Posted Dec 7 2011 10:04AM
Christmas is coming. So is the sleigh ride that will carry Chris Paul out of New Orleans. At least it should be, in less time than it takes to cook up the popcorn for the yuletide quintuple-header that will finally tip off the NBA regular season.
The Lakers? The Knicks? The Mavericks?
Does it matter?
All that's left is the haggling for a final price by Hornets general manager Dell Demps. Then the jazz funeral can start its march down Bourbon Street and the healing can begin.
New Orleans has been hurt far worse and survived.
In a perfect world, Paul would agree to a contract extension with the Hornets, continue freezing would-be defenders with his dribble, fire perfect passes to his teammates and one day lead a championship parade through the French Quarter.
But when word broke that Paul's agent had told the Hornets that his client has no intention of extending his stay with the team, the next move became, quite simply, a Big Easy.
We have seen this movie before. We know how it ends. In the end, CP3 will get what Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James and Chris Bosh got; an exit to a richer and fresher pasture.
"I don't think about it, to tell you the truth," Paul said when he first showed up to work out alongside his teammates at the Hornets' practice facility. "I'm just ready to get out here and compete and hoop. This is what I do. I love it ... I'm just happy to get out on the court and compete. This is a way that I express myself."
The Hornets have a choice to make, and it seems they're already trying to decide. Do they want to endure a repeat of last season's "Melo-Drama" by turning their own affair into a "Chris Crisis" -- Chrisis? -- that can ruin a season and poison a fan base? Or do they want to make their move now?
Let's remember that the Hornets are unique among NBA franchises, actually owned jointly by the other 29 members of the league. They need a solid plan in order to attract a new local owner to make a long-term commitment.
Let's also remember that the New Orleans front office completed a wildly innovative and successful 100-events-in-100-days promotional offseason campaign that raised season ticket sales to the 10,000 mark for the first time in history and also drew several new sponsors at the $1 million level, all when the only games being played were over the labor negotiating table.
The idea, team president Hugh Weber said, was to get New Orleans to focus less on the win-loss record and more on making a permanent connection between team and city. The departure of Paul will stretch and test that bond, but it doesn't have to break it. Not if Demps is proactive now in striking the best deal possible.
There already has been the predictable blowback from some corners, reviving the whole big market vs. small market debate that fueled so much of the 149-day lockout. But the truth is that Paul -- along with players like Deron Williams, when he was in Utah -- already had signed a contract extension. He's done nothing wrong. All these players are merely exercising options that are open to them.
Now the grumbling is about the trend toward the assembling of the so-called "super teams," which boiled up a stew of resentment a year ago in Miami but drew only praise when the same tactic was employed in Boston in 2007-08. Can the Lakers put together the kind of packages that would land them both Paul and Howard to play with Kobe Bryant?
As painful as it may be to watch from Jackson Square or the Garden District, that shouldn't matter a whit to the thinking and the execution of the Hornets' front office.
There has been no indication that Paul is unhappy with New Orleans, per se, only in a situation where he sees his U.S. Olympic teammates -- his friends -- winning or at least contending for championships while he's left as a tourist at a Mardi Gras parade, pleading and grasping for beads. So he dreams of going to New York to team up with Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. You can't blame him for that.
The fact is that New Orleans will never be a big-market team and the Hornets will never be a destination for big-name free agents that could help lift the team and Paul to a level beyond occasional nuisance in the playoffs. The construction of a championship contender will have to follow the route of the Oklahoma City Thunder -- through the Draft, shrewd management and a bit of sheer luck.
Note that Kevin Durant did resist the bright lights of the big cities to remain in OKC and Rudy Gay got his whopping contract extension and says he wants to be part of the process that could be bubbling up into something big in Memphis.
That doesn't look like it will be the case with Paul and New Orleans. So now it's up to the Hornets to stop sleeping with the past and Chris Paul and deliver a new future for the franchise in time for Christmas.
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