Gee, who could have imagined Chris Paul’s world going so wrong?
Oh yeah, anyone who remembers the Charlotte Hornets’ world going so wrong.
For four years, Paul has been like a combination of Steve Nash and Will Smith, an NBA superstar with charisma bubbling out of him, capable of taking a rag-tag team with one other scorer (David West), one limited but willing big man (Tyson Chandler) and few shooters (Peja Stojakovic when healthy, Rasual Butler every other game or so, Mo Peterson when he could hit the broad side of a barn) within a game of first place in the West.
Paul did that two seasons ago at 22 , and didn’t even win the MVP. It went to Kobe Bryant, whose team won the West, with everyone aware CP3 had decades to win so many MVPS, he wouldn’t be able to see his fireplace.
Paul did a lot more than that, his smile and his play rescuing the NBA from its awkward position post-Katrina, with Hornets owner George Shinn aching to make his 2005 flight to Oklahoma City permanent.
Paul, who played his rookie season in Oklahoma, was so great, the Hornets, who had mattered little in New Orleans pre-flood, were guaranteed an audience when they returned in 2007.
That was the storied season that Paul led the Hornets to 56 wins in a stretch duel with the Lakers. It came down to their game in Staples the last weekend where the Hornets trailed by 30, then cut it all the way to one point in the fourth quarter before losing.
And now, this?
Gee, who’d have imagined Paul couldn’t single-handedly keep his little team up there if it didn’t not only didn’t get him help, it started dumping salary instead?
Oh yeah, anyone who gave it one second’s thought.
That was what started happening last season. In February, the Hornets traded Tyson Chandler, who was struggling with injuries, to Oklahoma City for Chris Wilcox and Joe Smith, or in other words, who?
The deal was done to dump Chandler’s $11.9 million salary. Coach Byron Scott wasn’t even consulted and fumed privately.
He wound up getting Chandler back when the Thunder doctors discovered an injury Tyson wasn’t even being treated for. That was a coverup to hide the real story: Thunder owner Clay Bennett pulled the plug, dismaying his basketball people.
Chandler finally went to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor, who makes as much and has a longer contract, so you can’t say the Hornets have given up.
Nevertheless, even with more acquisitions – Darius Songaila, Bobby Brown, Ike Diogu, rookie Darren Collison – you wouldn’t say they’ve turned the corner just yet.
The preseason consensus still had the Hornets in the playoffs. It hasn’t looked that way over the course of the regular season, all one week of it.
In the opener in San Antonio, they trailed by 25 before losing by 17. In the home opener, they had to come from behind in the last 1:12 to keep the Kings from upsetting them.
In the third game, they were tied in the fourth quarter in Boston before losing by 10. In the fifth, they fell to the 0-4 Knicks in New York.
In Boston, Paul tangled with Rajon Rondo and argued with him afterward, with Rondo reportedly telling him, “I’ve got a rung and you’re never gonna get one!”
Paul had to be restrained from going to see Rondo and discussing it personally.
In New York, Paul got only a polite reception with the World Series ongoing. Subsequent visits may start to resemble the pageants they hold when LeBron James, whom the Knicks dream of signing this summer, arrives.
Paul has an opt-out in 2012, but the Hornets aren’t headed upward, as the Cavaliers have been since James arrived, and owner George Shinn doesn’t always wait to see the whites of his opponents’ eyes.
Shinn is the brainiac who wrecked a paradise in Charlotte, where they built him the largest arena in the NBA for his expansion team and packed it for years, setting annual attendance records.
With the team descending after a rocket-rise (sound familiar?) negotiations with civic leaders for a new downtown arena got so adversarial, David Stern, himself, couldn’t repair the breach. With no good option – Shinn was checking out towns like Newport News, Va. – he set sailed for the market that was the least bad, New Orleans.
After their near-miraculous 2007-08 season, the Hornets are now on a Reality Asserting Itself downtick. Byron Scott, 2008 Coach of the Year, is on the last year of his contract with no extension forthcoming, meaning he’s been set up to take whatever fall needs taking.
Paul doesn’t second-guess management, but in New York he delivered a coded message: “Let me say this: I want to win. I … want … to… win. Whatever it takes me to do, I’m going to find a way.”
If Paul is “frustrated,” the word everyone is using, check back in spring if they drop another seven games in the standings, as in last season’s No. 7 finish.
At that point, the heat would be on Shinn to fix it or face losing his star, as it was on the Lakers’ Jerry Buss with Kobe Bryant in the summer of 2007.
Buss almost buckled in that one and he has a lot more going in terms of market, resources, organization and moxie than Shinn, who could bow before the obvious and bail, once again.
It’s not likely this season. CP3 is with the program, they haven’t taken the fall yet and the city wouldn’t stand for a trade.
Next season is a long way off so we’ll defer the long-range predictions/guessing. Nevertheless, the tide is going out, not coming in.
Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter at @MarkHeisler