NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Chris Paul would like to see both Marco Belinelli and Jason Smith return to the Hornets next season.
General manager Dell Demps said he feels the same way, but on Thursday was only willing to commit the $3.3 million it would take to restrict Belinelli’s ability to sign with other teams, while letting Smith enter regular free agency.
Demps would have had to offer about $3.1 million to also make the 7-foot Smith a restricted free agent, but decided instead to allow the open market to decide how much New Orleans would have to pay to hold on to him.
“We were very pleased with the performances of both Marco and Jason Smith as each of them had their best professional season,” Demps said in a statement released by the team. “We know both players will continue to improve and hope to have each of them back.”
Belinelli’s agent, Samuel Goldfeder, says he anticipated the qualifying offer his client received after showing promise in his first season as a starter. The 25-year-old, 6-foot-5 Belinelli started 69 games last season, averaging 10.4 points in 24.5 minutes.
The only way Belinelli can leave now is if another team offers him more than New Orleans’ qualifying offer and the Hornets refuse to match it.
Smith’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, said the Hornets have “made it clear they very much want (Smith) back and we are certainly interested, but at the same time it opens up the market for Jason.”
Smith, 25, played mostly at power forward and sometimes at center. He averaged 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds in 14.3 minutes in his first full season since a left knee injury in 2008.
“Marco was outstanding for us, starting, making shots,” Paul said. “Jason was a huge energy boost coming for us off the bench, so I wish those guys the best and, you know, we’ll see what happens.”
Paul is back in New Orleans this week for community service and charity events with his CP3 Foundation, as well as to take in some concerts during the Essence Music Festival.
After talking to children about the importance of exercise and walking a lap with them around the track on Tulane’s campus, Paul discussed the Hornets’ roster with reporters, saying that, with only five players under contract, it was premature to predict how competitive the club might be next season.
“We’ve got to get some guys first,” Paul said.
Paul can opt for free agency after next season, and has said several times that the Hornets must demonstrate a commitment to contending for a title soon to keep him around.
“Everybody knows my heart is here in New Orleans,” Paul said. “I want to win. I want to win now. I’m sure we’re going to continue going in that right direction.”
The Hornets could trade Paul next season to avoid losing him to free agency without compensation, but so far Demps and head coach Monty Williams have not wavered from their stance of keeping Paul as the centerpiece of the franchise and trying to add productive players around him.
This week, however, the Hornets’ roster took a hit when former All-Star power forward David West, who led the Hornets in scoring last season, opted out of the final year of his contract, becoming a free agent. Soon after, 7-foot reserve center Aaron Gray also opted for free agency.
Since Paul’s rookie year in 2005-06, he has always had West as a teammate, and said he is trying to avoid thinking about the possibility of not being able to set up West’s reliable mid-range jump shots or post moves anymore.
A few seasons ago, Paul took it hard when the Hornets traded Tyson Chandler, with whom Paul was able to set up routinely for scoring opportunities in transition or inside, often with spectacular alley-oop lobs.
“Just like when Tyson left, if I didn’t play with David West, I would have to alter my game,” Paul said.
Paul stopped short of demanding that the Hornets do everything in their power to keep West. However, Paul indicated that if the Hornets aggressively pursue a championship, they just might keep both him and West around for a while.
“D-West is like me,” Paul said. “He wants probably what he’s worth, obviously, as anybody would in every profession, and he wants to win.”