- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Everything that's new and improved about the New Orleans Hornets -- Chris Paul's added bulk and rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton -- could be found in Cox Pavilion this week, and that's not a good thing. Watching the new guys is the best part of summer league, and it's great to see teams' established stars show up to check out their squads. But the big weapons in the NBA's arms race, whether marquee free agents or trade acquisitions, rarely drop by. The only topic to bring up to Paul as he sat courtside was Chris Paul.
There's no Shaq, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Jefferson, Hedo Turkoglu, Ron Artest, Trevor Ariza, Shawn Marion or Antonio McDyess to discuss. With the Hornets, the only changes worth talking about involve Chris Paul's diet. The team is locked in luxury tax land with a payroll approaching $80 million, and so far has sat out this free-agent market. And they're not just waiting for 2010 to get here. New Orleans' projected payroll will likely handcuff the team next summer as well.
"I'm not sure if we're going to make any moves," Paul said. "First day of training camp, you've got to work with what you've got. You never know what's going to happen. Whatever happens, we're going to go out there and play hard.
"My thing is, I've always said, I don't ever feel like there's such a thing as a rebuilding year. I don't believe in that, 'We'll play this year in order to try to get better next year.' Every year I play, I want to try to win a championship. I'm going into my fifth year, and I feel some type of weight that I haven't won a championship yet. I'm not trying to wait until the end of my career and say, now it's winning time. It's time to win now.
"I don't play just for the fun of saying, 'I'm playing in the NBA.' I don't want to just make it to the playoffs and say we made it. I play to win championships. Anything less than that is unacceptable."
Well, as the WNBA marketers would say, expect unacceptable. The Hornets are essentially the same team that got blasted out of the playoffs by the Denver Nuggets in the first round last season. True, New Orleans could get more from Tyson Chandler, who really shouldn't have tried to come back for the playoffs with his injured ankle. Coach Byron Scott plans to rest David West more so he won't be worn down at the end of the season. But those are measured improvements, not dramatic leaps. And there's always a chance they could get even worse. Chandler, aware that his $11.9 million salary next season and player option for $12.8 million in 2010-11 makes him prime trade bait, is resigned to the fact he could be moved. The Hornets wouldn't mind shedding the two years and $29 million left on Peja Stojakovic's contract, either.
Meanwhile, Paul sees the competition moving in the opposite direction.
As Paul says about the San Antonio Spurs, who added Jefferson and McDyess: "People say they're getting older; they're getting better."
In the Eastern Conference, "Boston got wayyyyy better," Paul said. "My boy B [Brandon] Bass went to Orlando, they got better. It's crazy."
Not to mention division rival Dallas bringing back Jason Kidd and adding Marion.
Even if New Orleans' starters are healthier next season, the team still lacks depth.
"We feel like with the addition of Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton we've gotten better, but we're still not done," Scott said. "We still need some frontcourt help. We need a couple more bigs."
Which makes the challenge even greater for Paul. The Nuggets threw big guards and traps at Paul in the playoffs, and the 6-foot point guard struggled to produce at the same level that sent him to his second All-Star Game. In the Hornets' five first-round games against Denver, his points, assists and shooting percentage went down and his turnovers went up.
Teams rarely win championships when their best players players are under 6-6. It hasn't been done since Isiah Thomas' "Bad Boy" Pistons won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. With Paul under contract for the next three seasons and a player option for a fourth, the Hornets have one of the best and most entertaining players in the league locked in until 2012. But it's up to the team to bring in the right pieces so he doesn't feel trapped like those Krypton prisoners in "Superman II."
"You've got to make sure that you get some other guys that can really help that guy," Scott said. "It's not a problem having your leader be 6-1, whatever the case may be. You go back to the years with the Bad Boys and Isiah -- Joe Dumars [6-3] wasn't that big either. That backcourt was an average of probably 6-1. But they won a couple of championships. They were surrounded by a bunch of guys that really understood their roles. Very talented guys, but they understood their roles, they did their roles every single night. We've got to get to that point where we get guys that can come in and do their roles on a night-to-night basis."
Paul is taking his own role more seriously than ever. He's lifting more weights as part of his workout, and he said he plans to continue lifting during the season so he can absorb more punishment. He's trying to eat healthier, too.
"Anytime I went out and got something, fries was always my side," he said. "I've been trying to switch to baked potatoes and things like that."
Does that mean no more trips to Café du Monde for beignets?
"I don't know about all that," he said. "I can still treat myself at times."
He should sprinkle in a few rewards in what's shaping up as another non-stop summer. Last year, it was winning a gold medal with the Redeem Team. This year, his twitter feed reads like "Where's Waldo": At Alonzo Mourning's Zo's Summer Groove charity function in Miami. At the NAACP 100th anniversary in New York. Off to meetings at Nike headquarters in Oregon. Still to come are basketball camps and his own charity golf event.
"I'm like, 'What are you not doing?'" Scott said.
Paul discussed the call he received from George Gervin confirming his participation in the golf tournament, prompting a pretty good impression of the Iceman and a round of stories marveling at how cool Gervin is. Scott remembered the time Gervin went for 40-plus on him without breaking a sweat, using all the shots in his arsenal (jumpers, hooks, finger rolls) while calmly letting Scott know "You can't get this" despite his best efforts to stop him.
We don't hear much about Gervin and his 1980s Spurs because they never made the NBA Finals. Could that be Paul's fate as well? He's the best little man of his time, able to control games as skillfully as he controls the ball. Watching him dribble is like watching a slick card dealer shuffle the deck. And Paul still hasn't hit his prime yet.
"I'm 24 right now, so I've got a little ways to go, I hope," Paul said. "We've got to win. I've been first-team All-NBA. I've been an All-Star, stuff like that. You can have all that if I can get my championship."
Hate to break it to Paul, but the upcoming season is looking like the conditions at a clearance sale: no exchanges.
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