The most popular gossip leading up to the Feb. 24 trade deadline is sure to involve All-Star point guard Baron Davis of the bottom-dwelling Hornets (3--29 at week's end). He's six years younger than Jason Kidd, he's a proven winner (until this year), and G.M. Allan Bristow has been gauging his trade value. The only thing you won't hear over the next month is Davis's beating on the door to get out of town. "I will never demand to be traded," says Davis, 25. "Because if I do, then I'm at fault, I'm the bad guy, I'm the crybaby, I'm immature."
He heard all of those criticisms last summer after his agent, Todd Ramasar, declared that Davis was on the verge of requesting a trade, in part because the Hornets had failed to sign either of two free-agent scorers, Stephen Jackson or Morris Peterson. ( New Orleans signed backup center Chris Andersen and veteran forward Rodney Rogers instead.) Davis's relationship with Bristow collapsed during the preseason after the new G.M. barred the longtime workout gurus of Davis and All-Star center Jamaal Magloire from participating in practice. By denying him access to Dartgnan Stamps, who understands his unique training regimen, Davis says the team was partly to blame for the inflamed disk in his lower back that sidelined him for 19 games. "It was an issue from training camp that could have easily been resolved if I'd had the proper therapy," says Davis.
Don't expect Bristow to tear down the team and rebuild by creating cap space: He tried that high-risk strategy as the Nuggets' G.M. in 1997--98 and was fired in midseason. The Hornets would need to fetch a superstar in return for Davis, not only for competitive reasons but also to provide a draw at the gate, where they ranked 29th through Sunday, with 14,240 fans per game. "If they feel it's best for them to trade me, then I can't help but go--as long as I go somewhere I want to be," says Davis. (In the preseason Ramasar named the Lakers, Heat, Knicks and Suns as Davis's preferred teams.)
The Hornets have endured an epidemic of injuries, but the return of Magloire (broken right ring finger) after the All-Star break could make them whole. Their immediate goal is to avoid overtaking the 76ers of 1972--73 (9--73) as the worst team in history. Last Saturday, Davis's first triple double in three years propelled New Orleans to a 121--117 overtime defeat of the Kings, which snapped a 10-game skid. "Right now I'm playing at 70, 75 percent," says Davis. "If I'm 100 percent, I think we can win here with the people that we have."
A Davis blockbuster probably wouldn't take place until summer, after he has regained his health and teams are less skittish about assuming the $63 million on the remaining four years of his contract. But the Hornets' preference is to use their high draft pick and rebuild around Davis, Magloire, 19-year-old rookie shooting guard J.R. Smith and P.J. Brown, the 35-year-old power forward who has yet to complain about anything. The $10.1 million salary of Jamal Mashburn also comes off the books after 2005--06, increasing the team's flexibility. "We want to get younger and more athletic," says Bristow. "We're looking to Baron as our franchise player."
Davis says he likes new coach Byron Scott, who has been urging him to take fewer three-pointers and attack the basket. "I've never been pushed like this," Davis says of Scott. "I trust him." Now he and Bristow need to agree on how best to deal with his therapy. "Every day that I walk into a practice or a game, I'm not sure if I am going to be traded or not," Davis says. "There's a lot of rumors circulating, and it would be nice to hear something."