NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Hornets leading scorer David West has decided to test free agency, even as he recovers from a left knee injury that required reconstructive surgery late last season.
West, a two-time All-Star who was drafted by New Orleans in 2003, started 70 games last season, averaging 18.9 points to go with 7.6 rebounds before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament during a game on March 24.
He could have extended his contract for one more season at $7.5 million, but after gauging the progress of his rehabilitation and mulling his options with his agent, Lance Young, he informed the Hornets he would opt out of the last year of his contract.
“It’s about making the best decision right now for my family,” West said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s not taking New Orleans out of the equation, just an opportunity to sign better deal, and an opportunity to make sure the decision I make for the next three to four years puts me in the best possible situation to win - not just winning and making the playoffs, but legitimately having a chance to compete for championships.”
Hornets general manager Dell Demps said he still hoped to bring West back.
“We have had open communication with David this entire season about his option and knew with either decision that our intention is to pursue David so he can finish his career as a Hornet,” Demps said.
West had surgery April 12 and his rehabilitation is expected to take six to eight months, but he said he is already jogging on a treadmill, keeping up his weight training and even doing some low-impact work on the basketball court, such as set shots.
“Two days after surgery I dove headfirst into rehab. I haven’t let up. I’m going six days a week,” West said. “I’m really attacking it and I feel good. I haven’t had any pain.”
It is not clear when free agency will begin because the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of this month and a lockout is widely expected to follow. However, West said he was confident that “players and owners are going to get something worked out, whether sooner or later, that’s fair on both sides.”
West’s decision means the Hornets must find a starting power forward through free agency, whether that means bringing back West with a new deal, re-signing fellow free agent Carl Landry, or finding someone else.
New Orleans was not able to add to its roster during the draft. Because of past trades, the Hornets did not have a first-round draft pick and only one pick in the middle of the second round, which they sold to the New York Knicks for about $750,000.
After West went down last season, Landry, who had been acquired in a trade that sent Marcus Thornton to Sacramento in February, moved into West’s starting power forward spot. The Hornets won five of their last 10 regular season games to finish at 46-36, good enough for the seventh playoff seed in the Western Conference.
If Landry also chooses to go elsewhere, that would leave the Hornets thin at power forward.
New Orleans currently has only five players under contract: guards Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack; center Emeka Okafor, small forward Trevor Ariza and second-year swingman Quincy Pondexter. Center Aaron Gray could exercise a player’s option for one more season by the end of the month. Shooting guard Marco Belinelli and forward Jason Smith are both restricted free agents and might return as well.
West said he spoke to Paul on Monday morning about his decision and that Paul, who has played with West his whole career, took it well.
“He understands what’s going on,” West said. “I’m not leaning any particular way or anything. It’s just opportunity to see what’s out there, and a chance to play on that (championship) stage late in the year.”
West was popular in New Orleans not only for his steady production on the court but his charitable work in the region. He often spoke of being moved by his interaction with people who suffered during Hurricane Katrina, particularly children, and took part in numerous activities to promote the city’s recovery.
“I’ve enjoyed my time in New Orleans,” West said. “Off the court, my wife, myself, my family, we tried to be as productive in the community as we could. It was important to us.”
He also said he was impressed by Monty Williams, who took his first head coaching job with the Hornets last season.
“In terms if my production last season, I felt like he was a really big part of that because of the way his basketball mind is, his approach to the game and his approach to work,” West said. “He knows where I am in terms of wanting to win and wanting to make sure that the team is going in the right direction.”