New Hornets' Brain Trust, Demps and Williams, Got Paul to Trust in Them
NEW ORLEANS -- As the New Orleans Hornets continue both their first West Coast swing of the season and their best start in franchise history, Chris Paul has made his new-found joy in the only NBA home he's ever known clear. The 11-1 record going into Monday's game against the L.A. Clippers is, obviously, the motivation for his saying to FanHouse, "Yes, I'm happy.''
That came as no surprise to one of the two men charged with securing Paul's' happiness after what seemed on course to be an ugly, LeBron-style break-up. On the surface, there seemed to be little Monty Williams -- a first-year head coach and the youngest one in the league -- and Dell Demps -- a first-time general manager who got hired a month and a half after Williams -- were equipped to do to bring Paul back around.
Clearly, Demps and Williams did something right between the summer and now, even if they don't take much credit for it now.
"After talking to Chris, I never got the impression that he wanted to be traded,'' Demps said as he sat in an interview room in New Orleans Arena after the Hornets' win over Cleveland last Friday. "After talking to him, I thought that he wanted to win. The things we talked to him about were -- (we said,) 'We could tell you this and tell you that, but we want to put together a group that's ready to win for a long time.'''
Paul had been told that before, and in fact the Hornets had won a division title in 2007-08 -- but then had fired his coach and mentor, Byron Scott, early last season, and that soured him on the direction of the franchise as much as anything. When Jeff Bowers, the general manager who had hired Williams, stepped down, Demps -- just 40 and a world traveler as a pro player -- was hired, and the front office was torn up and rebuilt, again with no assurance that this would make Paul want to stay and reap the benefits.
Until the new tandem got to work.
"We wanted to put a plan together, a plan that would include input from the guys,'' Demps said, "because the players have to be in it, and the players have to be in position to win games. I didn't have to sell it. We really wanted to do more showing than selling, not saying, 'We're gonna do this and we're gonna do that.' It was more about showing them.''
Demps, then, had to put into action all he had learned in five years in the Spurs front office, under Gregg Popovich and his right-hand man, R.C. Buford -- which, ironically, shared the NBA's best record with the Hornets as of Monday. The year before Demps arrived in 2005, Williams had been an assistant coach under Popovich, following his nine-year playing career (where, among others, he had absorbed lessons from Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers), performing as unglamorous a set of duties as can be imagined. "I was below the assistant video guy,'' he said, only half-joking.
While Williams went on from there to join Nate McMillan's staff in Portland, Demps arrived in San Antonio after coaching in the D-League and working in the Knicks front office, and did the executive version of the grunt jobs -- neither one, they both said, had "skipped any steps.''
When Williams took the Hornets job in June, he had paid his dues, and Demps had done the same when he was hired to replace Bowers in July -- after nearly taking the Suns' job that eventually went to Lon Babby. Yet the Paul situation was one that neither man could honestly say he was prepared to handle. Demps said he had been concentrating so much on the Suns' position by the time the Hornets contacted him, his first word of Paul's discontent came when he saw it on an airport TV on the way to his interview.
Williams, meanwhile, knew that he didn't have a famous name or a bunch of rings to convince Paul or forward David West, the other only remaining player from the Scott days, to stay on board.
"I didn't create whatever the situation was here,'' he said last week after the team had practiced in their facility in the New Orleans suburbs. "So to go through all that as a rookie coach, I questioned whether I was ready for all this. I spent the summer before the season asking myself, 'Is this something I'm prepared for?' And the answer was no, I wasn't prepared for all of that. It made me objective, because I knew I had to do my job.
"The conversations I had with Chris were good enough for me, and that's all I could go off of. I just felt that once I got to training camp, I could show who I was, and that's all I could rely on.''
Having pinpointed the source of Paul's trade feelers, Demps and Williams set about to remake the roster. The result, as of Monday, is that just five players from the end of last season's 35-win campaign are back. That's one fewer than on Friday, before Peja Stojakovic and his expiring contract were dealt to Toronto. Even with anchors like Paul and West -- as well as Emeka Okafor, who was acquired for Tyson Chandler, a close Paul ally -- the assembled roster didn't have "title contender'' stamped on it: Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, Willie Green, Jason Smith, Jerryd Bayless (since departed along with Stojakovic) and the like.
Demps and Williams saw the common denominator. "We were all in the same boat. They're trying to prove themselves, I'm trying to prove myself and install this system,'' Williams said. "They could've easily come in and say, 'Hey man, show me.' They didn't come in here with that attitude -- it was like, 'OK, Coach, we're here, let's make it work.'''
Nobody truly thought it would come together that quickly -- and, it pleases many a Hornets supporter no end, faster than a certain group of marquee newcomers in South Beach with a young coach.
The Hornets were the last team to lose this season, a distinction that has led the last three such teams to the Finals. Only Cleveland reached 100 points against them in their first 12 games. No one looks at the team as an early fluke -- especially not with Paul on board and playing like the All-Star he was before his injuries last season. Of course, none of this is possible without the full commitment and satisfaction of the best player in the league at his position, something Williams never overlooks.
"One of the big things I took from (Popovich) is, 'Don't mess up what you have that's good,''' Williams said with a laugh. "If you have some good stuff, don't get in the way of it.''
Now, it is time to learn how to sustain it, Demps' goal all along, rather than getting off to a hot first three weeks: "This is a new thing for a lot of them. They have to learn how to manage expectations, stay humble, continue to work hard, and continue to do the things that helped them get to where they are.''
In other words, follow the lead of the head coach and general manager who brought these Hornets together -- and kept Paul in the fold.