Back in Las Vegas over the summer, New Orleans Hornets general manager Jeff Bower watched courtside at Team USA's workouts, his gifted young guard confirming the executive's suspicions on the kid's pedigree. With so little on Chris Paul's team, with so much on his shoulders, Bower marveled over seeing the rookie's genius still surface.
Now, Bower could see his franchise's future, the possibilities of Paul with talent on his team.
"In August, we were able to see how much he could accomplish, how much better he could be, with a level of talent around him," Bower said by phone the other day.
The Hornets are finding this truth to play out this season. They surrounded Paul with the proper pieces – a rebounder (Tyson Chandler), a shooter (Peja Stojakovic) and a veteran (Bobby Jackson) – and found him to be elevating again. They will forever be grateful to the Hawks for passing on Paul in the 2005 draft, allowing this lost franchise to start finding its way again.
Owner George Shinn entrusted Bower with committing to $146 million of fresh contracts and extensions to give his team a shot at reaching the Western Conference playoffs. The Hornets have something special with Paul – a peerless young point guard, leader and winner – and they wouldn't let him linger in limbo between Oklahoma City and New Orleans or become disillusioned without running buddies.
After the best start in franchise history (4-0), the Hornets found out fast that the landscape in the league's lottery land is rapidly changing.
They stumbled against rejuvenated teams in Golden State and Portland on Thursday and Friday nights, losses that would be indicators of the leveling power base in the league. From the Bay Area to the Northwest and Atlanta to Toronto, the Hornets are leading the charge of lottery teams fighting their way out of the NBA's dregs toward respectability, resisting with a new resolve that trip to the dreaded draft lottery dais in Secaucus.
San Antonio assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo said something interesting Saturday night on the Knicks' pregame radio show, suggesting that maybe the depth of the NBA could preclude a 60-victory team this season. Along with the Mavericks and Suns off to such sluggish starts and with Shaquille O'Neal already missing games for the Heat, it could turn out to be that only Carlesimo's Spurs could reach 60.
There promises to be some fresh-faced challenges to the bottom seeds in the Western and Eastern playoffs, something that begins with the possibility of the Hornets completing a magnificent climb out of the ashes. After winning 18 games two years ago and 38 in 2005-2006, the Hornets could be on the cusp of sparing Bower that springtime rendezvous at the Secaucus Embassy Suites.
Between then and now, Bower remains perhaps the most unrecognizable G.M. in the league, an anonymous ex-college assistant at Penn State, St. Francis, Pa., and Marist who worked his way up the hard way. With the Hornets, he would rise from scout to player personnel, an assistant coach under Paul Silas and Tim Floyd and an executive under Bob Bass and Allan Bristow until the top basketball executive's job belonged to him before the 2005-2006 season.
Free of ego and content to let Paul and coach Byron Scott be the faces of the franchise, Bower translated his owner's mandate of not exceeding the salary cap into giving the Hornets a fighting chance at contention again.
And as much as anything, the common thread of change with the NBA's bad teams comes with leadership. For the Hornets, everything starts with Paul.
It's the little things that Bower notices with Paul, that makes him believe in the guard for the long run. Before the season, The Oklahoman newspaper wanted Paul to pose for the cover of its basketball preview section. Fine, he told them. "But he would only pose if his teammates were with him in the shot," Bower said.
"Chris has the qualities that define what success is," Bower added. "He's talented individually, but yet he's got an awareness of people around him, a willingness to be a part of something bigger. He understands the role of a leader."
Which is why – contrary to the perceptions created by the vicious coup that brought his demise in New Jersey – Scott is the perfect influence for Chris Paul. After playing with Magic Johnson and coaching Jason Kidd, Scott has learned intimately the lessons of winning point guard play. As Scott did with the Nets, he inspires an environment of expectation and winning, an old Showtime Laker refusing ever to be ruffled, ever to be pushed around.
Bower didn't hire Scott, but he swears by him. Whatever happened in Jersey, happened there. Scott lived through a 26-victory rookie season with the Nets, just as he did an 18-victory season with New Orleans two years ago. After Scott was undone from within his organization with the Nets, he's made sure his relationships are stronger in New Orleans/Oklahoma City, that his work ethic stands unquestioned now. The bottom line is this: The NBA is a results business, something that was lost in the past smearing of Scott's reputation.
"Byron has given us a chance to win every night," Bower said. "Through his confidence level, his preparation and approach, he has our entire team sold on it."
It is a long treacherous road out of NBA lottery land and into the playoffs. Maybe this is finally the start of something for the Hornets. Maybe they're finally on the way.