The renewed Chris Paul rumors that sprouted the wheels of an M1 Abrams on Thursday and threaten to crush all of NBA free agency served as a reminder: NBA players largely do not share the same furry ideals of geographic loyalty that most of us fans do. Chris Paul is not a New Orleans guy -- he spent most of his life in North Carolina, and he had to move to Louisiana (and briefly Oklahoma) for his job. In the summers, he stays in N.C. New Orleans is just where he works.
CP3 also happens to be among the best in the world at his job, the top 0.5 percent of all professional basketball players in existence. Without question, he likes New Orleans just fine. He's done a lot of great charitable work there. But compare the working environments. The NBA owns the Hornets because the last owner was going broke. He has played with one true-blue All-Star in N.O. (David West) and another couple fringe cases (Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler). His general managers, Jeff Bower and now Dell Demps, have tried to put a great supporting cast around him; the 2008 team was truly a contender. But George Shinn was never spendthrift enough to chase the Mark Cubans and Jerry Busses in the payroll wars, and it never added up on the court.
Now, in free agency, the Hornets are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Five players, including CP3, are under contract. (The others are Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack and Quincy Pondexter.) None other than CP3 will bring much back in a trade; Okafor and Ariza are good players on painful contracts. If New Orleans brings back West, it's playing with fire: 31-year-olds coming off major knee surgery are usually a bad idea. Even if Demps did want to add a big name, he had less cap space than a few other teams (remember: empty roster spots have cap holds, too) and because of the market, he'll have to overpay to draw them in.
I'm sorry to say it, but when you put yourself in CP3's shoes, the future of the New Orleans Hornets basketball franchise looks pretty mediocre. Meanwhile, he's got two close friends sharing a basketball renaissance in another great city, but one whose franchise owner can afford nice things and whose team could become a legit title contender right away if Paul lands there. Put yourself in CP3's shoes, and of course New York is a better place to work than New Orleans right now and into the future.
No, no -- in the course of the lockout the NBA did not figure out how to strip young stars of free will. The reserve clause remains dead, much to the dismay of the most patriarchal fans. Paul is not threatening to do anything but that which is guaranteed to him as a right as set forth by the 35-year-old settlement of Oscar Robertson vs. the NBA. The agent for CP3, if the reports are accurate, told the Hornets that Paul would be exercising his right of free agency in 2012, and would prefer to be traded to the Knicks. There's no hold-out or retirement threat. If LeBron was killed for not giving Cleveland advance notice that he was fleeing, how can CP3 draw heat for giving too much advance notice?
Whatever the case, after LeBron, Bosh, Melo, Dwight Howard and now Paul, this has clearly become an issue for small-market teams. (Toronto isn't a true small market, but in NBA terms it sure comes off that way.) The NBA's attempts to incent players to stay with the team that drafts them have come up empty. Why would the NBA and its owners think that providing any extra year as a hometown bonus will help keep this level of stars? Have they not been paying attention? Most of these stars sign shorter deals to preserve their own ability to keep pressure on their GM to build a winner. The mini-max has been around since 2007. LeBron, Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Paul and Deron Williams have all signed them, allowing them to opt out after seven total years in the league and reach unrestricted free agency. They don't want your extra year. They want the ability to choose. Yet that's really the only mechanism that the NBA has heretofore invented in the quest to block future LeBrons.
(Who's going to be the first player to decline a designated player contract? Remember, under the DP rule teams can offer a longer first extension. That doesn't mean star players are going to take it. Consider Kevin Love a decent test case, should the Wolves offer it. Derrick Rose would probably take it, because he is where he wants to be.)
The only salve that currently exists for teams facing Chris Paul situations is to get out ahead. You know you'll have star player for the first seven years of his career, possibly eight (as in the Melo and Dwight cases; both took full five-year extensions for the second contracts with the standard player options on the final season). Try your absolute damnedest to win early -- not games, a championship. There's no time to build slowly. The Thunder managed to go from 23 wins in Kevin Durant's second season to 50 in his third. That's excessive, sure, but that's the idea. Go big. Let the young star taste success.
But if it isn't happening in Year 6, with potential free agency 18 months away? Do what Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor did: trade the star for an amazing package so that you don't have to later take a crummy package.
When it became clear that the Jazz's immediate championship aspirations were toast, O'Connor decided to trade Williams to the Nets for a pretty strong package: Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, the pick that became Enes Kanter and another future first. Harris will probably eventually be flipped for additional assets. Favors has the potential to be an elite defender, though the jury's out. Kanter may or may not have been the right pick at No. 3 in last June's draft, but Utah has pretty strong record with European players during O'Connor's tenure (Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur).
All in all, it's about 100 times better than anything the Knicks can offer the Hornets for CP3.
It remains to be seen if the Hornets will either be able to convince Paul to stay or take an extension somewhere else so that Demps can actually get a decent return. Or, New Orleans could roll the dice that the money giveaway in 2012 will be too much for CP3 to bear, and that he'll sign the five-year, $100 million contract only New Orleans will be able to offer. In the meantime, small-market teams with young stars need to be paying attention, and need to remain aware that the reserve clause is dead, free agency is just what it says on the box and that they could be next. You can be the Jazz, or you can be the Hornets. The choice seems obvious.
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