Welcome to the hottest seat in the NBA, Dell Demps. All you have to do is persuade Chris Paul to stay in New Orleans -- an uphill battle that begins now.
When Paul was quoted a few weeks ago as saying he'd be open to a trade if the Hornets aren't committed to building a championship team, it was only a small hint as to the size of the chasm that exists between the franchise and its cornerstone player. Paul, in fact, has put into motion an aggressive exit strategy that will accelerate in the coming weeks, and his clear intention is to be traded before the start of the 2010-11 season, a person with direct knowledge of his plans told CBSSports.com Wednesday.
"He wants out," said the person, who has been briefed on Paul's strategy but spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly. "He wants to play with another superstar. He wants to follow LeBron's model of teaming up with other great players."
Paul's list of preferred destinations consists of the Knicks, Magic and Lakers, and members of his inner circle already have sent word to the Hornets of his desire to be traded to one of those teams, sources say. If Paul has his way, he's played his last game in a Hornets jersey.
"He feels like they haven't put the right pieces together," said the person familiar with the star point guard's plans.
Paul, a three-time All-Star, still has two years before he can become a free agent. But his dissatisfaction with the Hornets' downward spiral, coupled with the coup pulled off by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami has only accelerated his desire to seek a trade. Sources within the NBA say members of Paul's camp have told them recently, "He's not going to start the season in New Orleans."
In the past year, Paul has publicly expressed mild and measured frustration with the direction of the Hornets, who have spiraled out of contention since they capped a 56-win season in 2007-08 with a loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. That was followed by a 49-win season that ended with an embarrassing first-round loss to the Nuggets, including a disgraceful 58-point home loss in Game 4. Bryon Scott was fired nine games into the 2009-10 season, and that only seemed to exacerbate Paul's concerns about his future in New Orleans.
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Early last season, days before Scott was fired, Paul admitted he was "envious, very envious" of his friends and peers -- James, Wade and Carmelo Anthony -- who had enjoyed far more team success in the early stages of their careers.
"Those guys have been where I want to get to," Paul said. "This is my fifth year in the league and I'm not trying to wait until I'm an old veteran in this league trying to win a championship. We're trying to win now. Whatever we have to do to win, we've got to do now."
The Hornets missed the playoffs for the first time in three years under interim coach Jeff Bower, who was reinstated to his GM post with the hiring of coach Monty Williams and then fired last week. Enter Demps, a respected personnel man who played an important support role in the Spurs' decade of success. Will the duo of Williams and Demps, both having ascended to top NBA jobs for the first time, be enough to get Paul to backtrack from his desire to be traded?
Williams and Hornets president Hugh Weber both told CBSSports.com in the past week that they plan to sit down face-to-face with Paul to sell him on the team's new direction. Paul won't go public with his trade request -- if he did, he'd be subject to a fine under NBA rules -- but those with knowledge of his plans believe his desire to pair up with another superstar (or two) has gained too much momentum to stop.
In late June, Paul, 25, spent several days in Akron, Ohio, with James, who was busy orchestrating his own exit strategy from Cleveland. The two friends and superstars picked each other's brains, with each persuading the other to make significant changes in their branding strategies. For Paul, it was a big step to persuade James to join the social networking phenomenon that is Twitter. For James' part, he finally persuaded Paul to join his Cleveland-based marketing company, LRMR.
Paul's decision to sign with LRMR, headed by James' close friend and advisor, Maverick Carter, was only the first step in his exit plan from New Orleans. Paul officially severed his representation agreement with Octagon earlier this month and will soon officially join the influential stable of clients represented by Creative Artists Agency.
|Chris Paul has spent time planning changes to his branding strategy. (US Presswire)|
Paul will be represented by CAA agent Leon Rose, who also represents James and potential 2011 free agents Anthony and Tony Parker. Miami's Big Three haven't even run a layup drill, and yet CAA already has the foundation in place to run the table in the free-agent summer of 2011, as well. But with a lockout looming and superstars Paul, Anthony, and to a lesser degree Parker uneasy about their current situations, those plans already are in motion.
Paul's former representatives at Octagon, Jeff Austin and Lance Young, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, nor did Rose. William Wesley, CAA's behind-the-scenes operative known as "World Wide Wes," who is now a coaching agent with CAA, declined to comment. Paul's strategy has yet to reach the team level in terms of proposals exchanged, sources say. For one thing, Paul has been mired in the 15-day waiting period to officially hire a new agent after severing ties with Octagon. Also, it has been his desire to be forthright with ownership and management in discussing the matter. Williams, a first-year head coach, was hired last month and plans to meet with Paul extensively in the coming weeks to explain his vision. Demps hasn't even completed his first day on the job yet.
Paul's inclusion of the Magic on his list dovetails with CBSSports.com's report June 30 that star center Dwight Howard has asked Orlando management to pursue a trade for Paul -- although Magic GM Otis Smith said by phone Wednesday that he is unaware of such a plan. The team that has most aggressively positioned itself to reap the benefits of CAA's latest power nexus is the Knicks, who struck out in their pursuit of this summer's Big Three but perhaps didn't whiff permanently.
Team president Donnie Walsh's first step was signing power forward Amar'e Stoudemire to a five-year, $99.9 million deal. The move wasn't successful in swaying James or Wade, but it represents the first piece of a strategy designed to land Paul, Parker or Anthony -- or perhaps, even two of them. According to sources familiar with the Knicks' strategy, part of the reason for orchestrating the sign-and-trade for David Lee -- which yielded young talents Anthony Randolph and Kelenna Azubuike from Golden State -- was to stock the roster with attractive assets that could be used to acquire such marquee players if the opportunities presented themselves.
Since they are not free agents at the same time, sources say Paul, Anthony and Parker won't have the same power that Miami's Big Three wielded this summer. Given that he has two years left on his contract before he can exercise a player option, Paul's desire for a trade will be a test of his leverage. It will also be a test of the Hornets' new duo of decision-makers, Williams and Demps, who will have to determine when Paul's value will be maximized -- if they agree to trade him at all.
Parker already has publicly stated his intention to pass on an extension and become a free agent next summer, while Anthony thus far balked at signing the Nuggets' three-year, $65 million extension offer. With a lockout looming after the season, friends of Anthony believe he is seriously torn between cashing in on what's left of max money as we know it and following his buddy, James, in trying to orchestrate a surefire championship celebration. Earlier this month, empowered by his time spent in Ohio with James, Paul was reported to have toasted the idea of forming "our own Big Three" with Stoudemire and Anthony during Anthony's wedding in New York. That comment, never publicly corroborated by Paul, is directly in line with what sources say has become his overriding strategy for the next step in his career. Call it the Miami Model, the South Beach Effect, or whatever you want. It's the new normal for young NBA superstars looking for a new home and a better chance to win.
"Players want to follow in those footsteps," an NBA front office source said. "They all want to do that. Everyone got excited about it, and it opened up the players' imaginations as to what they could do."