- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com on Sunday that the league's fast-moving plans to take temporary control of the Hornets are going ahead "100 percent" and will be publicly confirmed within the next few days, mirroring what Major League Baseball did with the Montreal Expos before that franchise was sold and moved to the nation's capital as the Washington Nationals.
This unprecedented twist in the Hornets' roller-coaster history, beyond what it means for the franchise and its fans in New Orleans, is likely to revive leaguewide curiosity about Paul's future.
All-Star guard can become a free agent in the summer of 2012 and has been targeted for months by rival teams believing they could capitalize on New Orleans' unsettled ownership situation to pry him away, but the Hornets' surprising 11-1 start had just begun to hush the frenzy of speculation about their ability to keep him long-term.
Yet sources with knowledge of the arrangement's specifics insisted Sunday that Paul will not be dealt this season unless the Hornets' current management team wants to move him -- and it clearly does not. One source close to the situation added that the NBA's priority is ensuring that the Hornets remain as attractive as possible to potential buyers, which presumably means keeping Paul as the face of the franchise.
After the long-stalled sale of the Hornets from longtime owner George Shinn to minority partner Gary Chouest collapsed for good in recent days, NBA officials moved forward with their proposal to purchase operational control of the team. The reason that the NBA felt the need to take this Expos-style step for the first time, sources said, is that the cash-strapped Shinn can no longer afford to run the team but also can't find a buyer.
A formal announcement from the league, sources said, will come no later than Wednesday.
Sources say that the league's intention remains trying to find an owner who can be persuaded to keep the team in New Orleans, as part of NBA commissioner David Stern's longstanding determination to sustain pro basketball in the region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it inflicted.
Stern's pledge included keeping the 2009 All-Star Game in New Orleans, which turned out to be one of the league's more successful All-Star Weekends.
But the NBA is expected to make the strength of prospective ownership bids its highest priority -- and there are no guarantees that an incoming buyer would want to stay in one of the league's smallest markets. Stern is generally averse to franchise moves, but sources say Seattle, Kansas City and Anaheim are among the available markets of greatest interest to various league officials; Las Vegas has apparently slipped in the pecking order largely as a result of the recent economic downturn.
It can likewise be argued that the Hornets became an even more attractive property for potential buyers just in the past week, thanks to the disclosure that this season's attendance has dropped to the point that the Hornets are on pace to have the right to opt out of their lease with the state of Louisiana as early as March 1.
Sports Illustrated, which first reported that the league had presented the idea of taking temporary control of the Hornets at an NBA Board of Governors meeting in late October, reported Saturday on its website that Jac Sperling of the NHL's Minnesota Wild would serve as the league's representative in charge of overseeing Hornets operations and the sale of the team.
Yet sources say that Hornets president Hugh Weber will largely continue to run the organization and report to Sperling, who was born in New Orleans.
The league office and the Hornets have continued to decline requests for comment from ESPN.com since Friday.
The Hornets averaged just 13,826 fans through their first nine home games despite the team's better-than-expected November and attracted a crowd of 14,020 for Friday night's home loss to the New York Knicks.
The future of the Hornets has commanded strong interest throughout the league since Shinn's plans to sell the team to Chouest were revealed back in April, largely because Shinn's ongoing presence and limited financial resources are widely seen as factors that could prompt Paul to leave the only team he's ever played for when he's eligible for free agency.
Great local optimism initially greeted the news that Chouest would be taking over, but fears that his deal to buy out Shinn would collapse have been mounting for months because so much time has passed with almost nothing said publicly by either side about the state of the sale.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Friday that Chouest has indeed withdrawn his offer, saying that the Louisiana native -- whose primary business interests are in the offshore service industry -- no longer thinks he can devote the time needed to run an NBA team as well as his private company.
Shinn controversially moved the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season and the team was later forced to make Oklahoma City its home for two seasons in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The Times-Picayune reported earlier this week that the Hornets can opt out of their current lease with the state of Louisiana and might have the freedom to move yet again if they average less than 14,213 fans during a 13-game stretch of home dates between Dec. 1 and Jan. 17.
Amid the sale uncertainty, New Orleans has been trying for months to convince skeptics that Paul will not be made available to interested teams under any circumstances.
Numerous clubs besieged the Hornets with trade calls about Paul throughout last season, but external interest only increased after a June interview with ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard in which Paul said he wants to remain in New Orleans but would be "open to a trade" if the Hornets aren't trying to compete financially with the league's elite.
Weber responded with a housecleaning that led to the hiring of general manager Dell Demps from San Antonio to team with rookie coach and former Spurs teammate Monty Williams.
Through a series of aggressive trades, improved defense and with Williams and Paul bonding quickly, New Orleans followed up a painful preseason with a stunning 11-1 start.
"I've heard speculation since I've been in New Orleans," Williams said after a 109-84 loss to San Antonio on Sunday night. "It's not news to me."
Team officials have pointed to the $15 million in additional salaries that the Hornets have absorbed since Demps was hired July 21 as a sign that the team is on solid financial footing.
One source expressed confidence Sunday that the Hornets can continue to operate as normal while the league searches for a buyer, especially since the team's many moves since August have taken its payroll for the season nearly $4 million under the league's luxury-tax threshold.
Paul, though, has generally revealed little in the way of firm declarations about how the Hornets' brightened outlook affects his future plans. But he has acknowledged in numerous interviews he's excited by the team's new direction under Demps and Williams and frequently reiterates his fondness for New Orleans after establishing deep roots in the city.
"I'm excited about my teammates," Paul told ESPN.com on Nov. 15. "We've got a lot of guys on our team that are hungry. I think we're in a good spot right now."
Speaking after Sunday's loss, Paul was focused on the team's sixth loss in its last eight games rather than the unfolding front office saga.
"I'm trying to figure out how we got beat so bad right now by the Spurs," Paul said. "I control what I can control. That's how our team plays."
It was widely reported in early May that Shinn and Chouest had struck an agreement in principle for Chouest -- who possesses a 25 percent stake in the franchise -- to become majority owner. Delays were initially attributed to haggles over the final purchase price and Chouest's reported search for new minority investors to reduce his overall investment, but one source said Sunday that Chouest has pulled out of a presumed "done deal" with Shinn at least three times in recent months.
"During the summer we felt it was going one way, and I guess things started changing," David West said after tallying 13 points and five rebounds in Sunday's loss. "Who knows, it'll be an experience, I would imagine, for us, the coaching staff and all parties involved."
Shinn founded the Hornets in 1988 and announced last season that -- now in remission after being diagnosed with prostate cancer a year ago -- he was prepared to sell his majority stake. It's been a controversial two-decade run for Shinn with a franchise that moved away from its fervent followers in Charlotte largely because of the locals' distaste for the owner.
The Times-Picayune reported Monday that the Hornets would be free to relocate if the 14,735-fan benchmark is not reached for the 13 games specified, but actually leaving New Orleans would also require a $10 million exit penalty payable to the state and a formal notice to Louisiana no later than March 1, 2011.
Weber told the newspaper the franchise isn't looking to relocate again, saying: "We all know basketball can work in New Orleans. We've seen it work."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com on Sunday that the league's fast-moving plans to take temporary control of the Hornets are going ahead "100 percent" and will be publicly confirmed within the next few days.