Let's start with a conclusion: the New Orleans Hornets must rebuild.
Last year's Hornets squad overachieved, which meant finishing seventh in the Western Conference and getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. It's not entirely clear how New Orleans gets better. The team's second-best player, forward David West, is a free agent. He's also about to turn 31 and coming off a torn ACL, so his best days are behind him. If the Hornets re-sign West, it will be difficult to bring back many of their seven other free agents, a group which includes four rotation players.
While the New Orleans lineup is not especially long in the tooth, only second-year forward Quincy Pondexter has any real room for growth. The Hornets' best young prospect was guard Marcus Thornton, who was unable to win the trust of coach Monty Williams. Thornton was traded at the deadline for forward Carl Landry, an unrestricted free agent who is likely to walk.
It is difficult, and maybe impossible, to see how New Orleans gets from battling for a playoff spot to legitimately contending in the Western Conference. Given that, loyalty to the Hornets is the only compelling reason for Chris Paul to stick around should he opt to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
That doesn't necessarily mean New Orleans should immediately look to trade Paul. If the Hornets let West walk, for example, they have just three players under guaranteed contract for the 2012-13 season: Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack and Emeka Okafor. So going far under the cap to sign a replacement for Paul when and if he leaves is one possible scenario.