The developments in New Orleans on Monday had all the hallmarks of modern-day damage control: A rosy statement via Twitter, some positive spin in a media availability session that was noticeably devoid of actual information and apparent reasons for optimism that Chris Paul's desire to be traded will quiet down for a while.
In other words, the smokescreen formed exactly as planned after Paul met for 90 minutes with the Hornets' new basketball decision-making team in New Orleans. This is the united front being portrayed to the outside world. On the inside, little has changed: Yes, Paul wants to win, but realizes that for reasons beyond the control of new GM Dell Demps and new coach Monty Williams, it can't happen in New Orleans. And the organization itself has begun the inevitable process of exploring ways to make this end to everyone's satisfaction.
The Hornets succeeded in only one of their goals Monday: ending the public part of this spectacle. The rest of it, up to and including a possible trade that will extricate Paul from the Hornets while salvaging some semblance of value for the organization, will be dealt with behind closed doors.
"The telltale thing is that Chris Paul won't comment publicly other than what was released about it," said a person familiar with Paul's strategy. "Leon Rose didn't come out and say, 'Chris is happy in New Orleans.' If he was happy, they would've said that. ... The only way they can get close to full value is to say, 'You guys can't make trade demands.' They're orchestrating this thing to likely move him."
According to multiple people within the NBA who are familiar with the Hornets' predicament, Paul's new cadre of power brokers at Creative Artists Agency, led by Rose, are continuing to push Paul's exit strategy from New Orleans -- something members of the organization are well aware of and expected.
The Hornets, meanwhile, have been looking at Orlando, Charlotte and New Jersey as potentially attractive trade partners once the firestorm settles down, according to one of the people with direct knowledge of the Hornets' strategy. Two other sources familiar with the situation confirmed prior discussions involving the Bobcats and Nets and said those talks are expected to advance in the coming days.
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The Hornets are concentrating on Eastern Conference teams as trade partners in the event they decide it isn't feasible to enter the 2010-11 season with their franchise player wanting out. And despite Monday's optimistic spin, that is where things are headed, sources say.
"Basically, he doesn't think they're good enough and he's put LeBron's people around him for a reason," the person familiar with Paul's strategy said. "And he doesn't want to wait two years and be 27 years old trying to get on a championship team. He wants to do it now."
The Hornets' strategy, according to one of the sources, is to sell Paul on the notion that the organization doesn't lack resources; the Hornets have spent money on players such as Peja Stojakovic, Mo Peterson and James Posey, but have spent it poorly. With the new team of Demps and Williams in place, the team hopes to persuade Paul that it can transform a borderline playoff team with a healthy Paul into a championship contender with wise personnel moves and patience to get out from under bad contracts and other past mistakes.
But Paul's perspective is that the organization has either been unwilling or unable to pay the luxury tax to improve, and will continue to resist such spending while owner George Shinn is looking for a buyer. Demps and Williams, according to sources, also recognize how difficult it would be to reconcile the vision of a new regime with Paul's longstanding concerns. "They don't want to start the season with him unless he changes his attitude," one of the people said.
At least two Eastern Conference executives were telling colleagues over the weekend that they believed they had credible offers in place if and when the Hornets decide to move forward with serious trade talks. One of those teams was the Knicks, who along with the Magic and Lakers were on Paul's original list of teams he'd like to be traded to, as CBSSports.com reported July 21.
|New Orleans portrays its meeting with Chris Paul as positive, but in reality it's far from being the case. (Getty Images)|
There are indications that the Hornets believe the Magic, Bobcats and Nets would have equally, if not more attractive assets to offer. The positive spin emanating from Monday's meeting allows the Hornets to "keep working on it," and puts them in "a better negotiating position to do so," said one of the sources.
"They don't want to let CP3 dictate the teams," the person said. "And they can't look like they are being held hostage by his trade demands."
In order to avoid negative publicity and damage to the Hornets' negotiating position, all parties involved in Monday's meeting agreed to keep the content of the dialogue private, sources say. Paul, evidently, is playing along. The Hornets announced a media availability with the All-Star point guard Tuesday morning at his Tulane University basketball camp, but stressed in the news release that Paul would have no further comment about Monday's meeting.
In his statement released via Twitter after the meeting attended by Paul, his brother, C.J., as well as Rose, Demps, Williams and Hornets president Hugh Weber, Paul stopped short of putting his name on a trade request. That was by design, for two reasons: Publicly requesting a trade would've subjected Paul to a fine, and further escalating the matter would've hurt the Hornets' ability to get fair value in a trade. Also, sources say Paul doesn't have the personality for a direct, face-to-face trade demand and the kind of fallout that would result. So he is comfortable letting CAA, which successfully aligned LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, handle it through backchannels.
In a session with New Orleans reporters after the meeting, Demps said Paul and Rose did not request a trade Monday. That request, as previously reported by CBSSports.com, already had been made by Rose.
"Chris asked what the direction of the team was," Demps said. "He talked to us. We kind of talked about some things we're going to look to do in the future. He seemed, in my opinion, excited and ready to play."
But Demps added, "There are going to be some things that we are going to have to keep private. I just feel that that would be the best thing to do."
In a phone interview Monday, Williams said Paul expressed "some of his ideas and things that he has been feeling," but declined to get into specifics.
"I will tell you that he's passionate about winning and he's put a lot into this community, a lot into this organization," Williams said. "What I got from Chris is that he wants to win so bad, and people aren't seeing that. They're seeing speculation because he hasn't said a lot of stuff. He hasn't said a lot at all. What I got is that he wants to win, and I don't want guys on the team that don't want to win."
Williams, in only his second month on the job with a GM who was hired only five days ago, refuses to view Paul being traded as a foregone conclusion.
"People really don't realize how bad he wants to stay in New Orleans and be a Hornet," Williams said. "That was what I saw [in the meeting], along with the passion. ... What I saw today is a guy that wants to win a championship in New Orleans. I'm going to fight to have Chris as my point guard. We want him, and what I saw this morning is he wants to be here." But sources say Williams and others in the organization are bracing for Paul's operatives –- at his direction -– to continue applying pressure to get him traded. And given Paul's long-standing uneasiness with the Hornets' lack of resources – including their established practice of skimping on everything from payroll to support staff –- it appears that satisfying Paul's desire to play with championship-caliber talent in New Orleans is a long shot at best.
"Unless the vision was, 'Hey, we're willing to go way into the luxury tax to make this team better,' what could they have possibly told Chris that he didn't know already?'" the person familiar with Paul's strategy said.
And while Paul has no contractual leverage with two years left before he can opt out in 2012, some in the organization recognize that Paul possesses a different kind of leverage that could be equally formidable.
"You have a new coach and a new GM, and it'd be awfully hard to have a guy there that doesn't want to be there," said a person who is familiar with the organizational dynamics. "If all this were handled behind closed doors, there'd be no need for all these statements and summits and people reporting live from New Orleans. Things just kind of spiraled."
Like his predecessor, Jeff Bower, Demps has rebuffed numerous trade inquiries in the wake of CBSSports.com's report last week that Paul wants to be traded before the start of the 2010-11 season. But team executives who were calling Demps even after Monday's meeting with Paul remained dubious that the Hornets' brass would be able to squelch his desire to compete for a championship in New Orleans or be traded to a contender. With James' desertion of Cleveland as the model, rival executives believe the Hornets are under tremendous pressure to deliver on whatever promises they've made to Paul to improve the team.
"Everything will start playing itself out now," one of the executives said. As if it hasn't already.