Chris Paul is a happy Hornet ... for now
NEW ORLEANS -- As he soaked in his last afternoon of summer freedom, watching Saints-Falcons from his buddy Reggie Bush's Superdome suite, there was only one kind of commotion buzzing in Chris Paul's face.
That would be the whirlwind known as Paul's fast-moving toddler son.
The tempest surrounding Paul's future with the New Orleans Hornets has calmed considerably over the past two months. Which means that taking questions while 16-month-old Chris II paws at his nose is about as frenzied as it gets these days.
It appeared that Paul, back in late July, would be where Carmelo Anthony is now, seeing and hearing his future dissected daily as this season's answer to last season's LeBron-a-thon. Then Paul met face-to-face with his new coach and new general manager, publicly pledged to support Monty Williams and Dell Demps in their attempts to rebuild the Hornets around him and has not wavered from that declaration despite suspicions that won't go away that he wants to be elsewhere.
"It's been funny," Paul said during a brief sit-down during the Saints' overtime loss to their division rivals. "It's been funny to hear all the different things.
"You hear people say this, you hear people say that. For me, I know who I am. I've heard people question my character and my loyalty and stuff like that. The thing that I've learned is [I've] got to be who I am. At the end of the day you can't worry about what everybody's saying about you."
It has helped Paul that the entire league, since mid-August, has been engulfed by the constant coverage of Anthony's tenuous future in Denver, shifting the focus away from Paul speculation that began to bubble after an interview with ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard in June in which the 25-year-old, for the first time, said he'd be open to a trade if the Hornets were not committed to spending what it takes to climb back into the Western Conference elite.
The fact Paul's free-agent summer is two years away -- unlike Anthony's looming free agency in 2011 -- has had an obvious impact, as well. The Nuggets have to seriously explore trading away their franchise player because they know Anthony could walk away from them as soon as July, whereas the Hornets won't face the same urgency until next fall.
Yet you get the sense, even after just a few minutes watching Paul mix with the locals inside a New Orleans institution, that he's prepared to give his bosses an opportunity to change the culture of the Hornets like Demps and Williams -- proud graduates of the San Antonio Spurs' executive training program -- say they will.
Maybe that's more because of Paul's unquestioned love for the city than any bond with the Hornets. He's often credited with saving NBA basketball in the region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and just re-illustrated his commitment to the community by launching an after-school program -- with transportation provided -- to get more New Orleans youngsters more fit and active.
Or maybe it's because he knows, deep down, that he doesn't have Melo's hammer with his opt-out clause not available until 2012.
Either way, Paul has the same answer no matter how you try to ask it: This is where I'm going to be.
"This city here, I love it," Paul said. "And I don't just say that. If somebody's listening and we're just talking one-on-one, they know how I feel about being here and the way this city has uplifted and embraced me.
"If anybody was predicting," Paul continued about the team, "I'd have a question mark beside us right now. It's a lot of new names, a lot of new faces. We've still got to get to know each other. But I'm excited to see what we can do. "
"Right now I know he's happy," Hornets guard Jannero Pargo, one of Paul's closest friends, told local reporters at media day. "He loves this town and the city loves him. This is where he wants to be and he's happy right now.
"The fact that I'm here means he's happy and we feel like this team can win. You can read into that and say that because we're really good friends and we play well together and we want to try to get this team back to the where it was before I left."
Pargo might be overstating the impact of his arrival just a bit, especially since he's just starting to play at full speed again after suffering a knee injury during the summer. But he didn't land with the Hornets by accident after an agreement with Golden State earlier this summer collapsed.
Well aware that so many of Paul's close friends with the Hornets had been exiled -- Tyson Chandler, James Posey and Bobby Jackson chief among them -- New Orleans targeted Pargo as an ideal addition to increase Paul's comfort level. It's no exaggeration to say that few players on a minimum contract figure to be as important to their teams as does Pargo, who's actually been living at Paul's place since signing with the Hornets last week.
The Hornets' marquee offseason additions have likewise won Paul's fast approval. Paul didn't know Trevor Ariza well before Demps acquired the former Lakers swingman from Houston in his first major deal on Aug. 11, but they've bonded quickly after a glowing scouting report Paul received from another former Hornet -- Bobby Brown -- who played high school ball with Ariza.
"I'm already a fan of his," Paul said of Ariza, "just the way he talks about winning."
As for Williams, who will be the NBA's youngest coach at 38, Paul's view seems to validate the belief of some in the organization that those two would establish a faster connection than Paul and eventual Chicago hire Tom Thibodeau, who was offered the job before Williams when Jeff Bower was still New Orleans' GM.
"Monty's an unbelievable guy," Paul said. "With him, even though basketball has a huge part to do with it, I respect him as a man. I think any time you can respect a guy on both a basketball level and respect him as a person, then he's got to be doing some things right."
Demps knows, though, that the roster needs at least one more player closer to Paul's talent zip code before the Hornets can start thinking about a return to contention in the West. And rival executives say he's certainly been trying.
Few GMs, according to NBA front-office sources, have pursued deals with Demps' fervor over the past month, with Peja Stojakovic's $14.3 million expiring contract serving as his primary trade chip.
Schooled in that buttoned-up Spurs system, Demps doesn't give much away when probed about his personnel plans. But if he's worried about his ability to keep Paul happy, there are no visible signs.
"As far as we're concerned, Chris is going to be here," Demps said this week. "I think Chris has been engaged, I think we have a good team here and I think Chris is going to be a big part of it. We hope he's going to be here for a long time."
The easy/fantasy solution, of course, would be for the Hornets to make David West and Marcus Thornton available with Stojakovic to try to assemble the winning multiteam trade that convinces the Nuggets -- and Anthony -- that New Orleans is Melo's most sensible destination. One source close to the situation confirmed to ESPN.com that word has indeed been transmitted from Paul to Anthony that teaming up in the Bayou might be the solution for both of them.
Yet that was one of the subjects that Paul, during Sunday's 15-minute chat, waved off. Paul passed on the invitation to elaborate on the toast he gave at Anthony's July 11 wedding where, according to an Aug. 16 report from ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher, he "playfully" suggested that Melo leave Denver for the New York Knicks to join new Knicks signee Amare Stoudemire. He declined to speculate about Anthony's eventual landing spot or the Hornets' chances of getting in the mix. Paul swore that he's "not envious" about the star trio James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have assembled in Miami ... and had little to say in response to speculation that his summer switch of agents -- from Jeff Austin and Lance Young at Octagon to Leon Rose at CAA -- was made with the hope that CAA could help him form a star trio of his own.
"It was just time," Paul said three times.
He also said he doesn't know much about the status of New Orleans' stalled sale from longtime owner George Shinn to minority owner Gary Chouest -- which sources close to the situation insist could still go through -- and insists that he doesn't plan on asking for updates despite the fact a Chouest takeover has been billed as a game-changer for the historically thrifty Hornets.
"I control what I can control," Paul said.
Which is why he's prone to steer the conversation back to his health, which is priority No. 1 after knee, ankle and hand injuries knocked Paul out of 37 games last season.
"I'm feeling good," Paul said. "I cannot wait. I've been doing stuff with my knee and weight training since July. I'm ready to go. I'm ready to go."
So that means that the surgically repaired left knee is 100 percent?
"It means that I'm ready to go," Paul said.
Rest assured everyone in the organization knows what a slow start would mean, too. In these idyllic first days of camp and with most of the league's executives and observers consumed by the Melo drama in Denver, Paul's future doesn't come up very often. Not yet, anyway.
Yet if the Hornets struggle early, only that big trade management craves is likely to keep things as calm around CP3 as they are right now.
"Yeah, it's a story," Paul said when asked if he has come to accept the fact the interest in whether he stays or goes with the Hornets is only going to keep growing.
"It's a story. But at the end of the day, I'm going to go out and play, I'm going to go out and compete. It's not about who's in the paper and what story they're talking about.
"More than all the other stories that [were] taking place, I was fighting with myself mentally all summer just because I know where I want to be ... and by that I mean physically. I was more concentrating on getting myself back on the court so I could compete the way that I wanted to.
"It's like I'm a rookie again, like I'm starting over."