Posted Mar 8 2011 10:07AM
Here in the stretch run for playoff positioning, where it's especially cutthroat in the West, the Hornets are in the awkward position of keeping Chris Paul off the floor as long as necessary.
It's only proper, after a scary collision in Cleveland with Ramon Sessions ended up giving him a concussion. Eventually he'll return -- perhaps as early as Wednesday -- and Hornets fans will exhale. At least until this summer. That's when the possibility of Paul leaving the lineup again -- this time for good -- will once again paralyze the Hornets.
It's a recurring theme by now, about Paul bolting the Hornets after 2011-12 when he can opt out of his contract, a theory Paul fed last summer at Carmelo Anthony's wedding by saying he'd be with the Knicks shortly. With LeBron James in Miami and Melo in New York and Deron Williams in New Jersey, it's so tempting to say Paul is next, if only because there's no great reason to believe he isn't.
Most players, given the option of fleeing to a winning team and getting good money, would jump. Or maybe you haven't been paying attention to the latest trend.
Paul isn't the one who's in a tight spot regarding his future. Instead, the NBA, as the surrogate owners of the Hornets, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of determining what's best for the league: Give the OK to trade Paul well in advance of his expiring contract, or keep him (and risk losing him if he doesn't re-sign) for a small-market team it's trying to save?
You can almost see Mark Cuban's head exploding right now. It gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, where the league must handle the hot-potato issue of what to do with a star whose potential departure could significantly diminish the value of a franchise the league is trying to sell. Then again, by watching Paul move to a more glamorous destination -- OK, New York -- and a ready-made title contender, wouldn't that be in the league's better interest? Insuring that one of their stars is visible in May and June, in a ratings-friendly market, when the public's awareness of the NBA is at its highest?
In a perfect world, this won't even be an issue for Jac Sperling, the Hornets' caretaker, and commissioner David Stern later this summer (or whenever the labor situation is settled). In a perfect world, the Hornets have been sold and the NBA has been taken off the hook. Finding a buyer that quickly -- when the league will be preoccupied with labor strife -- seems highly unlikely unless the Hornets are deeply discounted for a quick sale. Therefore, the fate of Paul will fall into the shaking hands of a league that would rather not be in this position.
Hornets general manager Dell Demps has made it clear he wants the franchise to do whatever necessary to keep Paul. Demps and coach Monty Williams have made a solid impression on Paul, whose career in New Orleans until now has been dogged by shoddy ownership. With the Hornets winning games and often throwing a scare into the elite teams, Paul reiterated at All-Star Weekend that his immediate concern lies with the uniform he's wearing now.
"I'm just trying to help this team make the playoffs," he said. "That's all I can worry about right now. That's where my attention lies. Everything else is in the distance."
It's closer than he thinks. The Hornets are no lock to even make the playoffs; they're caught in the traffic jam of the bottom half of playoff contenders. Five teams are within three games of each other and a losing streak of any length can be fatal to playoff hopes. The injury Paul suffered hasn't helped, nor did his poor shooting stretch that preceded it. Missing the playoffs would only confirm to Paul that the Hornets just don't have enough talent around him, and no guarantee to get help right away.
Then there's David West, Paul's best teammate, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. If he leaves, then Paul certainly will feel another nudge toward the exit.
If Paul pulls a 'Melo and tells the Hornets to cut their best deal before the summer of 2012, how does the NBA proceed?
Paul would be a hot commodity, putting the league in the squirmy position of playing basketball god with the teams who want him. You'd hear the word "favoritism" more than once during trade discussions, especially if the Knicks or another large-market team gets involved. The appearance of that is something the league can't afford.
The entire situation is a necessary headache for the NBA. If only New Orleans showed no passion toward the Hornets, it would be an easy call. The league would have the green light to contract the team and auction off the parts, including Paul.
But there's just enough local interest to make the league seek an owner who won't relocate the team. And that's the trouble. After all, what's easier: Finding an owner who'll keep the team in New Orleans, or keeping Paul in New Orleans?
Maybe Paul has the right idea: Just think about the present and the playoffs. It's less stressful. For him and the NBA.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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