in N.O.
Wth a strong supporting cast, Paul has led New Orleans to a 11-3 start
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Chris Paul may still choose to leave the Hornets, especially with so many unanswered questions raised by owner George Shinn's inability to sell the team and the Hornets' long-term viability in the small market of New Orleans. But there are more than a few reasons why he may stay with the Hornets beyond 2012, when he can exercise an option to become a free agent. Among them are:
David West. "I trust him more than anybody in this league," Paul told me last week in New Orleans. "Out of everybody in the whole NBA, that's my guy. We've been together for six years -- six years! -- and I trust him with anything. My fiancée and his wife are like best friends. Basketball-wise and off the court, I trust him."
Much is made of Paul's friendships with LeBron James and other rival stars, but nothing supersedes his bond with West, the Hornets' two-time All-Star at power forward.
"When decisions are made [on the team], everyone always says, 'It's [up to] Chris,'" said Paul. "But it's really up to me and D-West. I mean, D-West was here before I got here. You ask these guys on the team they'll be, like, 'C, what time do you want me to practice tomorrow?' I'll be like, 'D-West, what time do you want to practice tomorrow?' Because D-West is like my big brother, has always been."
"It would be hard for you to leave a relationship like that," I said.
"Yeah, yeah, that's my guy," said Paul. "Me and him, we got a lot invested in this." As Paul put it, in deference to West's eight years with the Hornets: "It's his team more than mine."
Monty Williams. The rookie coach knew Paul had been close with coach Byron Scott, who was fired by the Hornets one year ago, and so Williams didn't try to recreate that relationship. After he was hired by New Orleans in June, Williams spoke with Paul a few times by phone. "At first we were probably trying to fabricate it a bit," said Williams of the relationship with his star point guard. "And then I got to the point where I felt like I needed to give him his space."
The blogs were filled with speculation that Paul had -- or would -- demand a trade out of New Orleans, so Williams backed off for a time. "I was trying to let it happen on his terms and let it happen naturally," said Williams. "The one thing that guys can recognize in this league is a fake. And if I try to get close to a guy so I can get a few wins, I'm not going to feel good about that -- he's going to know it, and sooner or later it's going to go to crap."
The two got to know each other better when Paul returned to New Orleans to begin his pre-camp training. Their conversations flowed out of those workouts and plans for the coming season. "The more I gave him space and let it happen naturally, the more we started to talk about basketball, the more we talked about family," said Williams. "Chris has a tight family. He doesn't need somebody else to be close to him. What I tried to do was to listen to him and understand where he's coming from so I can hear his heart. But we're still a work in progress."
The comfortable environment. "[Chris] understands how important my family is to me, I know how important his family is, and he could see the connection in that right away," said Williams. "He knows why I am the way I am, because after the games I don't care about anybody else -- I want to go see my family and that's it. And he's the exact same way -- right after the games, the first thing he does is he goes gets his fiancée and his son. The first thing I do is grab my wife and my five kids. David's the same way."
Added Paul, "I think our team is like that. It's always been like that around here."
Paul is one of the league's most outgoing stars. He creates personal connections with teammates that have helped the Hornets (when healthy) to make the most of their talent. "He's one of the guys who feels like it's important to have relationships," said Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, who had his best NBA seasons while teaming with Paul from 2006-09. "He knows if you trust a guy, you're going to give him everything you got on the court."
Last week in Dallas, Chandler found himself of two minds while delivering the Hornets' first loss after an 8-0 start. "He did one of those famous throw the ball and jump into me things," said Chandler. "I tossed him off me, but there's a part of me that wants to turn around and grab him and pick him up. It's difficult to go against him because we were really close."
The Hornets are close to becoming contenders. The same predicament that now confronts Carmelo Anthony was faced by Paul last summer: He can demand a trade to a team better positioned to contend, but that contender will have to surrender talent in order to acquire him. So would he really be any closer to winning a championship?
In the meantime, the Hornets have two years to convince him to stay, and they're off to an 11-3 start - the third-best record in the league -- through Thursday thanks to a younger and deeper roster, the defense-first approach of Williams and the recent trade for backup guard Jarrett Jack, who happens to be one of Paul's closest friends.
"Tony Parker is a really good friend of mine," said Paul. "When they beat us [in the second round of the 2008 playoffs], after Game 7 we didn't talk for about a week because I was kind of upset -- and he let me know about that, too, when I did get a chance to talk to him. But he was like, 'CP, man, you're about one guy away.' At the time, we could count on me and D-West to give us 25 and 25, but you've got to have that third scorer consistently. He was breaking it down to me with [the Spurs],where some nights him and Timmy [Duncan] would have it on, and if he didn't have it on, Manu [Ginobili] would pick it up."
The Hornets have a strong base around their two All-Stars, as well as strong defenders in small forward Trevor Ariza and center Emeka Okafor, and a roster of seven players (including Paul) who are 25 years or younger. It's not outrageous to imagine them being able to come up with an explosive shooting guard in the draft or trade for a scoring center who has underperformed elsewhere, especially with Paul's record for maxing out the talents of his teammates.
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