Chris Paul may still choose to leave the Hornets, especially with so many unanswered questions raised by owner George Shinn's inability to sell the team and the Hornets' long-term viability in the small market of New Orleans. But there are more than a few reasons why he may stay with the Hornets beyond 2012, when he can exercise an option to become a free agent. Among them are:
Much is made of Paul's friendships with LeBron James and other rival stars, but nothing supersedes his bond with West, the Hornets' two-time All-Star at power forward.
"When decisions are made [on the team], everyone always says, 'It's [up to] Chris,'" said Paul. "But it's really up to me and D-West. I mean, D-West was here before I got here. You ask these guys on the team they'll be, like, 'C, what time do you want me to practice tomorrow?' I'll be like, 'D-West, what time do you want to practice tomorrow?' Because D-West is like my big brother, has always been."
"It would be hard for you to leave a relationship like that," I said.
"Yeah, yeah, that's my guy," said Paul. "Me and him, we got a lot invested in this." As Paul put it, in deference to West's eight years with the Hornets: "It's his team more than mine."
The blogs were filled with speculation that Paul had -- or would -- demand a trade out of New Orleans, so Williams backed off for a time. "I was trying to let it happen on his terms and let it happen naturally," said Williams. "The one thing that guys can recognize in this league is a fake. And if I try to get close to a guy so I can get a few wins, I'm not going to feel good about that -- he's going to know it, and sooner or later it's going to go to crap."
The two got to know each other better when Paul returned to New Orleans to begin his pre-camp training. Their conversations flowed out of those workouts and plans for the coming season. "The more I gave him space and let it happen naturally, the more we started to talk about basketball, the more we talked about family," said Williams. "Chris has a tight family. He doesn't need somebody else to be close to him. What I tried to do was to listen to him and understand where he's coming from so I can hear his heart. But we're still a work in progress."
Added Paul, "I think our team is like that. It's always been like that around here."
Paul is one of the league's most outgoing stars. He creates personal connections with teammates that have helped the Hornets (when healthy) to make the most of their talent. "He's one of the guys who feels like it's important to have relationships," said Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, who had his best NBA seasons while teaming with Paul from 2006-09. "He knows if you trust a guy, you're going to give him everything you got on the court."
Last week in Dallas, Chandler found himself of two minds while delivering the Hornets' first loss after an 8-0 start. "He did one of those famous throw the ball and jump into me things," said Chandler. "I tossed him off me, but there's a part of me that wants to turn around and grab him and pick him up. It's difficult to go against him because we were really close."
In the meantime, the Hornets have two years to convince him to stay, and they're off to an 11-3 start - the third-best record in the league -- through Thursday thanks to a younger and deeper roster, the defense-first approach of Williams and the recent trade for backup guard Jarrett Jack, who happens to be one of Paul's closest friends.
"Tony Parker is a really good friend of mine," said Paul. "When they beat us [in the second round of the 2008 playoffs], after Game 7 we didn't talk for about a week because I was kind of upset -- and he let me know about that, too, when I did get a chance to talk to him. But he was like, 'CP, man, you're about one guy away.' At the time, we could count on me and D-West to give us 25 and 25, but you've got to have that third scorer consistently. He was breaking it down to me with [the Spurs],where some nights him and Timmy [Duncan] would have it on, and if he didn't have it on, Manu [Ginobili] would pick it up."
The Hornets have a strong base around their two All-Stars, as well as strong defenders in small forward Trevor Ariza and center Emeka Okafor, and a roster of seven players (including Paul) who are 25 years or younger. It's not outrageous to imagine them being able to come up with an explosive shooting guard in the draft or trade for a scoring center who has underperformed elsewhere, especially with Paul's record for maxing out the talents of his teammates.
The Heat's 8-7 start is not about you, Pat Riley, and it's not about coach Erik Spoelstra. It's about players who look like they've given up already.
They took credit for putting themselves in Miami. They wanted to play together. Tell them they need to figure it out. Tell them to stop moping and start locking down the perimeter and creating deflections and steals and altered shots that can put them in transition, because once they're running, then the game will flow naturally. Tell them they can have their fun on offense if they put in their work on defense. Tell them if Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce could carry a team of role players to the Eastern Conference finals a few years ago, then this team in Miami should be sprinting to the Finals.
Here is what LeBron James said about winning championships when he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had their Mission Accomplished celebration after signing with Miami last summer: "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven. Hey, and when I say that when I say that, I really believe it. I'm not just up here blowing smoke at none of these fans, because that's not what I'm about. I'm about business. And we believe we can win multiple championships if we take care of business and do it the right way."
Riley, you know it's going this way in no small part because you publicly declared last summer you could take over as coach. But you know that isn't the answer now. This is not about you. This is about the team. Tell them you aren't firing anybody because the problem has nothing to do with coaching. Tell them to find the winner within, and don't enable them to blame others and create excuses. Be Pat Riley and inspire them.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson stuck it to Miami this week when he said, "Eventually these guys that were recruited -- Bosh and James -- by Pat Riley and Micky Arison, the owner, are going to come in and say, 'We feel you [Riley] can do a better job coaching the team.' ... It could be the Van Gundy thing all over again."
A lot of coaches didn't like to hear Jackson appearing to undercut Spoelstra. But aren't these same coaches urging their own players against fraternizing with players on rival teams?
So, it's OK if rival coaches view themselves as a group and look out for each other, but it's not OK if rival players do the same?
This is not about Jackson trying to mess with another coach. Instead this is about the Lakers trying to disrupt a rival team. Red Auerbach used to do the same provocative things on behalf of his Celtics in order to get underneath opponents' fingernails and wedge them up.
This was a funny, clever and altogether competitive way of trying to disrupt a rival contender. And if people in the league think the NBA would be better off without teams trying to mess with each other, then they couldn't be more wrong. Fans want to know that these teams want to beat each other badly.
Union chief Billy Hunter said the right thing for the NBA players this week when he predicted a 99 percent chance of a lockout after the season. He was criticized for appearing to give up on the labor negotiations prematurely, but his statement wasn't aimed at the owners on the other side of the table. He needs to convince the players to put money away because he knows the owners' lockout strategy will be to hold out until the players run out of money and they're forced to accept the owners' terms in order to receive the next paycheck. He is trying to negate that strategy.
"This summer, I tried to not get out of shape so I ran consistently. By the ninth or 10th of August I started really ramping it up and hitting the health club and treadmilling it.
"I'll go to the gym at 7:30 in the morning and stretch. I'll split my days between upper body and lower body. Say it's an upper body day: I'll do bench press, curls, shoulder lifts, and I have a routine for pushups.
After I lift, I do my cardio, so I get on the elliptical for 30 minutes, and then I get on the treadmill and I run for 10 minutes on the treadmill and then I take it up. I start at level 7.5 and then after 10 minutes, I increase it to nine and then I get to 10. Then I'll increase it to 11 and every 30 seconds I'll increase it by _ notch -- 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. I do 10 of those sets, so the treadmill gets up to level 14 and I'll run for 30 seconds and get off for 30 seconds, to the point where I'm dying. But it's a great feeling once I finish. It's a great feeling.
"So on Mondays, I do upper body, on Tuesdays I do lower and Wednesdays I spin -- spin class is at 9:15 a.m. -- and then on Thursdays and Fridays I'll do what I did Monday and Tuesday. Then on Saturday I'll go to the track and run a mile, and then do 10 sprints. I'll run the 100 meters of the track and walk to the corners, and do 10 of those.
"I hope that I'm an example -- not only for my teammates but for the kids who watch and even the guys who I play against. Because the one thing I remember is the example that Michael Jordan set for me, the example that Reggie Miller set for me. When I saw them on TV at press conferences, they always had a suit and tie on, and me and my brothers always used to be thrilled to see what they were wearing. And that just made me feel so good about myself, because these were black men who I could aspire to be like and who were such great role models, whether they realized it or not.
"Somebody's watching you at all times, and I think we've lost that, where a generation now thinks that it's too stuffy or it's too corporate or whatever it may be.
"Kids nowadays are not in great shape, and that applies not only to athletes, but all our young generation. We've gotten lazier. Hopefully, people know and understand about being in better shape. My son has diabetes, and that's an aspect of our world -- we've got to eat better and help him eat better. There are people in the world that we kind of get mad with because [they have] Type 2 diabetes, and those are people who have control over having diabetes. They have to take control over what they eat and their lifestyles. My son didn't have a choice. So it's like we want people to make better choices."
"In the NBA the regular season is a joke. It's a theatre -- they don't play defense because they play seven games in 12 days, they play back-to-back games. In Europe it's completely different. If you lose the exhibition game in Europe, they may fire the coach; if they lose a friendly game, they fire the players. Every game is like a war and you have to play hard.
"It is a very different organization in the NBA -- they travel with the private jet, they stay at the best hotels, they have unbelievable comfort. In Europe, you have to share a room with somebody, you have to travel economy class and go to the airport and wait a long time. Everything is so different over there. It's a different lifestyle. When Iverson went over there, the first day he went to a couple restaurants and he didn't like the Turkish food, so he ordered something from McDonalds.
"At the same time, Iverson needs a team like this, because Besiktas has a very soft coach. He's a players' coach, and they have crazy fans -- they support the players a lot but the players have to do something. Iverson will have to do something. Everyone can love him and it is there if he wants it."
"People like to follow cool people," he said, jokingly. "But I don't know why. I ask this question every time I go on Twitter -- I have no idea. I wasn't paying attention to it, and then one of my teammates last year told me I had that many followers. They come from all over the place -- I've got a good bunch from China to Australia to back here [in the U.S.] to a little bit of everywhere in Europe."
It says everything about the size of the world and the popularity of the NBA that Petro has so many followers. Even he cannot believe the life he now lives. As a teenager in France, he used to wonder and worry about the NBA.
"I was scared go to it," he said. "But now it's just a blessing. Every day in life you're waking up and go do what you love to do. Whatever you're taught about the NBA, it's got nothing to do with what the reality is. It is 10 times better than anything else. I had no idea."
Petro was born in Paris. At 13, his parents convinced him to begin playing basketball. "I was getting really tall and I had to do some type of activities," he said. "I always thought the NBA was inaccessible for me because I was from overseas. So it came late when I saw the scouts coming. It was when I was 17."
Less than two years after he began to dream -- and worry -- he found himself starting 41 games as a rookie for the Seattle SuperSonics, who had picked him at No. 25 in the first round of 2005 draft. He moved with the franchise to Oklahoma City and was traded to Denver in time to help the Nuggets reach the 2009 Western Conference finals. Last summer, he signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Nets.
How long will he play in the NBA? "As long as possible."
Where will he live when he retires? "Probably between here," he said of the U.S., "and home, probably in the south [of France], St. Tropez or Nice -- somewhere nice."
He spoke of improving every day and establishing himself as a long-term center in the NBA. He spoke of someday having children who will grow up on both sides of the ocean and learn to speak five languages. Nothing is as he imagined it would be. He doesn't worry so much anymore.