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Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Updated: October 14, 5:18 PM ET
Can Hornets keep Chris Paul happy?

By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com

Chris Paul
Chris Paul was able to catch up with old friends LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on Wednesday night.

NEW ORLEANS -- Believing his team had failed to provide a basic necessity to be at his competitive best, Chris Paul quickly grew agitated, slapped his hands together and walked along the side of the scorers' table until he reached Miami Heat territory.

Needless to say, the New Orleans Hornets' star point guard saw precisely what he wanted, grabbed exactly what he needed and walked away satisfied with his stash. It was LeBron James' rosin supply, the bottle he uses to shake powder into his hands and dramatically toss the puff of smoke into the air before games.

James rested his sore hamstring Wednesday and wouldn't be a factor on the court. Yet there was some LeBron-induced irony before the start of the Hornets-Heat preseason game at New Orleans Arena. Fact is, the Hornets had a bottle of powder at the edge of the table near their bench.

But Paul's view was blocked. He didn't realize it was there. So he bolted the opposite way. And yet again, to get what he wanted, Paul gravitated toward LeBron's way of doing things.

If the Hornets are lucky, daring, smart and a dollar more generous than dirt cheap -- characteristics, frankly, the franchise hasn't always shown recently -- it very well could be one of the last times CP3 emulates LBJ on or off the court. At least that's the plan.

"He's a once-in-a-lifetime point guard," said Hornets coach Monty Williams, whose first-season priority is as much to bond with Paul as it is to win games. "We don't take him for granted."

But the Hornets must take Paul's pride seriously.

Things apparently have been smoothed over from Paul's trade demand this summer -- one that really was more like a trade request that ended up essentially being a willingness to be dealt if the franchise wasn't committed to contending immediately.

The Hornets are still cleaning up the sewage from that summer of disconnect, if not discontent, with Paul, who has said all the right things about wanting to stay in New Orleans and deliver a championship. But he also ditched his agent to sign with LeBron's marketing crew and his Sopranos-like power-broker agents, Leon Rose and William Wesley.

What does it all mean?

It means that even a humble, highly likable, soft-spoken, image-conscious guy such as Paul is capable of going from Crescent City committed to Carmelo as quickly as he leads a fast break.

It means he can go from locally loyal for the long term to LeBron in the time it takes that pregame rosin powder to rise. It means that, although Paul still has two seasons left on his contract, he could privately push for his way out of town if there's not enough evidence of an immediate turnaround this season.

Publicly, Paul shies away from that possibility right now and instead takes a businesslike demeanor with this fledgling project, one capable of sputtering through a 54-point loss one night in Orlando and showing growth in a home victory over the Heat.

"If we commit to each other and buy in, we can do something good here," Paul said. "On paper, there are obviously going to be teams … much better than us, but I still think things can come together here and that we'll be fine."

Paul didn't come right out and say it, but his actions and demeanor spoke volumes in the moments after Wednesday's game. He sees the potential for hope in his Hornets. He sees the evidence of happiness in the Heat. And he was eager to join in as he rushed through postgame interviews to meet up with James and Wade, who were waiting outside near the Hornets' locker room.

What followed were 25 minutes of jokes, laughter, hugs, fist pounding, more jokes and another round of laughter. That's an every-night reality in Miami, where free agency allowed tight friends and top talents to team up in the NBA's toy department.

"That's what everybody wants to do," Williams said of the mood Miami's makeover set in some league circles. "Nobody wants to admit they're jealous. That's just the bottom line. Everybody is jealous. They wish they could have gotten two more stars. They couldn't. What Miami did was legal. Let's admit it."

Meanwhile, the Hornets are working to convince Paul that he can be the long-term centerpiece of their revival. It's not South Beach. But there can be some good ball played on the bayou.

Yet there are also major obstacles. That Peja Stojakovic contract has stung the Hornets for years. But relief comes with his expiring $15 million deal, one that could be attractive in a midseason trade. David West, an All-Star two seasons ago, earns $7 million this season and has an opt-out clause next summer.

Should Denver get desperate and be forced to deal Carmelo Anthony, are there many better deals out there than one that would send back a whatever-works combination of Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, West or Stojakovic, and a future draft pick?

Any roster that starts with Paul and Anthony is immediately in the race for second place in the West behind the Lakers. Of course, Carmelo would have to be willing to come -- and potentially re-sign, and Paul would have to think extension.

The Hornets just have to be relentless in their work these next eight months. There are already signs that the incoming ownership group is willing to invest in the team. The practice facility and areas inside New Orleans Arena have been spruced up.

New general manager Dell Demps has made three trades in as many months on the job. There is activity on the home front.

LeBron didn't exactly help Paul's cause in New Orleans when he used his Twitter account to say that Paul should do what's best for Paul and his family, a tweet that came amid all the turmoil.

At the time, it seemed as though James was placing a supportive wedge between Paul and the Hornets. But entering Wednesday's game, James was a bit easier on Paul's situation in the Big Easy.

"We definitely got a close -- very, very close -- bond," James said. "The situation in New Orleans is good. It's great. He's happy at this point. I can only wish him the best. It's a great city for him to be in. I wish him the best for this season and see what happens."

Ninety percent of that quote from James was harmless. But then there's that "see what happens" part that sparks intrigue.

If the Heat's visit to the Crescent City held any significance beyond a meaningless exhibition, it served as a stiff reminder to Paul and the Hornets that there's a talent gap between what CP3 wants and what he currently has to work with here.

As deep as their friendship is, Paul can grow only by becoming more of his own man and less of LeBron's "little brother." You can't fault Paul for clearly wanting a slice of what the Heat have in a star-studded roster that took a shortcut to championship contention.

But Paul's best path to pairing with another star or two should first begin by forever ditching the diva act he pulled over the summer and establishing roots in New Orleans, where a new coach, a new, proactive front office and even new carpet in the Hornets locker room are in place for his comfort.

Still, it had to be difficult for Paul to look across the court as the teams lined up for the national anthem and fix his hazel-brown eyes on the Heat without a hint of envy. Standing 50 feet away, James and Wade were the picture of poise, pride and championship promise after pulling off that unifying act in the biggest free-agency heist in NBA history this summer.

"But only time will tell," Paul said. "When you have three guys like that, you can only speculate. But there are possibilities. They haven't done anything yet. After this season, I can answer that better. But with LeBron there, and what they have there, it's a key to winning a championship."

When conducting his own business moving forward, Paul can still learn a lot from his two buddies and Olympic teammates. Wade's way was to push his organization to build around him. LeBron's legacy was to leave town and try for a title elsewhere.

Unlike Wade and James, Paul won't have the leverage luxury of free agency looming. But he has all the control he needs to be a free thinker regarding his future.