It’s impossible to read body language over the phone, which means it’s time to start using Skype for phone interviews. Anyway, I can only guess at the expression on Monty Williams’ face when I asked him about keeping Chris Paul happy this week. But I can convey the words.
And the words were fairly powerful.
Williams, coaching the only undefeated team in the NBA not named the Lakers, has done a masterful job along with new GM Dell Demps defusing the potential train wreck that those summer trade requests by Paul’s representatives could have caused. Not only is Paul engaged, smiling, and at the top of his game, but the Hornets (7-0) are playing better basketball than almost anyone imagined.
So when I asked Williams how he’s been able to manage the CP3 situation, he said matter-of-factly, “To be honest with you, there was nothing for us to manage. Chris has never shown any signs, at least to me, of wanting to leave and being unhappy and all this other stuff. I came in with the mindset of doing my job and have held to that. And it’s going to be that way until I don’t have this job. All that stuff that happened this summer, it’s unfortunate that all this stuff was put out there like that. But it could’ve been a lot worse.”
At which point I posed the next logical question: What has to happen for the CP3 trade winds to remain in their current state of tranquility? (Well, I didn’t exactly phrase it like that. I’m not Walt Frazier. But sometimes the keyboard just goes off in a direction and I get out of the way.)
“I just think it’s a shot at him when we talk like that,” Williams said. “When people say we have to get off to a good start or he’s going to do X, Y, or Z; Chris is just not that kind of person. I just think he’s the salt of the Earth when it comes to many facets of life. I never see a guy like that tucking his tail and running when things get tough.”
The Hornets’ fast start, the revived play of Emeka Okafor, and the defensive commitment that was so often lacking last season, have all been decidedly positive for the Hornets and their efforts – admitted or otherwise – to keep their superstar happy. To what extent the Hornets sustain their early success, and how it affects Paul’s long-term view of his championship chances in New Orleans, remain open questions that are impossible to answer now.
What Paul wanted more than anything, sources say, was a vision and a plan. He is finally beginning to see a semblance of both from this new tandem of Demps and Williams. But that won’t be enough in the long run. Though happy with the way the team is playing and with the direction that Demps and Williams have chosen, those familiar with Paul’s long-term goals believe it will take more than that to appease him. That’s why the Hornets have joined the chorus of teams calling Philadelphia officials to inquire about the availability of Andre Iguodala. Would the Sixers’ star be enough to give Paul a taste of what it’s like to play with a top-tier talent, like his friends pulled off in Miami? Time will tell, but the fact that the Hornets are trying to get him more help even after a 7-0 start has to be taken as a good sign. (Those conversations, per sources, were dead on arrival in Philadelphia, where Rod Thorn and Ed Stefanski aren’t ready to part ways with Iguodala. Yet.)
Which brings us to the rest of the tea leaf-reading in the Post-Ups:
• After getting off to a surprisingly good start, the Nuggets are entering the next phase of their campaign to win back Carmelo Anthony’s heart. A 144-113 loss to Indiana, in which the Pacers hit 20 of 21 from the field in a 54-point third quarter, could be a sign that a fragile, day-to-day situation could be ready to turn south. With trade-Melo hawk Bret Bearup out of the picture, Nuggets officials are digging in with their patient approach and are giving no clues to rival executives that they’re ready to move forward with serious trade talks unless they get bowled over by an offer. Most execs continue to believe Denver won’t get a better deal than the four-team scenario that had Melo going to New Jersey during the summer. But with the situation so fluid – the Nuggets, in the best of times, have always seemed to be one meltdown away from coming apart – one executive monitoring the Melodrama said he’s “still close to 100 percent” in his belief that Anthony will be traded by the February deadline. Another exec said all signs point to Anthony being “overwhelmingly New York-oriented” in terms of where he’d be willing to extend his contract.
• Amid the mystery that surrounds center Erick Dampier’s decision not to sign with the Rockets, the only thing clear is this: Miami, Toronto and Phoenix have expressed interest in reigniting conversations with the free-agent big man. The Suns, sources say, were the latest team to inquire on Wednesday. The Heat, who earlier backed away from committing to Dampier, appear to have a different view now that their lack of size has been exposed in recent games against New Orleans (Okafor) and Utah (Paul Millsap.)
• Kevin Love’s breakout double-double (23 points and 24 rebounds Tuesday night against the Lakers) only underscored the bizarre dispute between the 22-year-old and coach Kurt Rambis over his minutes. Love has been walking a fine line between publicly grumbling and saying the right things of late, and other teams have taken note. One team that would be an ideal fit for Love, Houston, has explored the possibility to the point of presenting trade scenarios to the Wolves. Coach Rick Adelman lives in Love’s hometown, Lake Oswego, Ore. Adelman's son, Patrick, was a teammate of Love’s in high school. Those overtures, sources say, have been met with an icy response. Another team to keep an eye on with regard to Love is the Trail Blazers. No stranger to frontcourt injuries, Portland doesn’t want to get caught shorthanded again.
• Steve Nash has been very up front about how much work the Suns have to do after Amar’e Stoudemire’s departure. Without his pick-and-roll partner, Nash has seen Phoenix struggle out of the gate – which inevitably has led to trade rumors surfacing. It’s too early now, but at some point the Suns will have to come to grips with the fact that they aren’t a lock for the playoffs and that Nash is 36 and has $22 million coming to him over the next two seasons. Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that this scenario has been discussed or is in any way imminent. But what a boost Nash would provide for the Orlando Magic, who need a dynamic point guard to feed Dwight Howard in the post and on the move. With a potent big man and 3-point shooters all around, Nash would feel right at home in Orlando. If Phoenix decides to take firm steps toward rebuilding and cost-cutting, Vince Carter would more than fit the bill with only $4 million guaranteed in 2011-12. The problem is, Carter makes more than Nash, and clearly isn’t worth more than Nash. So a third team may be required to even out money and value in such a scenario.
• Ben Golliver pretty well summed it up in his piece about the colliding eras in Detroit: The Pistons are a mess. Though Rip Hamilton’s contract, with $21.5 guaranteed over the next two seasons heading into CBA uncertainty, will be exceedingly difficult to move. But Tayshaun Prince, with an $11.1 million expiring deal, already is generating interest among teams looking to get their payrolls in order. Sources say the Pistons are expected to make their interest known in participating in the Carmelo Anthony talks as a third team, with Prince satisfying part of what Denver is looking for as a wing player on an expiring deal.
• For John Wall, the adjustment to the NBA game has been nothing compared to the adjustment of playing alongside a deposed superstar. The Wizards’ first two games with Gilbert Arenas healthy and available resulted in losses to the Knicks and Cavs. Not coincidentally, Wall had 15 turnovers in the two games. Though Arenas continued to say all the right things about not wanting to get in Wall’s way, it’s going to be hard not to. When the Wizards needed buckets against the Knicks on Friday night, teammates turned to Arenas, who had 18 points and expressed surprise that his teammates “still trusted my talent.” The fallout from Arenas’ return was coach Flip Saunders walking out of practice, and then saying Wednesday that Arenas has a long way to go before he regains the leg strength and conditioning to play back-to-backs. Arenas spent long stretches on the bench Wednesday night against the Rockets, and Wall was on his way to one of his more complete games. The tip-toeing around Arenas is going to continue for Wall until A) they figure out how to play together, or B) Arenas fuels what little trade interest there might be out there by proving to suitors that he can still get to the basket and score. Early returns on both: It’s going to take some time.
• The NBA projected a 2.5 percent to 5 percent drop in revenues last season, and it never materialized. In fact, revenues went up to the highest level in league history. Now, sources tell CBSSports.com that the league’s number-crunches are projecting a significantly rosier 2010-11, with current projections calling for a 3 to 3.5 percent rise in basketball-related income (BRI). That would amount to a second consecutive season of record revenues for owners who are insisting they’ll lose another $370 million this season – a figure they cite as the reason they are seeking a decrease in payroll of between $750 million and $800 million annually, including rollbacks on existing contracts. It seems farcical. But with bargaining entering a crucial phase leading up to the February All-Star break, league negotiators have been trying to impress on the players in recent bargaining sessions that it costs about 75 cents for the league to generate each additional dollar in revenues. Here’s the model league negotiators have been peddling to the players, according to sources: If revenues went up 3 percent this season, that would be an increase of $120 million. Under the current labor deal, which guarantees players 57 percent of BRI, roughly $68 million of that would go to the players. That would leave $52 million for the owners, but not really. League negotiators say it costs about $20 million in non-player expenses – staff, marketing, sponsorship activation, etc. – to generate that $120 million in revenues. So after all the extra season tickets, walk-up sales, and sponsorship renewals generated by the cosmic shift in talent and interest this season, the owners say they’d actually wind up with only $32 million – a little more than a million per team. Now, it isn’t the players’ fault that it costs that much to do basketball business; commissioner David Stern’s talk, for instance, of creating a European division should be shelved until after the labor talks are resolved. It only draws attention to more unnecessary expenses. The sticking point is that the players don’t believe they should bear the brunt of those costs – and rightfully so. But this is the dance they’ll be dancing right down to the June 30, 2011 deadline to strike a new labor accord. In a business of billions, it all boils down to dollars and cents.