NEW ORLEANS — Shortly after selling his team’s only pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, New Orleans Hornets General Manager Dell Demps said, “I just want Hornets fans to know there will be other avenues for us to improve the team, which we will continue to do our due diligence on.”
Demps has a lot of due diligence left to do after sending New Orleans’ second-round pick to New York on Thursday and having traded its No. 1 to Portland in October. The Hornets have just five players locked in for next season — guards Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack, forwards Trevor Ariza and Quincy Pondexter, and center Emeka Okafor.
Forward David West can opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent by Thursday, and center Aaron Gray can do the same in August.
The Hornets can secure a right of first refusal on guard Marco Belinelli and forward/center Jason Smith by making qualifying offers to them. Demps said he expects to decide on what to do with those players in “the next few days.”
They have an option they can pick up on center David Andersen. Forward Carl Landry, guard Willie Green, and center D.J. Mbenga are unrestricted free agents.
“We have a lot more roster spots available this year,” Demps said. “Our real goal right now is keeping our core together and finding the pieces that fit in with the core.”
Demps said the Hornets hope to retain West, who is rehabilitating from April knee surgery, even if he chooses to become a free agent.
“We said it from Day 1 that we want David West to retire a Hornet,” Demps said. “He has been great to us on and off the court, and we’re hoping his recovery continues on pace as it is right now. He’s right on schedule to come back next year and play.”
Demps said he hasn’t gotten any indication of West’s plan. West, the Hornets’ leading scorer, is scheduled to make $7.5 million next season, which is a relatively small salary for an eight-year veteran and two-time All-Star, but he could face a lukewarm market because of the injury.
“I think David is a smart guy,” Demps said. “I think he’s going to look at his options. I think he’s going to go through his rehab. I don’t blame him (for taking his time) at all. If I was in his position, I think I would do the same thing. He wants to make sure that he makes a sound decision. At this stage in his career this is very important for him.”
Landry, who was acquired from Sacramento in a mid-season trade, backs up West and would be West’s replacement if West were to leave and Landry were to re-sign. Demps said there’s room for both players on the roster and the payroll, and he wants them both back.
The Hornets are owned by the NBA as the league tries to find an owner who would keep the franchise in New Orleans. Demps said the ownership situation won’t tie his hands once free agency begins.
“Our budget is in the mean with most teams in the NBA,” Demps said. “If you look at us last year, our payroll was about $68 million. That was right in the middle of most teams in the NBA. I think what we will do is we’ll probably still operate around that amount.”
Free agency won’t begin until a new collective bargaining agreement is signed. The old one expires Thursday and it’s expected that a lockout will begin then. The Hornets are looking to improve a team that finished 46-36 and made the playoffs as the seventh seed, losing to the Lakers in six games.
“We’re in a situation where we’re not trying to rebuild, we’re trying to reload,” Demps said. “We’re trying to grow off of what we did last year and we want to take the next step. I don’t see us in a developmental stage right now. Our priority is to win now.”
Normally at this time of year, the Hornets would be fielding a team of young players to compete in the Las Vegas Summer League, but that schedule has been canceled because of the uncertain labor situation.
Once Demps is done filling out a roster for next season, he’ll have to find a long-term resolution of Paul’s situation. Paul, a four-time All-Star and the core of the Hornets’ core, can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
“I know there are going to be difficult decisions to make at some point, and we’re prepared to make them,” Demps said. “I think we’re going to always keep in mind what’s the best thing for the New Orleans Hornets. I think if we keep that mind-set, and we do the right things, I think everything will work out.”