SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The belief was he wanted a one-way ticket out of New Orleans. There was talk he wasn't the NBA's best point guard anymore, mostly from concern over his surgically repaired left knee that now bears a hefty brace. And despite losing just once in their first 12 games, his New Orleans Hornets have lots of non-believers – including their own fans, who weren't interested enough to sell out a recent visit by Miami's Big Three.
"It was hilarious," Paul said about all the off-season talk after helping the Hornets improve to a co-NBA-best 11-1 on Sunday with a 75-71 victory over the Kings.
"A lot of people say stuff," he added. "They draw conclusions. I'm just glad that all that is over with. It doesn't even matter now. I'm just glad I get the chance to play again."
Paul was widely considered the NBA's best point guard when he entered the 2009-10 NBA season. Garnering a 2008 All-NBA first-team selection and an All-NBA defensive team selection merits such high praise. But after missing a career-high 37 games last season, plenty of space was suddenly available on the Chris Paul fan bandwagon.
With Paul out of the spotlight, talk of the NBA's best point guard turned to Utah's Deron Williams(notes) and to a lesser extent Boston's Rajon Rondo(notes) and Chicago's Derrick Rose(notes). The Hornets ended up with only 37 wins, failed to make the playoffs and fired coach Byron Scott and general manager Jeff Bower. And the word out of New Orleans was that Paul wanted out despite never publicly saying so.
Interest in one of the NBA's best players waned so low that the Hornets were scheduled for only one national TV game this season. Paul acknowledged he could be playing with a chip on his shoulder, but he's learned not to worry about what everyone else thinks.
"I might have used to care a little bit," Paul said. "A few years ago I might have said, 'Man, we only have five nationally televised games.' Now, I'm to the point where I don't care. I watch basketball. It is what it is. It's a business.
"We're just going to keep hooping. We are going to be on [NBA] League Pass every night, be on Cox Sports Television. [Hornets games are] going to be on in New Orleans. … I'm just going to keep hooping."
New Hornets general manager Dell Demps, however, can't confirm that Paul wants to play long-term for the Hornets.
"I try to not answer questions for other people," Demps said. "Our goal [in New Orleans] is to build a good organization, and Chris is an important part of that and we want him here for a long time."
Paul knew very little about Demps and new Hornets coach Monty Williams. Considering both were rookies at the highest level in their respective fields, the challenge of quickly getting on the same page with Paul and earning his respect seemed like a daunting one. Even so, a proactive Demps and a no-nonsense Williams made great strides with Paul during a late-July meeting that also included team president Hugh Weber.
"Both of those guys have come in and really made this like a family," Paul said of Demps and Williams.
Said Demps: "We just didn't want to say, 'We're going to do this … We're going to do this … We're going to do this.' It was more of a 'show you.' 'Here's our plan and we're going to show you. He [Paul] has been engaged and he's been participating. He has ideas.' "
With exception to maybe Miami's Pat Riley, Demps has been the NBA's most active GM. He traded for forward-center Jason Smith(notes) and guard Willie Green(notes) in September, forward Trevor Ariza(notes) and guard Marco Belinelli(notes) in August and guard Jerryd Bayless(notes) in October. Last Saturday, he acquired guards Jarrett Jack(notes) and Marcus Banks(notes) and center David Andersen(notes) from Toronto in exchange for Peja Stojakovic(notes) and Bayless.
Only Paul, forward David West(notes), guard Marcus Thornton(notes), center Emeka Okafor(notes) and center Aaron Gray(notes) remain from last season's squad. With all of the personnel changes, the Hornets have a $9.65 million trade exception available until the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Paul described the Hornets' front office work as "so far, so good."
"Dell is not a GM that just shows up at the game," Paul said. "You see him at practice. You see him on the road. He's very engaging."
While Paul's return certainly helps, Williams has stressed defense as the key to making the Hornets tough to beat. New Orleans enters Monday's games second in the NBA in points allowed (90.4 per game), first in field-goal percentage defense (42.5), eighth in steals per game (8.25) and fourth in blocks per game (5.33). Paul ranked second in steals (3.0) while Okafor was eighth in blocks (2.25).
"Defensively we've been outstanding," Paul said. "It really shows what our M.O. is. We hang our hats on the defensive end every night."
Williams would be a shoe-in for November's Western Conference Coach of the Month if his mentor, Gregg Popovich, whose San Antonio Spurs also are 11-1, wasn't doing equally as well. Such a strong start for Williams and the Hornets seemed unlikely when they went 1-7 in the preseason, including a 54-point rout by the Magic, but with Williams and Paul in sync, New Orleans has flourished.
"Coach was honest with me, and I was the same way with him," Paul said. "He knows I can read people pretty well. Coach has been straightforward with me since Day 1. I appreciate that. That's why we've been able to make it work."
"I am not into fake building of relationships," Williams said. "I just think it happens over time. Chris has 50,000 people trying to get a hold of him and trying to hang out with him. I just think that stuff happens naturally.
"I'm too boring anyways. I'm serious, I'm telling you – I know me and he isn't going to want to come to my home, watch film and walk the kids around the park."
One of the biggest concerns for the Hornets was finding a quality backup to Paul. New Orleans got that solved by dealing for Jack, Paul's longtime close friend and former Atlantic Coast Conference rival who averaged 10.8 points, 4.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds while starting all of Toronto's first 13 games.
The Hornets could even play a small backcourt with Paul and Jack, but Jack's main role is to give Paul's left knee some much-needed rest. If the physicals of the five players in Saturday's five-player swap with Toronto are cleared, Jack could debut for the Hornets on Monday night against the Clippers.
"I'm excited," Paul said. "J-Jack is like a brother to me. We talk on a regular basis. Our families are really close. He's a great player. I'm excited for him to be here."
Paul and the Hornets seem thrilled to still be together. And why shouldn't they? Their rejuvenation and new direction has them looking like an NBA power.
"I'm happy. I'm happy. We're good to go," Paul said. "We're looking good right now."
Said Demps, jokingly: "It's just the way we drew it up."