After a seemingly imminent trade routing Paul to the Clippers collapsed earlier Monday, sources told ESPN.com that the league officials negotiating on the Hornets' behalf had aggressively re-engaged the Clippers in talks in hopes of completing a deal as soon as Tuesday.
One source close to the process also told ESPN that league officials also definitely did not see talks with the Clippers as "over," since they rank as the Hornets' most natural trade partner given L.A.'s trade assets and how it ranks as Paul's preferred destination if he can't land with the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks. The NBA remains "hopeful," according to the source, that Paul's fate can be resolved "soon."
Two other sources went so far as to say that a deal could be in place by Tuesday, with the league officials who have essentially taken over the entire negotiating process from the Hornets eager to finally bring an end to this saga after NBA commissioner David Stern vetoed a three-team trade Thursday that would have landed Paul with the Lakers.
The talks hit an impasse earlier Monday when the Clippers decided that the league's asking price for the All-Star guard was too high. Sources told ESPN.com that the Clippers balked when the Hornets, at the league's insistence, asked for the Clippers' top five trade pieces in exchange for Paul: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round draft pick.
Sources close to the talks insisted Monday night that both Gordon and the Minnesota pick were on the table for much of Monday's talks, but that's one of the main reasons that the Clippers backed away. NBA.com quoted a source close to the talks on Tuesday questioning whether the league "can come back far enough" in negotiations, because the Clippers are determined to surrender no more than one of those prized assets in a deal for Paul.
The Clippers found the demands for both Gordon and the Minnesota pick "too steep," according to one source close to the process, even after Paul told the Clippers he would invoke the 2012-13 option in his contract as part of the trade, ensuring that L.A. would have him next to Blake Griffin for at least two seasons.
The Hornets wanted "everybody," according to another source. That meant both prized shooting guard Gordon and the highly coveted Minnesota pick, with requests at various points in the day from NBA negotiators Stu Jackson and Joel Litvin for Bledsoe and an additional first-round pick as well. The latter two requests, sources said, were met with particular dismay by the Clippers, since they are already so skittish about surrendering both Gordon and the Timberwolves' pick.
But Clippers general manager Neil Olshey acknowledged at a Monday afternoon news conference that the trade could be revived if some of the parameters change. The Clippers are likewise open, sources said, to the recruitment of an additional team to add to the deal, since they ultimately still want Paul, knowing that acquiring him now is their best chance of securing a long-term commitment from Griffin.
"Everything's over," Olshey said, "until it's reborn again."
On a busy day for the Clippers, they also won a waiver auction to claim veteran point guard Chauncey Billups. The 35-year-old point guard was released by the Knicks last weekend through the amnesty clause in the NBA's new labor agreement.
Sources with knowledge of the Clippers' thinking said that they feel as though Billups' arrival can only make the Clippers more attractive to Paul and help ensure they have a sufficiently strong cast around him even after surrendering the assets needed to finally complete a trade. Billups played in the same backcourt alongside Derrick Rose at the 2010 World Championships, so L.A. is confident he'll mesh in the same backcourt with Paul.
Meeting with reporters later Monday after the acquisition of Billups, when asked if the Clippers still need Paul, Olshey said: "I don't know if there's anybody on the planet that doesn't need Chris Paul if they had an opportunity to acquire him. But I don't think anything's changed. I think they made a fair proposal. I'm sure in their mind it was (fair), given what they were giving up, (but) we passed on it and moved on with our business. We're going forward with this group of players. It just got better by keeping DeAndre (Jordan) and adding Chauncey."
After claiming Billups off waivers, L.A. announced that, as expected, it had also formally matched the four-year, $43 million offer sheet tendered to Jordan by the Golden State Warriors.
ESPN.com reported Sunday that the Clippers quickly emerged as the "early frontrunner" to land Paul after the three-team deal involving the Lakers and Houston Rockets crumbled Saturday night.
In unprecedented circumstances, since New Orleans is the first league-owned team in league history, Olshey has largely been conducting negotiations with Jackson and Litvin from the league office as opposed to Hornets general manager Dell Demps.
If the deal collapses for good, L.A. is expected to focus on signing Gordon to an extension as part of its desire to build around Griffin, who is eligible for a contract extension in the summer. Jordan, 23, averaged 7.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks last season and was also seen as a must-keep free agent by management, largely because of his close relationship with Griffin.
The Hornets' original three-team deal with the Lakers and Rockets would have brought a trio of quality starters to New Orleans: Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Lamar Odom. But with the league still trying to find a buyer for the Hornets and determined to take more of a long-term view, Hornets officials were instructed to focus on more young players with shorter contracts and draft picks before the league office ultimately commandeered the bulk of the negotiations.
The Lakers ultimately became so frustrated with the complicated nature of those talks that they walked away from the table Saturday night and quickly dealt Odom to the Dallas Mavericks instead.
Former Hornets forward David West, who reached agreement on a two-year, $20 million deal Sunday with the Indiana Pacers, expressed great sympathy for the plight of Demps and Hornets coach Monty Williams, who clearly favored the original three-team deal as a means to stay competitive without Paul and West.
"There just really is no direction with no legitimate owner, so that just makes it tough," West told The Associated Press on Monday. "It really made it tough for me to see myself going back there."
West suspects Paul wants out not only for that reason, but also because of "a series of events that transpired after (winning the Southwest Division in 2007-08 and coming within one game of the Western Conference finals) that sent Chris and myself into a different mindset in terms of what we really could get in New Orleans."
The Hornets "gave a cold shoulder," in West's words, to backup point guard Jannero Pargo, who had been Paul's best friend on the team.
"And (they) didn't consult Chris about anything," West said, referring to former Hornets general manager Jeff Bower.
West insisted that, before the hiring of Demps and Williams, Hornets upper management did not consult him or Paul about any major moves, such as the 2009 trade of center Tyson Chandler. The Hornets actually traded Chandler twice that year, first to Oklahoma City in a deal that was quickly rescinded and later to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor.
"It's nothing against Emeka, but from our perspective, being teammates with Tyson and knowing the type of impact he had on both of our careers at that particular time, I just felt like at that moment, things, in terms of the trust, the direction we were going, started to wane a bit," West said. "When you have a franchise guy like Chris, build a team around him, I'm under the impression that you've got to keep your franchise guy happy."
West said Demps and Williams constantly consulted him and Paul but added that he and Paul both struggled to envision a fruitful long-term future in New Orleans while the Hornets had no permanent owner nor an owner with a proven commitment to winning.
"Ultimately, I think (Demps and Williams) got the bad luck of the draw because things were already sort of soured," West said of his and Paul's feelings before last season. "And it was just that idea of trying to build a relationship of trust in such a short period of time."
Marc Stein is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chris Broussard is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne and The Associated Press contributed to this report.