At every gym and every park where there’s a basketball court, you’ll find that guy who’s saddled with a team of four bums. Whether he’s a point guard or a big man, a kid or a 40-year-old, you can often find him by his facial expression: Less of a boiling frustration and more of a miffed resignation that’s steadily losing its steam. He’s not mad anymore, just annoyed over something he can’t control; the only reason he’s not cussing the bums out and sucking his teeth every other play is because his teammates are his friends, or it’s just not in his nature to be a jerk. You’ve seen that guy. Maybe you are that guy. Me? I’m usually playing on that guy’s team.
Chris Paul looks like that guy. Through the first four games of this season, he has clearly seen what the rest of us can see — that his New Orleans Hornets aren’t very good. Even before the reported post-game altercation involving Rajon Rondo following Sunday’s loss at Boston or the other controversial incident where CP allegedly threw a couple jabs at Al Harrington while the two went after a loose ball in the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss at New York, it’s been obvious to anybody watching that Chris Paul is not having a good time out there. His frustration is palpable.
Going back to that definitive 58-point drubbing the Hornets endured against Denver in last year’s playoffs, it seems Paul doesn’t trust his teammates as much as he used to, or he just thinks they’re not as good as other teams he’s been on. Last night’s 13-assist effort was CP’s first double-digit assist game of the new season, bumping his average 8.5 per game, still way below his usual standards. Meanwhile, Paul is scoring 27.7 points per game, on pace for a career-high.
In the fourth quarter against the Knicks, it seemed like the only time the Hornets could generate some offense was when CP decided he was going to score. When he tried to let fellow All-Star David West take over, West turned the ball over or threw up bad shots. Everyone else just stood there waiting for catch-and-shoot opportunities or playing for offensive rebounds. And as good as Paul is, he can’t consistently beat teams by himself like that. Not even the Knicks. He can’t be Isiah Thomas if he doesn’t at least have a Joe Dumars or Mark Aguirre working to get buckets as well.
Whether the Hornets continue to struggle and ultimately miss the playoffs, or if CP is able to carry them out of the Lottery, the 2010 offseason strategy should be clear: They need scorers. Right now they’ve got stationary Mo Pete starting at two-guard and Julian Wright at the three, who is athletic but not quite polished offensively. The other wing, Peja Stojakovic, is only as good as his now-streaky jumper. The Hornets need somebody who can create his own shot, whom Paul can rely on put points on the board without his assistance, allowing CP to be a creator and not call his own number so much.
In the meantime, CP will continue to look like that frustrated guy playing pickup ball. After the New York game he said, “I hate to lose more than I like to win,” a sentiment that’s showing itself as the Hornets slog through this early part of the schedule.
Don’t let the NBA marketing machine fool you: On the court, CP isn’t the happy, smiley, friendly guy he is off the court. He’s a tough (sometimes dirty) competitor. But he’s also not this perpetually pissed-off version of himself, either.
Maybe it’s not cause for concern yet. Maybe fixing this brewing problem could be as simple as New Orleans winning some games. But the complicated part is figuring out how N.O., with the way they’ve been playing, can go about getting those wins.