Thursday, July 22, 2010
The Hornets feel the pressure
By Henry Abbott
Chris Paul, according to reports, would like to be traded.
These things happen sometimes.
If you're the Hornets, do you really have to listen to his demands?
It has to be tempting to just cross your fingers and hope the whole thing will go away. He's under contract! In two years, when he's due to be a free agent, NBA rules will almost certainly let the Hornets pay Paul more than any other team can.
That might be more than enough time for new coach Monty Williams, new GM Dell Demps, and rumored incoming new owner Gary Chouest to work their magic. Not to mention, the team has already cleaned up a lot of roster issues. Bad contracts like Peja Stojakovic's will be gone next season, and there is now some meaningful young talent (hello, Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison!) on the squad.
So just ignore him, much like the Lakers did to Kobe Bryant a few years ago. They got him some help, and everyone, more or less, forgets the whole thing ever happened.
That is certainly one way to play it.
There are some problems with that, however.
The first is what just happened to the Cavaliers, Raptors and Suns. They just felt the full brunt of superstars eager to find another team. Free agency power is mighty power indeed. If Paul is in the mood to exercise his power similarly, this could be a long and painful next couple of years.
A more pragmatic reality is that Hornets are a middling team who, league sources say, have been calling around looking to dump salary. There are a lot of different stories you can use to rally your fanbase -- good ones include: we're young and growing, we're fun to watch, or we're contenders.
A less compelling story: We're on the playoff bubble, and likely to stay there. In other words, it's entirely possible they won't be exciting in the playoffs nor the draft.
There have traditionally been two ways out of that purgatory: To go cheap, by trading away big contracts and amassing draft picks and cap space, or to go expensive -- like the Celtics did -- by bringing on big-money players in their prime.
It does not seem likely that the Hornets are about to go the expensive route.
Which means that, as a business, they'll have a sales job to do. The ownership needs to sell the ticket-buying public, sponsors, even coaches and players, on the idea that they have a real plan in place.
The whole pitch becomes nearly impossible if the eye of the storm -- the one superstar in the building -- is on record as not wanting to be there.
Businesses make or lose money based on percentage points here or there. A dispirited superstar won't shut the place down or anything, but it saps everybody's ability to believe in the big picture plan, which is more than enough to drag a team from a good business position to a bad one.
And that's why the Hornets are in a very different position than the Lakers were. The Lakers are The Lakers! One of the more revered team brands in sports. They make money come rain or shine, and it almost never rains in L.A. anyway. They can play chicken with a player like Kobe Bryant and make a credible case that he is not their only route to success.
In New Orleans, the power imbalance tips in favor of the player. The Hornets have a rookie coach, a rookie GM, a small market and an owner with one foot out the door. Paul is far and away the best thing the Hornets have going for them, which gives him leverage other players in his position wouldn't have.
That's why league sources with knowledge of the situation say they think the most likely situation is that at some point Paul will be traded. And in that case, the team would be expected to ask for the pieces to fuel a money-saving rebuild: Expiring contracts, draft picks and affordable young players. That way, the team could sell fans on the future, cut expenses all while keeping hope alive for the long-term.
The one thing that could change that analysis is if the team is indeed on the open market. A long-discussed transfer of majority assets from George Shinn to Chouest has been in a holding pattern. If that sale were to fall apart, and Shinn were to find himself marketing the team to a new crop of buyers, having Paul on the roster -- disgruntled or not -- would increase the value dramatically. That's because a deep-pocketed owner in the mold of Mikhail Prokhorov may be ready to buy a team with Paul, to surround him with expensive free agents and players in their primes. Paul may want to play for someone like that, too. But that same owner may not have any interest in a team with no superstars.
The final analysis, based on conversations with two people close to the situation: Expect Paul to be traded at some point, unless the team is truly on the open market, in which case expect him to stay in New Orleans at least until the team is sold.