NEW YORK – Never is there a wise time to test the tolerance of the planet's best point guard, but Rajon Rondo has that irritating ability to push people's patience to the brink. The sluggish state of the New Orleans Hornets had Chris Paul seething on Sunday night, his mood even edgier with a report that Rondo had privately disparaged Paul's talents within the Boston Celtics' locker room.
Beyond the charming smile and gentlemanly disposition, Paul has a tenacious will and a terrific temper. Beyond it all, he's downright ferocious.
So, here was Rondo surrounded with an embarrassment of point guard riches – K.G., Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, a championship banner and a fat, new $55 million contract. Rondo felt emboldened, eager to engage Paul. The procession of trash talk, sources said, pushed into the personal when Rondo was heard to tell Paul, "I've got a ring, and you're never gonna win one."
As they traded technical fouls at the Boston Garden, as emotions escalated, sources said Rondo declared that Paul wished he could be him, suggesting that his frustration dripped with envy. On the way to the locker room, Hornets coach Byron Scott heard Paul insist that Rondo "is gonna respect me as a man," and soon Paul started on his way down the corridor to tell the Celtics point guard himself.
Several coaches prevented Paul from getting close to Rondo outside the Celtics' locker room, but the overriding theme of Paul's rage was easily understood: Before you talk trash again, feel free to walk a mile in my Brand Jordan's.
"If Rondo had to trade in K.G., Pierce, Ray and Rasheed for the guys that Chris plays with [in New Orleans], I guarantee that you wouldn't be seeing Rondo get a $55 million contract," one Hornets source said.
Twenty-four hours later on Monday night, Paul played brilliantly – 32 points and 13 assists – and still the Hornets lost again. This time, it was to the pitiful New York Knicks, 117-111 at Madison Square Garden. When someone suggested the Hornets could lose contact with contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference, that the Hornets didn't want to be a seventh or eighth seed, Paul responded in a most truthful way. "Man," he said, "we want to get to the playoffs."
The Hornets are no longer contending with the elite of the West, but fighting to simply make the playoffs. There's an arms race of payroll and facilities the Hornets haven't joined under penny-pinching owner George Shinn. Shinn doesn't have the resources to chase championships, and never will.
The owner runs the Hornets like a mom-and-pop operation, with his son-in-law and son in high-ranking jobs, with the most bare-boned front office and scouting staffs in the NBA. The Hornets have plans for a new practice facility, but currently play in a dumpy community center best suited for the bird and reptile shows that cover most of its calendar. It speaks to Paul's character, his loyalty, that he signed a three-year extension with New Orleans in 2008.
This is a treacherous time for the 24-year-old Paul, a crossroads for a career that's at the mercy of circumstances beyond his control. At a time when his twentysomething all-world peers – LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony – play for committed organizations with serious owners, the faulty infrastructure of Shinn's flimsy franchise has undermined Paul's championship ambitions.
"I'm envious," Paul said. "I'm very envious. Those guys have been where I want to get to. This is my fifth year in the league, and I'm not trying to wait until I'm an old veteran in this league to win a championship. We're trying to win now."
They're trying, but Paul knows that his general manager, Jeff Bower, has to trim $3 million off the payroll to dodge the luxury tax. The Hornets can't win a playoff series as constructed, and deep down Paul understands his greatness is born of his passing and playmaking, born of elevating those around him. He can score, but that'll never be the way the Hornets win with him.
"I'm a point guard," he said. "I can't score the ball like Carmelo, LeBron and D-Wade. At the end of the day, it's always going to be a team thing with us, with me getting guys involved."
Paul's unselfishness has always spilled out of the gymnasium. He was raised to honor loyalty and still treats his alma mater, Wake Forest, and that Winston-Salem community with incredible generosity. He believed he had a responsibility to be a part of the rebuilding of New Orleans' pride, its city.
From an empty arena, Paul saved the New Orleans Hornets the way that LSU's own Pistol Pete Maravich could never save the New Orleans Jazz. He turned David West into an All-Star and resurrected Tyson Chandler's career. No player – not LeBron, not D-Wade – means more to a team, a franchise.
Shinn is a farce, forever insisting that his moral compass brought the franchise back from exile in Oklahoma City, but truth be told he never wanted to return. The NBA pushed him into New Orleans, understanding it would've been a PR nightmare to abandon the post-Katrina city. That's Shinn, the ultimate front-runner. He now takes bows for the Hornets' popularity, but it's laughable.
Every star in the NBA would be crying for help, would be demanding higher payroll and a higher caliber of teammate. Tell Paul about the payroll escalation with San Antonio and Dallas in the Southwest Division and he never, ever bites. There's enough in this locker room to win, he will tell you, even if deep down he has his own doubts. Yet, he understands he has to convince his teammates that he believes to ever have a chance to get the most out of them.
"Hey, I'm going to be a team guy," he said. "Anytime something happens, I'm going to have my guys' backs. …When I talk to Jeff [Bower], it's all about, 'What can we do with the guys that we have?' "
In every way, this makes him the rarest of franchise players. Paul understands that it's his responsibility, a burden assumed in good times and bad. It's noble for him, and, yet sadly, it probably puts him at a competitive disadvantage. Paul's never made demands on Hornets ownership, that way that LeBron does with Cleveland, the way that Tim Duncan did with San Antonio.
Sometimes, a star has to hold his franchise accountable in public and private. Sometimes, he has to keep the fear of him leaving in free agency – or forcefully demanding a trade – to keep everyone honest and accountable. He has a good GM and a winning coach on his side, but the Hornets need bigger budgets for scouting and assistant coaches. They're a mid-major trying to compete with BCS powers, and Paul is the star quarterback with too little offensive line protection, too few playmakers to catch the ball.
Outside the visiting locker room on Monday night, on his walk to visit with family on the trip, Paul conceded, "This [franchise] is still a work in progress. We're still an organization that's trying to get up … "
For now, Paul has never been so frustrated. He has no patience for losing. Baseball season still isn't over and the losing, the non-competitiveness of his team, is taking its toll. He lost his cool with Rondo, and appeared to swipe at Al Harrington's head on the floor while chasing a loose ball Monday. Paul had no use for Rondo, but the partial noogie that he gave Harrington, a friend, was clearly a misdemeanor of passion.
The NBA is investigating the Rondo matter, CBS Sportsline reported, but it's doubtful anything punitive will come of it. After the game Sunday night, Celtics guard Ray Allen walked into the Hornets' locker room, witnesses said, and all but expressed his embarrassment for Rondo's increasingly tired act.
Still, those words from Rondo had to hit Chris Paul like a freight train – You'll never win a ring – because so much of success in this sport is born out of circumstance and good fortune. Rondo stumbled into the Big 3 in Boston for a championship, and Paul ended up with the Celtics' leftover sixth man, James Posey, who can barely function on the floor this season.
Chris Paul is the planet's best point guard and wouldn't need that staggering array of talent surrounding Rondo to win titles of his own.
When asked how difficult mediocrity could get for him this season, asked how he would ever stand for it, Paul said, "Let me say this: I want to win."
His eyes were wide now, and he wanted his point understood. "I … want … to … win. Whatever it takes me to do, I'm going to find a way."
As a leader, that's his burden. As a pragmatic basketball mind, it's ultimately unrealistic. He needs more help. He needs a level plane. For now, Chris Paul isn't chasing championships in New Orleans. He's chasing windmills. He's just trying to get back to .500, just trying to make the playoffs. Bring Rondo and his tough-talking mouth to New Orleans, and, well, the $55 million point guard would look like he's lording over the Sacramento Kings. Before you talk your trash again, feel free to walk a season in Chris Paul's Brand Jordans.