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Sam Smith: Pursuit of Paul could follow Summer of LeBron

Pro basketball at a high level may not be sustainable in the New Orleans market, writes Sam Smith. That’s why he wouldn't be surprised to see Chris Paul asking for a trade at some point if the Hornets begin to shed salaries and he sees his chance to compete at a high level diminished.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith: Pursuit of Paul could follow Summer of LeBron


The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Forget free agency 2010. Pretty much everyone around the NBA these days now seems to believe LeBron James will remain in Cleveland and likely Dwyane Wade in Miami. Though few seem to feel Chris Bosh is dedicated to the Raptors. Still, with the world and NBA economies in difficulty, and a declining salary cap and luxury tax ceiling expected, it's going to be harder to reload in the next year than teams imagined a year ago when this planning started.

Though things could begin to ease again in the summer of 2012, and the LeBron of that summer is Chris Paul. It seems from the events of the past week, if not soon, Paul may well have serious misgivings of what he has gotten himself into in New Orleans.

The first big sign was the aborted trade of center Tyson Chandler to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a pair of players with expiring contracts, Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox, the former, Smith, with chronically bad knees that could knock him out of the game soon, and Wilcox, with chronically bad defense that makes both short-term possibilities. Though the Hornets tried to put a nice veteran spin on it, the deal was a massively one sided salary dump to keep the Hornets afloat.

Many had doubted the Hornets could be viable in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of the city's business infrastructure. But they surprised many, including me, with a supportive and enthusiastic fan base and a heck of a season in 2007-08. Many had projected the Hornets to be this season's Cinderella pick to go to the big Finals dance. No one is saying that any more.

After, surprisingly, winning the powerful Southwest Division with 56 wins and taking the Spurs to a seventh game in the conference semifinals and Paul becoming one of the league's most exciting players, the Hornets were an insiders' favorite. They still are 10 over .500, but fourth in the Southwest and seventh overall in the West, and just a game and a half from missing the playoffs.

Which it seems likely they would have done if the Chandler trade went through. There's much speculation about the so-called real reasons. But the Thunder doctor who actually operated on Chandler's big toe in 2007 predicted woe. I think teams often rely too much on doctors who generally tend to be conservative. I believe this was a mistake for the Thunder, though I have to give credit to general manager Sam Presti, whom I've criticized before, particularly for off loading everyone and making Kevin Durant a target as rookie.

But with Durant, who is looking like a better version of George Gervin and would be the consensus No. 1 pick now over Greg Oden, the Thunder has been likened to the next version of the Portland Trail Blazers, the next new thing on the come in the NBA. And they've remained just bad enough while being competitive for a shot at Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, likely the No. 1 overall draft pick. Though Chandler would have filled out that young roster nicely.

"He's a coach's dream," said Hornets coach Byron Scott when he first learned of the trade. "He'll do whatever you ask him to do, and he'll do it to the best of his ability."

In fact, Hornets coaches and players were devastated with David West openly contradicting the team's explanation of seeking more veterans and depth.

"This move has nothing to do with basketball; it was strictly a business decision, " West told New Orleans media. "Using some common sense, that's what it came down to. I was hoping that all of it was a rumor. We have now become one of the smaller teams, and we really have put ourselves back in the situation we were in two years ago when we had a big hole in the middle. As well as C.P. played in the playoffs and as well as I did individually in the playoffs, Tyson was the reason we were able to get by Dallas. If you notice in that series, they put Dirk (Nowitzki) on Tyson. When we played San Antonio in the second round, he was the only guy who could, throughout the game, defend Tim Duncan by himself."

Paul declined comment and was described by associates as furious about the then trade, and it likely was an epiphany about his future in New Orleans.

What it suggested—and I do have to give management credit for trying—is pro basketball at a high level may not be sustainable in that market. Many doubted it ever could be, but the Hornets have done an impressive job. Now with huge once promised payments from the state endangered and unlikely due to the national economic disaster, the Hornets are likely one of the more vulnerable franchises.

With Paul's extension kicking in next season, the Hornets are well over the luxury tax level. Owner George Shinn, whose primary asset is the team and is not as wealthy as most owners, never has paid the luxury tax. You can be sure they'll be trying to move Chandler and more this summer.

Paul likely understands this now, and I wondered as I watched his almost inconceivable meltdown to cost his team Friday's game with the Lakers whether it was affecting him. With a three-point lead and the ball in the last 24 seconds on a three-on-one break, Paul, instead of pulling it out to be fouled or passing for an easy layup or dunk, held the ball and committed an offensive foul. Then he left Derek Fisher open for a tying three, and the Hornets lost in overtime.

The Hornets are stuck for two more seasons after this one with long deals they gave to Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson, both effectively untradeable in this environment.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Paul asking for a trade at some point if the Hornets begin to shed salaries and he sees his chance to compete at a high level diminished. He signed for four years with an opt out after the 2011-12 season. Yes, it's a long, long way off. But Paul will only be 26. And he has shown you can build a team around him without very much else, and he does make teammates lots better.

After the Summer of LeBron, it's going to be the Pursuit of Paul.

-- It wasn't a very good weekend for the former Bulls. Larry Hughes was a Hughesque 1-of-9 in his Knicks debut Sunday, though you can be certain they all felt good to him. "It's just a matter of executing," Hughes said. Like an old coach once said when asked about his team's execution, "I'm all for it." Thabo Sefolosha was zero for three and scoreless with five fouls in 18 minutes in a Thunder loss to the Warriors Saturday, though Sefolosha figures eventually to replace starting shooting guard Kyle Weaver. "I'm going to stay positive," said Sefolosha. "It was the first game, not that great of a game but I'm sure it's going to come for me." Andres Nocioni was 2-of-11 for 10 points and seven rebounds in a Kings blowout loss to Dallas Saturday. "I think I need a couple practices to try to figure out how we play," Nocioni told the Sacramento Bee. "It's really tough, because I tried to help the team. But I don't know if I can right now because I need to figure out how the team plays." Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers actually activated Michael Ruffin and he played 17 seconds without denting the box score in Friday's win over Atlanta.

-- With Dwyane Wade's career high 50 points in Sunday's loss to the Magic, it's a good time again to take a look at how the U.S. players have held up after a summer filled with basketball.

Up:

Wade: Should be in MVP consideration for carrying Miami to the East's fifth best record.

LeBron James: Should be the league MVP and a chance for the Cavs to have the league's best record.

Kobe Bryant: Another terrific season as he's still third in the league in scoring despite pacing himself to the playoffs.

Dwight Howard: Becoming a force for the Magic with comparisons to Shaquille O'Neal in his prime.

Chris Paul: Leading the league in assists and carrying an injury depleted Hornets.

Down:

Carlos Boozer: Injured much of the season as he's likely out of Utah after this season as a potential free agent.

Chris Bosh: In and out of the lineup with injuries as his Raptors have been the league's biggest disappointment.

Deron Williams: A severe ankle sprain early limited his for the first half of the season, though he's played at a high level of late.

Michael Redd: Serious knee injury and out into next season.

Carmelo Anthony: Off and on injured, limping through the season and ignored by the coaches as an All-Star.

Unchanged:

Jason Kidd: Has had some ups and downs, but has played about as expected.

Tayshaun Prince: Has been relatively consistent on a splintering team.

And you know the Spurs have to be shaking their heads with Manu Ginobili out again from his ankle issues from the Olympics.

-- We've heard of all the so called big names not traded: Amar'e Stoudemire, Shaquille O'Neal, Vince Carter, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby, Baron Davis, Rasheed Wallace, Allen Iverson, Chris Bosh, Richard Jefferson, Antawn Jamison, Tyson Chandler, Tracy McGrady, Ray Felton, Gerald Wallace, Ron Artest and Carlos Boozer. It never was close with most, or even possible with some, like Bosh. Aren't you at least a little embarrassed for believing all that? Though most are still scratching their heads about the Trail Blazers' failure to move one of their extra players and the expiring deal of Raef LaFrentz. Chemistry is vital, though the young Bulls found out you can't keep hanging onto all your young players. It sounded a bit like the Bulls a few years ago when Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard said he didn't want to threaten his team's "culture" and "identity." GM's say Portland basically was only offering the LaFrentz contract. Likewise, it seemed the Cavs would have moved the Wally Szczerbiak contract, though they had far less to offer than Portland and making a deal was more difficult. Clippers insiders say Kaman was available, but they got no serious offers because teams wanted to see him play first a she's been out injured much of the season.

-- The NBA suffered a big loss last week with the death of Jazz owner Larry Miller. I didn't always care for Miller's courtside histrionics and occasional locker room tirade, but the guy had great passion for his team and the game and was one of the most solid owners in sport the way he maintained such stability with the franchise and kept Jerry Sloan around no matter the circumstances. He fought over salaries with Karl Malone seemingly every year in the late 80's and early 90's, but John Stockton never left and Malone for just a cameo with the Lakers. Miller was the original Mark Cubanesque owner, though not nearly the self promoter. He just loved the game and his team. I remember him taunting Michael Jordan for dunking on one his guards. So Jordan stole the ball and then dunked on seven footer Mel Turpin and shouted to Miller as he ran back, "He big enough for you?" Miller had a good laugh out of it. Miller had his own Jazz uniform and locker and as a devout Mormon never attended a game on Sunday. The stoic Sloan broke down last week talking about Miller. The Jazz is considering a statue, which would be well deserved, and retiring his No. 19, which was his softball jersey number. Heck of a guy. By the way, with Andrei Kirilenko back, Boozer soon to return and Deron Williams healthy, I could still see the Jazz winning the division.

-- Busy week for the Bulls, who host the Magic Tuesday and its news backcourt of Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee, the latter replacing the benched Michael Pietrus. Then it's the Nets, whose coach, Lawrence Frank, needed another vote of confidence from team president Rod Thorn with the team slumping. Then it's to Washington, perhaps the East's biggest mess with little effort on a regular basis and Gilbert Arenas said to be angering management with a general refusal to play despite getting healthier. Then it's back home Saturday for the Rockets, who seem happy and enthused without McGrady, who's been the dark cloud over their season. McGrady wants microfracture surgery, which probably will end his career. McGrady was to be in Chicago this week for more opinions, though the Rockets were furious he announced to ESPN and not the team he was having surgery. The Rockets obvious private reaction was they'd covered for years for his soft play, moods failure to work hard at rehab, and this is how he repays them. Teammates always have said he's never liked basketball, anyway, and he probably just prefers to go back home now.

-- It was an interesting interview with Brandon Roy in the Oregonian about the lack of foul calls for Portland players. I'm not a big fan of this thinking, but Roy said he believes because the team is young and regarded as nice guys who don't complain, they get taken advantage of by referees and don't get appropriate foul calls. Roy said he'll need to complain more. Said Roy: "I look at all the players who get the most calls in the league, and they are the most arrogant players. The ones who chew the refs out. So I'm like, 'Wait a minute. I'm not getting any calls and I'm not saying nothing.' But I'm watching guys like Chris Paul and those guys, and they eat the refs. From here to there, all game long. I mean, from the opening tip he's coming out saying 'Oh! He's touching me! Get him off me!'" Roy says as he flails backward. "Then, I'm like, 'Oh, he's going to get a call in two plays.' Don't get me wrong. I don't want my reputation to be that of a whiner. But I want to win. People say Chris Paul is a winner when he does it. Kobe is considered a winner. So I'm going to do whatever I can do to help us win. It's not to point out an official or a player. I just think we need to start being a little more aggressive in our ways. Good teams are aggressive. Physical. And vocal. And maybe this is me realizing I have to come out of my shell a little more." A memo to Derrick Rose? I'd hope it doesn't work that way.

-- Classic line from Mike D'Antoni after Nate Robinson had 32 points in a win over the Spurs: "The best thing about Nate is he can get a shot any time he wants. The worst thing is he can get a shot anytime he wants." It's a nicer way of saying the guy wouldn't know a good shot from a bad seat on the bus. … Ben Wallace got 14 stitches over All-Star break from smashing his hand through a car window playing football. Wonder if that's a contract violation since motorbike riding and skiing and such things are. James told Cleveland media he may change his number from No. 23 to No. 6, his Olympic number. Should sell a lot more jerseys, too. … Shawn Marion to Toronto reporters after being traded to the Raptors: "The game is supposed to be exciting. I'm tired of playing that boring (Miami) style in the half court, watching everybody just go up and run plays." Phoenix to Miami to Toronto. Better watch what you ask for. He's a free agent and likely to be another along with Iverson and Rasheed Wallace to be fortunate to get an exception deal at about $5 million. I wouldn't be surprised given the level of his on court disruption for the Nuggets and Pistons that Iverson isn't picked up by anyone and his NBA career could be over.