By Marc Stein
Surely you've heard the suggestion that the free-agent obsession for fans and media pests, as soon as we get past the Summer of LeBron, will be Chris Paul’s potential availability in the summer of 2012.
Chris Paul has heard the talk, too.
He's well aware that trying to gauge his happiness with the stripped-down Hornets is a go-to pastime for NBA know-it-alls.
"I hear it all the time," Paul said in a recent visit with ESPN.com.
"I'm happy," Paul insists.
"That's the thing that's funny. Anybody around our team that knows me knows I'm happy."
The chat with Paul wasn’t long, because catching him after an L is the wrong time for any sort of in-depth discussion with one of the game’s self-confessed worst losers.
But he did field a few questions about the future, dismissing the rumblings that he’ll be pushing for a trade sooner rather than later in the wake of good friend Tyson Chandler’s trade to Charlotte, New Orleans’ salary-shedding summer giveaway of Rasual Butler in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers and the recent firing of coach and mentor Byron Scott without a heads-up from management.
"I'm good," Paul said. "I love the city. I love New Orleans."
Asked specifically about the summer of 2012, when he can opt out of the final year of his new four-year, $62.6 million contract extension to have the right to pick a new team in free agency like his Team USA pal LeBron will have this summer, Paul said: "That's so far away, man. 2012? I’m worried about that movie that came out [called] '2012.' "
Sources with knowledge of the Hornets’ thinking maintain that the club won’t even consider trade inquiries for Paul, even though New Orleans remains $3.3 million over the luxury-tax threshold and despite the fact that big spenders in the league such as the Dallas Mavericks are believed to be eager to offer the Hornets major payroll relief by volunteering to take on an unsavory contract – such as Peja Stojakovic’s deal and/or Emeka Okafor’s – for the privilege of pilfering Paul.
The reality, though, is that teams are bound to keep trying to pry Paul away from the Hornets, no matter how determined they are to keep the backcourt dynamo. It’s the ultimate quandary. The Hornets don’t appear to have the financial flexibility or the trade assets to significantly upgrade Paul’s supporting cast, but trading him is the last thing that they want to do, not only because of his status as one of the league’s revolutionary point guards but also given his popularity in town. Paul almost exclusively made the Hornets viable business-wise after Hurricane Katrina and continues to be the club’s No. 1 connection to the city.
"He literally saved basketball in New Orleans," says one Paul loyalist.
Yet Paul is also aware that outsiders will remain skeptical about how long he can stomach life with the Hornets’ status as a team flirting with .500 and struggling to crack the top eight in the West, just two years removed from a Southwest Division title and a seven-game series with San Antonio that left New Orleans one win shy of the Western Conference finals.
"People are going to talk [about his future]," Paul said. "They’re going to do that. My thing is I can’t worry about it. My guys in the locker room know that I’m with them and they’re with me. These are my brothers and we’re going to fight to the end."
Asked about the in-game frustration that he’s finding harder and harder to mask, Paul said: "I hate to wear it on my face, but I want to win. I want to win, plain and simple. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what I’m willing to do. It’s tough, but at the same time we can only get better and that’s what I’m excited about. When this thing turns around it’s going to be a lot of fun.
"I definitely see hope. And the thing is that we’re capable. We’re capable. Sooner or later we’re going to get fed up with [.500 ball] and everyone is just going to be pissed and that’s when you better watch out for us."
The Hornets are 10-8 under new coach Jeff Bower and 6-3 since Paul returned from an eight-game absence caused by an ankle sprain. He’s not quite back to full speed – “I’m getting there,” Paul says – but the averages we’ve seen since his comeback suggest otherwise: 16.9 points, 12.8 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 steals.
"We control our destiny," Paul said, refusing to concede anything to the know-it-alls who say that the Hornets would be better served by tearing down and starting over. "I’m telling you.
"I promise you [that] I have the utmost confidence in this team right here. I’m not saying I just hope we make the playoffs. We’re getting to the playoffs."