Chris Paul is no longer a Hornet. Less than 24 hours since the news broke that he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, it's still strange to think about. CP3, the man who single-handedly turned the Hornets into a relevant franchise for the past six years, is gone.
We'll get into why Hornets fans shouldn't despair and that there are several silver linings to this in next week's print issue, but for a moment, I just thought it would be appropriate to reflect on Paul's time in the Crescent City. After all, hardly anyone has played the point guard position as sublimely as Paul has and, no matter what gem Dell Demps may find through trades or in the draft, it's likely New Orleans won't ever see a point guard as good as Paul again.
Of course, there really aren't many teams aside from the Hornets, and now the Clippers, who get to bare witness to Paul's uncanny abilities — he's set the bar that high. And it's not just his vision or quickness or work ethic or physicality or awareness or even the combination of all of those stellar qualities that makes him one of the best players at his position today. It's the style in which Paul has gone about it all that makes him the special person and player that New Orleans cherished.
Look up any highlight video of Paul (the one above was chosen because the vast majority of YouTube videos contain music with highly NSFW lyrics) and you'll see a flair and creativity on the court that is unmatched. Follow him day-to-day, practice-to-practice and game-to-game and you'll see someone who just loves playing basketball. To top it off, Paul was always approachable and affable and never seemed to act like the superstar that he was. He felt as comfortable on a movie set as he did on the court and yet it seemed like anyone could go up and have a chat with him.
If you've ever seen Paul in plain clothes, you may have been surprised at how normal he looks. Of course, he's taller in person (funny how perspectives change when he's not surrounded by people who are a foot or more taller than the average human) and built like a freight train, but he doesn't have that flashy, look-at-me aura that most superstars of his caliber have. Not that Paul couldn't command a room; he usually does. But he does so in a way that isn't intimidating so much as it is endearing. Of all the times I've seen Paul speak in public - be it at a shoe signing or a charity bowling tournament - I don't remember any time he failed to entertain his crowd.
Paul certainly helped his cause by how actively he threw himself in to the New Orleans community, especially after the Hornets made the permanent move back to the Big Easy after splitting time in Oklahoma City. Just drive around the city and count how many parks have basketball courts with Paul's "CP3" logo on them. Even if his line about how his "heart is in New Orleans" was just a way to avoid public backlash to his trade demand, it's not like it was one big lie. Paul lived in the middle of downtown New Orleans, his endorsements and public image made direct connections with his ties to the city and his CP3 foundation primarily focused on helping in the post-Katrina recovery. Paul may have always wanted to play in a bigger market, but that didn't stop him from making the most of his time here.
Whether or not we liked it, Paul's departure was a long time coming. Unlike Drew Brees (New Orleans other world-class athlete and all-around good guy) Paul was never surrounded with the type of management and talent that could seriously compete for a title. At the time it didn't seem so bad, but former general manager Jeff Bower all but wasted Paul's best years on teams with limited and aging personnel signed to excessive contracts that hampered the team's growing ability. Since Paul was drafted in 2005, a staggering 31 different players have started at least one game for the Hornets. A lot of that has to do with injuries, trades and general roster turnover for sure. But none of that explains some of the major misfires the Hornets made while Paul was playing out of his mind. It says a lot about a team when Rasual Butler was a consistent starter for four years and that even when you look at some of the guys they let slip away, the best you can find is J.R Smith and Brandon Bass.
The coaching situation was no picnic either for Paul either. Whatever you make of the friendship he shared with former coach Byron Scott, all it did was hide the fact that Paul's bonkers 2007 to 2009 stretch made up for a lot of Scott's shortcomings. Scott had no offensive philosophy to speak of other than "give Chris the ball and everyone else wait till something happens." If that's not how he drew up the plays, then he was absolutely terrible at explaining how to execute them. Neither scenario speaks highly of him as a coach. Also, it's telling that Scott's most memorable playoff games as a head coach were both losses: in Game 7 against the Spurs in 2008 and a historically-bad blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets a year later. In big moments, Scott couldn't get his team to get over the hump and, soon after, they had all but given up on him.
So you can't blame Paul for giving up on the situation in New Orleans. With all the dysfunction he witnessed in the front office and with the coaching staff — not to mention the messy ownership situation — it's a wonder that Paul was so courteous in how he chose to to leave. Paul gave Williams and Demps an honest effort last season and it was his play that helped the Hornets push the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games but, as the lockout dragged on and the Hornets failed to secure an owner, Paul decided that his best chances at winning a championship were elsewhere.
Who can blame him. If it weren't for trading Paul, the Hornets roster wouldn't be much to get excited about. After all, David West is gone and the bench, as always, is a mess of inexperienced players and mediocre veterans. At 26 and with one knee that's had multiple surgeries, Paul knows his window could close soon. What would you do in his position? Roll the dice again for a few years in with one of the youngest head coaches in the league and an inexperienced GM that has to report to his deals to the commissioner? Or go to a team with an actual owner, one or two other superstar players and a chance to actually compete immediately for a championship? Seems like a no brainer.
For fans though, it's hard not to feel sad when you know that one of the greatest players of a generation is no longer on your team and that the only highlights you'll ever see of Paul again in a Hornets uniform are restricted to YouTube remixes. All you can do is hope that this fresh beginning is mutually beneficial and, if the Hornets prove to be really terrible this season, that maybe the next Chris Paul is just waiting to be picked in the next draft.
For now, we wish CP3 the best of luck and thanks for the memories.
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