With the 11th overall pick in the NBA draft and Chris Paul on their roster, the New Orleans Hornets are in a prime position to make a blockbuster trade.
For now, though, the franchise’s owners are having a hard time even pondering a deal that would send Paul out of the Big Easy.
"Chris Paul is the cornerstone of our franchise and brings us unequaled support on and off the court,” Hornets majority owner George Shinn said Wednesday in a statement released on both his and partner Gary Chouest’s behalf. "We will continue to build around Chris Paul, and we want to see him in a Hornets uniform for the remainder of his career.
"We have an exciting future,” the statement continued. "With the leadership of our new head coach and players like Chris Paul, we know the best is yet to come.”
Hornets general manager Jeff Bower said he has been fielding a number of calls about possible trades from teams around the league, but has declined to specify which teams, or how many, have made offers for Paul.
Bower said only that he’s obliged to listen to offers for every player in order to gauge the value of the players on his roster.
Bower added that the Hornets appreciate Paul’s role both on the court and in the community, and place a high value on that.
New head coach Monty Williams took it a step further, saying Paul was "the main thing” that excited him about taking over in New Orleans and that he could not envision opening next season without him.
"Chris is a Hornet and I think he’s going to be here for a long time,” Williams said.
If Paul is to remain in New Orleans – and win – he’ll need more help, and fast.
When they were healthy, the Hornets were barely good enough last season to contend for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. When Paul was injured for much of the second half of the season, not even the promising play of rookie guards Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton could prevent New Orleans from plummeting out of the playoff picture.
Bower said he is considering a wide range of options in Thursday’s draft, including trading the pick to move up or down in the draft order. If the Hornets hold on to their pick, there should be players available at No. 11 who can improve the club right away, Bower said.
If New Orleans decides against packaging Collison in a trade, the Hornets are unlikely to draft another point guard. Only three of the 14 prospects invited for workouts at the Hornets training center were smaller than 6-foot-6.
The rest were swing players, power forwards or centers including Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson, Baylor forward Ekpe Udoh, Nevada forward Luke Babbitt, Texas swingman Damion James, LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell, Kansas center Cole Aldrich and Butler swingman Gordon Hayward.
"When we look at this class and look at our team, we feel there’s the space for us to continue to add depth to not only the wing position but the front line position,” Bower said. "We feel we have room for another quality player at either spot.”
Also working out for New Orleans were Iowa State forward Craig Brackins, Xavier forward/center Jason Love, Kansas swingman Xavier Henry, Oklahoma state guard James Anderson, Southern California guard Dwight Lewis, South Florida guard Dominique Jones and Houston guard Aubrey Coleman.
Although New Orleans allowed 102.7 points per game last season, which ranked 20th in the league defensively, Williams said he would still favor drafting a gifted scorer to compliment the offense provided by Paul and power forward David West, even if such a prospect had perceived weaknesses defensively.
"We obviously need shooting to go with Chris and David,” Williams said.
The Hornets thought they had a wing player of the future in 2007 when they drafted Julian Wright out of Kansas in the first round, but his progress has been slower than expected as he enters the fourth and final year of his contract.
Wright has remained in New Orleans to work on his game this summer, hoping he can turn the corner in time to save his career. If he fails, he’ll represent the type of mistake the Hornets must avoid repeating this year.
Williams was quick to point out some of the pitfalls of picking in the top half of the draft.
On one hand, he said, an 11th pick can be attractive in that it provides teams the versatility to trade up or down or stay put and still get a good player.
"But it’s also a position where you can make a mistake because somebody will drop and you jump on them because they dropped, but they may have dropped for a reason,” Williams said. "You just never know.”