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Power Players: Gambit's 2010 Hornets Preview 

click to enlarge David West says the NBA has only four of five teams in the "upper echelon" — and the Hornets aren't one of them. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Here's a quick trivia question: Who owns the New Orleans Hornets? If you said George Shinn — the franchise's only owner — you're technically right. If you said Gary Chouest, Louisiana's lone billionaire who's been named as Shinn's successor, you'd also be right (though the monthslong process is not complete).

  But what if you said Chris Paul?

  Crazy as it may sound, this may be the current, if temporary, state of NBA economics. Star players like CP3 now possess far greater leverage to make demands and play where — and with whom — they want.

  "Basketball players are different now," Hornets general manager Dell Demps told reporters at the team's media day Sept. 26. "With all the tournaments they play in high school, they become friends. How they're coming into the NBA has changed."

  Demps was hired among swirling trade rumors involving Paul and his friends around the league. On media day, the new GM addressed how the Internet has allowed players from New York to California to stay in touch and form bonds through high school, college and into the pros. There's also the rejuvenated Team USA basketball program, which has grabbed the best, but unproven, young talent in the league to re-establish America's basketball dominance.

  It was on Team USA that LeBron James became close with Paul and emerging stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade six years ago. So while James was vilified after ditching his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to play with Bosh and Wade for the Miami Heat, close observers of the league might have seen it coming. Back in 2007, Bosh, Wade and James all signed relatively short contract extensions for less short-term money in exchange for the chance to decide their collective futures in 2010.

  But while James drew the most attention and criticism for not re-upping with Cleveland (not to mention the ESPN circus that was "The Decision"), Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets is now trying to forgo fulfilling his contract altogether. As teams enter training camp, the big news has been Anthony's demand to be traded to the New Jersey Nets. While talks of the trade were stalled at press time, the fact that a franchise player still under contract could even get his team to negotiate trading him (and to the 12-70 Nets!), speaks volumes about the shifting power dynamics of the league: The players are running things.

Enter Chris Paul. Paul has built a reputation as a social player and is known for hosting members of opposing teams in his New Orleans penthouse the night before games. And, as the eyes of the basketball world were fixed on James, Paul seemed to be ever in the periphery, partying with the Heat forward and signing with LeBron's management company.

click to enlarge Peja Stojakevic has become a pricey veteran reserve, with a $14 million contract. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

  As a result of his connections (Anthony and Paul, as it turns out, also share an agent), Hornets fans had to chew their fingernails over rumors Paul might be traded. Paul was reported to be unhappy with the Hornets' declining record over the past few years, and there were also reports of clashes with former GM Jeff Bower. On July 12, the New York Post reported that Paul made a toast at Anthony's wedding saying that they, along with Amar'e Stoudemire of the New York Knicks, should "form our own Big 3" with the Knicks.

  Talk of players leaving teams and recruiting their friends to join them has been the dominant story of the NBA offseason. That pushed commissioner David Stern to send out a memo to all 32 teams reiterating the rules banning teams from reaching out to players under contract, specifically citing the Chris Paul rumors. That didn't stop Paul, though, as he demanded a trade the same day the Hornets hired a new GM. His departure and the Hornets' fall into obscurity seemed a real possibility.

  And yet none of that happened.

  While the focus was on Paul's demands to leave (and a collective New York sports media salivation at the possibility of a Paul-Anthony-Stoudemire trio reviving the region's teams), Hornets president Hugh Weber pulled off what the San Antonio Spurs' Greg Popovich described as a "masterstroke" and hired Demps as general manager.

  Demps' arrival coincides with his emergence as a hot commodity. As a front-office guy with the Spurs, he worked his way up to become coach Gregg Popovich's right-hand man as vice president of basketball operations. Demps' excellent film study and basketball knowledge is credited with helping build the rosters that gave the Spurs four NBA titles in eight years.

  Demps and the Hornets' new coach, Monty Williams, have roots dating back to when they played together for the Spurs in the 1990s. They've already put that connection to good use. The day after Demps was hired, he joined Williams and Hornets president Hugh Weber to talk to Paul about staying in New Orleans. Both sides came away praising the other, and a potentially volatile situation was diffused. The youngest coach in the league (Williams is 38) and a GM on his first day on the job were able to convince their superstar point guard that their uncertain future was cause for excitement, not concern. Suddenly, the Hornets were a new team.

  OK, not a completely new team in terms of personnel — Demps and Williams eventually would move half their roster and replace 24 of 28 basketball operations employees — but definitely a new team in terms of outlook.

  Demps and Williams followed the meeting with aggressive and intelligent roster moves that seem to have been in short supply in recent seasons. It started with a four-team deal that sent rookie sensation Darren Collison and James Posey (and his bloated $7 million contract) to the Indiana Pacers and brought in Trevor Ariza from Houston, where he had just had his best season with the Rockets. Ariza, also a standout with the Los Angeles Lakers from 2007 to 2009, gives the Hornets depth and athleticism in the frontcourt.

Smart moves, but none of this comes close to solving the Hornets' roster issues. And while registering immediate success is vital to keep Paul, the Hornets are realistic about where they are as a franchise. At media day, forward David West said there are probably just four or five teams that can be considered in the "upper echelon of teams" — and the Hornets are not in that number.

click to enlarge New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps (left) and coach Monty Williams have been working to remake the franchise. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

  "Guys want the opportunity to win," West said. "If you're going to beat those teams, you need some weapons."

  The Hornets' roster is mostly unproven, with more than half the players going to training camp sporting less than three seasons of NBA experience. Marcus Thornton showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season, but will be expected to carry a heavier load to keep his starting role. And after him, only D.J. Strawberry, son of baseball star Darryl Strawberry, has averaged more than 12 minutes a game over his short career.

  The Hornets' veteran reserves are a problem. Twelve-year veteran Peja Stojacovic has seen his points per game drop steadily over the past four seasons, yet will earn a staggering $14 million this year. The next most productive reserve is Jannero Pargo, who was reacquired from the Chicago Bulls after he left the Hornets in the summer of 2008. Last year with Chicago, Pargo averaged 5.5 points and 13 minutes per game.

  Even Paul is a question mark after injuries limited him to a career-low 45 games last season. Paul insists he's 100 percent healthy, but Williams believes the point guard has been overused in the past and that by the end of the season, "he's running on fumes." Paul has averaged more than 36 minutes per game every season, and finding players that can share point guard duty will be crucial to the Hornets' success.

  And there's the biggest question mark. The Hornets have regressed every year since their run to the conference semi-finals three years ago, while CP3 has played himself into the ground. Now the players harbor no illusions of their place in the NBA.

click to enlarge Chris Paul's possible departure was the big story of the offseason. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

  "We've got to get ourselves in the top-10-in-the-West discussion," West said. "It's going to take a lot of work to get there."

  Though Demps and Williams have quietly reshaped the franchise, only Ariza and Emeka Okafor have deals that go beyond the 2011-2012 season. Stojakovic's big payroll is off the books after this year and that means the Hornets have the potential — and the bucks — to acquire and cultivate quality talent.

  The Hornets have set themselves up as a young, athletic team with a solid starting five. Williams' ability to teach (Paul calls Williams' basketball IQ "unbelievable") puts him in a good position to mold this team's identity. For his part, Williams is definitely eager to prove himself and halt the onslaught of questions about whether he can keep Chris Paul happy.

  "I'd much rather talk about basketball," Williams said in a rare moment alone on media day. "Unfortunately you have to answer every question you've been asked about the situation."

  A media horde descended on Williams and peppered him with more questions about Paul. Later, CP3 would face similar questions to which he mostly replied that he was ready to play and the behind-the-scenes drama this summer wouldn't affect his effort.

  "I've always said any time I step onto the court, everything else falls out of my head," he said.

  Unfortunately, the question of whether Paul will be busting his butt for a contender or a doormat won't be answered until this team hits the hardwood at the New Orleans Arena; the first preseason game is Saturday, Oct. 9, against the Memphis Grizzlies, who are in the process of finding their own identity.

  And then, finally, we'll really have something to talk about.

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