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.
Now on SI.com
Stay abreast of everything in the league with the Point Forward blog at SI.com/nba