Hornets stand up for Paul as playoffs approach
WESTWEGO, La. – Chris Paul doesn't always say what his fans New Orleans want to hear, particularly when it comes to his future.
Paul has, however, led the Hornets back to the postseason for a third time in four seasons, and the four-time All-Star appears intent on making the best of his latest chance to build on his legacy as one of the best to play pro basketball in the Big Easy.
"I've been looking forward to this for a long time," Paul said after practice on Friday. "You don't really make a name for yourself in the regular season. It's the playoffs."
The seventh-seeded Hornets will be hard pressed to oust the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-seven series that gets under way Sunday afternoon. New Orleans' best hope of advancing likely rests on the performance of Paul — the same player who said last summer that he'd be open to a trade if the Hornets failed to demonstrate an immediate commitment to winning.
Yet, even as Paul has demonstrated a pattern of saying things that cast doubt on his future in New Orleans, his teammates and coaches say they've seen no reason to question Paul's commitment to them.
"Since I've been here, I haven't heard him once talk about going somewhere else or doing anything else," Hornets forward Trevor Ariza said. "All he has been focusing on is this team and how to make this team better."
As a cacophony of bouncing basketballs gradually quieted after Friday's practice, and most of the Hornets made their way to the locker room, Paul remained on the court with assistant coach Mike Malone and a pair of teammates, working vigorously on his game.
One moment, he was using his strength and leverage to get open for a pass, then turning what initially looked like a methodical pivot into a sudden spin move for a blow-by layup. Soon after, he was playing smothering one-on-one defense.
"He got a lot of extra work in today, and that's not the actions of a guy that is not committed 100 percent to be here," Malone said. "If somebody was halfway out the door, they wouldn't be trying to get better and trying to lift their team into the playoffs. His only focus is being with the Hornets right now and his actions say that loud and clear."
For the most part, it has been Paul's words that have left Big Easy basketball fans a little uneasy at times.
Last summer, while in New York for Carmelo Anthony's wedding, Paul made a widely reported toast in which he floated the idea of himself and Anthony joining Amare Stoudemire with the Knicks to "form our own Big Three." When Anthony was traded to New York this season, that left Paul, who can opt out of his Hornets contract after next season, as the last missing piece.
Then last Tuesday, Paul said the possibility of one day playing for Michael Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats would be "something to think about." The fact that he's a North Carolina native who is endorsed by Jordan's basketball shoe brand only added weight to those words.
Shortly after, Paul claimed in a short Twitter post that his comments were taken out of context, but declined to revisit the matter when asked about it at the Hornets' suburban practice center.
"I'm worried about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers right now," he said.
Although he has polarized Hornets fans this year like never before, Paul still gets the loudest cheers during introductions at home games and remains the face of Hornets marketing campaigns. Teammates and coaches still describe him as a leader who promotes unity both on and off the court, even organizing dinners and bowling outings.
Paul also has been inclined to spread around credit for the Hornets' surprising return to the postseason, one season after going through two coaches and missing the playoffs. In the locker room after the Hornets' playoff-clinching victory over Houston a couple weeks ago, one of Paul's first remarks concerned how happy he was for the coaching staff.
Paul repeatedly has praised the work ethic, approach and intelligence of Hornets rookie coach Monty Williams, who in turn has referred to Paul as "a monster" after victories in which the star guard took over in the clutch.
"He has had a lot of pressure on him all year," Williams said. "Stuff that everybody else says about his future ... we'll deal with those things when they come up, but for me it doesn't change my job. He's been a pro. He's been a cog in this wheel all season long. The guy should be applauded for that."
Although Paul's scoring average of 15.8 this season has been the lowest of his career, Williams pointed out that his system, which puts a premium on defense and often slows the game down, plays a role in that. Williams added that Paul's average of 9.8 assists would have been better if his teammates made more open shots.
Paul, who'll be 26 in May, also played the first half of this season with a brace on his left knee, which was surgically repaired last year.
Although Paul said he is healthy now, coaches say he's played through pain, and played well, on numerous occasions.
"He's gone out and played at a very high level all year and he's played when he's been hurt, so I think his heart is into this team 100 percent," said Malone, who was a Cleveland assistant when LeBron James played for the Cavaliers. "He's made his teammates better and made us better as coaches, which, to me, is a true sign of greatness. He's a special individual and we're going to need him."