The chances of a Chris Paul trade before NBA training camps finally open Friday appear to be dwindling after the pace of Paul trade talks slowed Wednesday, according to sources close to the situation.
The Golden State Warriors have effectively withdrawn from the Paul sweepstakes by stressing to the Hornets that they simply won't include star guard Stephen Curry in any deal with New Orleans. And sources told ESPN.com that none of the other teams known to be Paul's most ardent suitors sufficiently sweetened their trade offers Wednesday, despite the fact that it's now an open secret around the league that the Hornets want to move Paul before the season starts Christmas Day, hoping to avoid a repeat of the long-running drama that suffocated the Denver Nuggets for much of last season before they traded Carmelo Anthony.
It has been evident since Monday that the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers are New Orleans' preferred trade partners, but one source close to the process told ESPN.com that talks between Golden State and New Orleans have gone "dormant" because of the Warriors' refusal to make Curry part of the deal without an assurance from Paul that he will stay beyond this season as opposed to bolting as a free agent in July 2012. Clippers guard Eric Gordon is the other player New Orleans covets in a Paul deal on par with Curry, but L.A. has likewise insisted all week that Gordon is a "deal breaker," as one source put it.
Various executives believe that the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are thus the two most likely landing spots for Paul, but sources with knowledge of New Orleans' thinking said late Wednesday that the Hornets are prepared to wait for offers to improve, convinced that they they're getting low-ball proposals at this early stage of the process based on the external belief that they're so motivated to move Paul they will rush into a deal.
The Celtics, sources say, are currently presenting the strongest offer, which features Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and two first-round picks. As the Paul pursuer most willing to trade for the All-Star point guard with zero assurance that Paul will stay beyond this season, Boston is also trying to concoct multi-team scenarios that would help the Hornets come away with the package they desire for Paul, featuring at least one established veteran to help them stay relevant, one up-and-coming talent and draft picks.
The Hornets' interest in Rondo is lukewarm at best, but one scenario in circulation would involve the Indiana Pacers and route former Hornets point guard Darren Collison back to New Orleans and land Rondo with the Pacers and Paul with the Celtics. Yet several other players would have to be involved to make such a deal work -- with more established talent going to New Orleans -- and there was no indication Wednesday that such a deal was close to completion.
Although sources say Paul continues to express no interest in a long-term stay in Boston, Celtics GM Danny Ainge is apparently convinced that trading for Paul now to try to make one more title run with the aging star trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen is a no-brainer gamble. With the contracts of Garnett and Allen expiring at season's end, Boston would have sufficient salary-cap space to not only try to retain Paul but also pursue a second young superstar to play with him.
Sources say that the Lakers have made their willingness to deal forward Pau Gasol for Paul clear to the Hornets, since L.A. is hoping to preserve Andrew Bynum to be the centerpiece of a trade offer for Orlando's Dwight Howard. ESPN.com reported Tuesday that the Hornets have not ruled out accepting a trade package for Paul that's built around Gasol, but the Hornets also do have reservations about acquiring the Spaniard, who turned 31 in July and is coming off a woeful playoff series against Dallas last spring.
New Orleans, though, likes the other offers coming in even less than those proposals. Sources say that the Clippers have only pitched a package featuring Chris Kaman's expiring contract and guards Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe, meaning that center DeAndre Jordan and Minnesota's 2012 unprotected first-round pick are off the table along with Gordon.
ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne reported Tuesday that the Clippers are not pushing as hard as uber-aggressive teams like the Celtics and the Houston Rockets because they believe they are set up to win in the short and long term if they can re-sign Jordan and extend Gordon this month, re-sign Blake Griffin to an extension in the summer and also upgrade at the small forward position either through free agency (Caron Butler is their top target) or with Minnesota's 2012 pick.
The Hornets have been similarly unmoved by the offers coming from Houston and Dallas, which are the two teams, along with Boston, known to be willing to take on Paul with no promises about the future, convinced that Paul can be swayed to stay in their town after one successful season. The New York Knicks, sources said, have refrained from even making an offer to this point, knowing they lack the requisite trade assets to land Paul without recruiting a third or fourth team to sweeten the deal, despite the fact New York is widely believed to be Paul's No. 1 preferred landing spot.
Paul has known for some time that the Knicks, his No. 1 preferred destination to join Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, do not have the leftover trade assets after the Anthony deal to join the bidding. The Magic likewise appear to lack the requisite assets to make a suitable offer for Paul to try to make Howard happy, since Paul has privately expressed great interest in teaming up with the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year and acquiring him would presumably make all of Orlando's issues vanish when it comes to keep Howard for the long term.
SI.com reported that the Lakers have eclipsed the Knicks as Paul's favored destination because he realizes that a trade to join Anthony and Stoudemire this season is not feasible.
The Hornets have been trying in earnest to deal Paul since a Monday meeting with Demps, which sources described as "amicable" but in which Paul did not tell New Orleans that he is prepared to sign a contract extension. It has long been assumed around the league that keeping Paul made the league-owned Hornets more attractive to prospective buyers, but sources said Monday that the Hornets believe that they will be more appealing to potential suitors if they can stabilize the organization by bringing a resolution to the Paul saga as soon as possible.
The Hornets have actually been trying to convince the Warriors to part with Curry since before last season's trade deadline in February. But the Warriors could only stomach the inclusion of Curry if they knew Paul would extend his contract as part of the trade or at least commit to invoking his option for the 2012-13 season.
ESPN.com reported earlier Wednesday that talks with the Warriors are "definitely cooling" because of Golden State's unwillingness to include Curry in the deal. Following a voluntary team workout on Wednesday, Curry told local reporters he has received assurances from team executives that he is "safe and secure" with the Warriors despite the rampant Paul speculation.
"They want me here," Curry told reporters in the Bay Area on Wednesday. "Obviously there's the business of basketball and there are things that may happen with a GM having to make a decision for the best interest of the team. When you have a guy like Chris Paul, who is a franchise player, that's something you really have to think about it with anybody on the roster. I understand that. I'm not going to be upset if they entertained that."
Perhaps the only solace for the Hornets so far this week is the apparent struggles of free-agent power forward David West to attract the offers he envisioned after suffering a season-ending knee injury in March. Sources say West is gradually warming to the idea of returning to New Orleans.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne and The Associated Press was used in this report.