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Hornets' boast new outlook, style

For the past two months, everyone's been speculating on Carmelo Anthony's short-term future in Denver, but what of Chris Paul's outlook with the Hornets? They are 6-0 after upending the Miami Heat's Big Three last Friday and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, and the most impressive stat of the Hornets' fast start is Paul's minutes -- he's down to 35 per game, an early career-low pace.

This reflects the larger plan to lessen Paul's burden, a further sign that being The Man isn't all it's cracked up to be. When James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh went to Miami, all three openly looked forward to taking pressure off one another and not having to carry his team play after play after play. Paul feels the same way about the new Hornets schemes at both ends of the floor.

"If we come out and run our game plan, we have a chance to win every game," Paul said. "Definitely, this is the best defensive team we've had since I've been here."

By taking the ball out of his point guard's hands on occasion, 39-year-old rookie coach Monty Williams hasn't been looking to reduce Paul's role but rather to enhance it.

"I don't want him to give up his game to fit what I'm trying to do," Williams said. "I'm trying to get teams not to key in on him so much -- so he gets rid of it and gets it back and [then] he goes to work.

"He has to give it up, then somebody has to go free him up [with a screen] so he can get it back. The last thing I want to do is run an offense where he doesn't have the ball. But we also need to get other guys involved, and I think he's at a point in his career -- all those guys are -- where they realize they can't do it by themselves."

Williams and 40-year-old GM Dell Demps (who was hired in July, six weeks after Williams had been recruited to coach the Hornets) have been working frenetically to improve the franchise around Paul since he declared last June that he would be open to a trade if New Orleans isn't able to contend for championships. The Hornets upgraded their weight room, locker room and training room, and are on the verge of breaking ground on a new practice facility. They also turned over the basketball office, bringing on 24 new employees while keeping only four from the previous administration. Most of the hires are on the young side, imbuing the Hornets with newfound energy while keeping the payroll tight.

"More than anything, it gives you new information and different perspectives," All-Star power forward David West said. "We knew things were go to operate a little differently."

Demps has made five trades to bring in nine players in pursuit of a deeper bench, and so far, the Hornets have been winning with a rotation of 10 to 11 men. The need for fresh legs goes with Williams' promise to emphasize defense as a way to ignite Paul on the break.

"He's trying to change the culture in terms of how we think about defense and how we approach the game," West said during the preseason. "All we're practicing is defense."

Through Nov. 7, Paul (18.7 point per game) has looked strong after undergoing left knee surgery and missing 37 games last season. He is shooting 50.6 percent (his career best is 50.3) and has a 10.2-to-1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. West is shooting 54.9 percent for his 18.3 points. The career of Italian shooter Marco Belinelli (11.0 points per game) has been salvaged, while defensive small forward Trevor Ariza is second in minutes with 33.5 per game.

Paul was unhappy with the firing of coach Byron Scott following a 3-6 start 12 months ago, but he has been on board with the organizational changes and is no longer talking about wanting to leave New Orleans. After a preseason practice last month, he pointed to his teammates out on the court doing individual work with the coaches.

"The biggest thing you see right now is practice is over and guys are still out here working," he said. "We didn't used to have that too much, but now guys are out here getting extra shots and working hard after practice."

But the issue of Paul's future hasn't been locked down. He is going to continue to keep pressure on the franchise to build a contender. When I asked if the upcoming collective bargaining agreement -- expected to enable small markets like New Orleans to compete with the richer franchises after this season -- will help arrest the Hornets' decline of the last two years, Paul was noncommital.

"It may," he said. "I don't think about that too much when it comes to that luxury-tax stuff. I think it's got to be about [being] efficient. At the end of the day, players are going to play. It doesn't matter if you're going to be over the luxury tax or not -- you've still got to compete."

No excuses will be accepted. The Hornets needed a strong start to create a positive attitude around the new program, but it isn't taking pressure off anyone. They aren't going to win a championship this year, but they must show they're on track to build a contender when the CBA rules turn their way next summer, or whenever the lockout comes to end.

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The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.

"What should I do? Should I be who you want me to be?"-- L.J., Miami

People want you to win, LeBron, and that's all there is to it. There has been an awful lot of talk based on your promise to win championships -- a promise I believe you'll fulfill -- but all the speculation and hype generated over you the last couple of years has turned itself suddenly into a high-interest, underwater mortgage. Now people want you to pay off that mortgage. Others have been asked to pay off mortgages in recent years -- Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Peyton Manning, Phil Mickelson -- so it's not like you're working new ground.

Once the IOUs have been fulfilled and the red ink has turned to black, then it's going to be hard for people to remember that you were ever in debt to begin with. All of a sudden, your credit will be good everywhere. In the meantime, that Nike commercial is your complicated response to a question that cannot be answered instantly.

Q: "What should you do?"

A: Win a championship.

Q: "Should I be who you want me to be?"

A: I think the answer is yes, in that both you and the public want to see you win a ring already. Unfortunately for you, that's not going to happen for another seven months, and if the Lakers are healthy, I think you'll need even more time than that.

"Why does every [expletive] guy ask me about my [expletive] knee? Stop worrying about my [expletive] knee. I don't give a [expletive] what Phil Jackson says, leave me alone about my [expletive] knee."-- K.B., Los Angeles

Have you ever noticed how often Kobe Bryant curses in public these days? He never used to swear during interviews, but now he does so routinely. Ever since he won the first championship without Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant has been more willing to let people see him for who he really is, and it hasn't always been pretty. He says some crass things at times, but if you don't like it, that's your problem. The freedom of not caring what people think appears to have liberated him.

The truth is that Bryant's knee is one of the biggest stories of this season. If his knee and index shooting finger are healthy, the Lakers will be prohibitive favorites to win a third straight championship. But if anything is wrong with Kobe, everything could go wrong for the Lakers. Opponents, fans, Jackson, media -- everyone will be watching for signs, good and bad, about the state of his knee.

"So I like to wear women's clothing on occasion. What is the big deal? It is the differences in us that make life interesting."-- S.O., Boston

For the first time in his 19-year career, Shaq is the underdog. Where others see a gauntlet that he can't possibly navigate, he sees the potential for a parade. Beat LeBron and Dwyane Wade in the conference finals, then beat Kobe in the Finals. These are the three greatest players he has ever teamed with (apart from Karl Malone, of course) and the league's oldest player has given himself a chance to have the last laugh against all of them. And if he loses, well, he wasn't supposed to win anyway.

As for Shaq's choice of costume for Halloween, I give him credit for daring to show so much shoulder.

How to conduct the national anthem.

This is from conductor Keith Lockhart, who led his Boston Pops orchestra onto center court before the Celtics' opening-night win over the Heat last week.

"The Pops is an orchestra founded on celebrations and unique get-togethers far outside of the concert hall. People know us for playing for 800,000 people each July 4 on a little thin strip of parkland under whatever weather conditions God has prepared for us that day. Compared to that, this was a walk in the park, and we've done other big sporting events -- the 2002 Super Bowl, Fenway lots of times, the Revolution, the Bruins. It's a short-order-cook sort of job.

"The practicality of it is that you have 45 seconds to get the mics out and get the people on the court to perform. This game was a big deal against the dreaded Miami Heat, so we actually came in about 5 o'clock for a sound check. Then we played the audio through in one of the players' locker rooms. The biggest hazard during the warmup was that you had both teams on the floor, and every time someone missed a shot, a stray basketball might come perilously close to hitting a French horn.

"It's very tumultuous down there at the middle of the court. There is an incredible amount of noise, and then it abates somewhat when you start. And then it becomes a focus job for a minute and 15 seconds.

"The Pops is a different kind of orchestra. It's part of our job to connect to everyday life, to things that our audience connects with. I'm not at all trying to diss the purist class -- the music of Beethoven and Brahms and Mahler that all of us were weaned on and that we still play. But our job is to connect to pop culture, and what is more popular than sports?

"It was great to go to a game like that and, afterward, walk into the crowd and get high-fived by the fans. We had great seats, courtesy of the Celtics, 12 to 15 rows back, dead-center court, and my wife joined me and we stayed into the third period.

"I like the Celtics' chances to be back to the Finals in June. I hope they make it back -- we'd like to be back."

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"I lived for six years in Europe and went to a lot of basketball games," I was saying recently to Andrew Bogut. "When I came back home ..."

"You missed it?" he said.

"Yes," I told him. "The games are so quiet here."

Of course, that isn't true exactly. The NBA arenas are incomprehensibly noisy, but most of the noise is artificial. It comes out of loudspeakers via music or video clips.

What I meant to say is that the fans are relatively quiet. Apart from cheering for a basket or a blocked shot, there is very little coherent sound coming from the fans in NBA arenas.

In Europe, the mood is entirely different. The fans chant and sing and generate their own entertainment. The most passionate supporters in Europe don't want to be entertained by the players -- they aim instead to inspire the team while enjoying themselves. That's why Bogut last year introduced Squad 6 -- named after his uniform number in Milwaukee -- for which he purchased a block of 100 season tickets to be dispensed among the noisiest fans.

"There are a lot of people out there who can't afford tickets who would love to get to a game, so I give them the opportunity," Bogut said. "All they have to do to repay that is to cheer and be loud.

"They sing songs about players during the game. They sang Dude Looks Like a Lady for Joakim Noah last year. They did Love Stinks for Kevin Love, and at the end of the games they do the 'Ole', ole'-ole'-ole' song. They do the Seven Nations Army song at the start of every fourth quarter. I think they'll have some more stuff coming out this year."

The initiative was so successful last year that Bogut picked it up again this year, though he realizes he can't replicate the European climate because the NBA doesn't permit the drummers who provide a backbeat and inspire the larger crowd to sing along.

"David Stern has outlawed that because I guess too many sponsors don't want to hear the drums," Bogut said. "There are differing opinions on it, but that's just the way the league is. The rule book is getting thicker and thicker."

Bogut's experiment makes me wonder how the league may eventually be influenced by Stern's recently renewed promise to install a division of five NBA teams in Europe within the decade. I've always worried that the NBA would rob Europe of its passion by pricing out the most sincere supporters and drumming out the drummers, but what if some of the creativity and exuberance of European basketball happened to rub off on the NBA? Some of the stale arenas over here could benefit from the inspiration.

Bogut said the Bucks discussed moving Squad 6 to another section of the arena this season before he had them reinstated in the lower bowl across the court facing the Milwaukee bench.

"I'm probably the biggest-spending season-ticket holder," he said. "I have a bit of a say, so we moved them back to where they belong."

Bogut's ultimate goal is to see his section of fans leading the entire arena in cheers someday.

"That would be great," he said. "If I moved on from Milwaukee, there would be nothing better than to come back here and still see them around. That's my goal: I'd love to see it actually become a fan club. It's really, really important."

From an NBA advance scout. I was suggesting that LeBron James might emerge as the Magic Johnson of his era when the scout interrupted me:

"The difference between LeBron and Magic Johnson is that Magic was all about his teammates, and he stepped up when he was needed. LeBron has talked about doing that, but when you look back at Cleveland's games the last few years, it was all about him. When you know what they were trying to do as a team and LeBron was questioning the coach, and Mike Brown was saying, 'OK, LeBron, we'll do it your way' ... what ended up happening was that Mike Brown was always deferring to LeBron. And then when it didn't work, who took the blame? It wasn't LeBron.

"I used to see the same things with Dominique Wilkins. He had some of the greatest head-to-head battles with Michael Jordan or with Larry Bird, but you know whose team came out ahead. So I guess then Dominique should have called up Michael Jordan and said, 'How about if I come to Chicago?' And Jordan would have said, 'You know what, we've got a pretty good three-man here already.' And Larry Bird would have said, 'I don't know where you're going to play.' "

It's amazing to me how many people around the league are down on James -- and they will remain negative until he begins to win championships.

From Celtics coach Doc Rivers. He was blunt when asked about Shaq's pick-and-roll defense:

"When you have Shaq, that's a work in progress for the year. We knew that coming into it. When we played against Shaq, we wanted him on the floor so we could run the pick-and-roll. Now that he's on our team, opponents are going to run the pick-and-roll and they're going to send shooters off his side because he can't show. We worked on it, and instead of me thinking I'm smarter than anybody else -- I'm not, and Shaq is never going to be a great guy in the pick-and-roll showing -- we just put the onus on the guards. If the guards can get over the screen and channel them to Shaq so he can stay in the paint, then we're good. And if they don't, if they get picked off and opponents are allowed to attack Shaq, then that's going to hurt us. Us being a defensive team, that's the biggest concern -- bigger than any of our other concerns."

Only five players from the '07 class -- Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley and Jared Dudley -- were signed to contract extensions by the deadline this week, mainly because most teams prefer to re-sign them under the less-costly terms of the new collective bargaining agreement next year. But does it also have something to do with the strength of the class itself?

I've gone back and reorganized that draft based on current knowledge. I'm sure I'll receive letters of protest, but let me warn you: It's not easy to rate a lot of these players even now.

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