David West to enter free agency — impact on Chris Paul?

New Orleans Hornets forward David West (30) celebrates as his team defeated the Toronto Raptors 85-81 during their NBA basketball in New Orleans, Louisiana January 17, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Once David West went down with a season-ending ACL tear, I thought he would surely play out the final year of his contract (for $7.5 million) to prove to everyone that he was healthy and cash in next summer. But the 30-year-old forward must feel good about his rehab, because he has decided to opt-out of his deal and enter free agency a year early.

West told the Times-Picayune that he has not ruled out staying with the Hornets, who might benefit from new rules in the next collective bargaining agreement that are expected to make it even more beneficial than it has been for free agents to stay with their current teams.

“Definitely not, definitely not,” West said. “When I signed the original (contract), my intention was always to opt out. With my knee, I had to examine things a little more closely. But after going through the rehab and feeling good about where my knee will be, we decided to stay on course with what I originally intended to do.

The Hornets were something of a surprise this season, taking the defending champion Lakers to six games in the first round of the Playoffs. That would have been encouraging had Kobe and Co. gone on to win another title, but with the way they were swept by the Mavs has to leave the Hornets wondering if they are on the right track.

As always, the key is Chris Paul. Can the Hornets convince him to stay? After some grumbling last summer, CP3 put his big boy pants on and brilliantly filled the role of franchise point guard. But now he’s just one year away from free agency and his sidekick could be playing elsewhere next season.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, West’s possible departure doesn’t leave the team with a whole lot of wiggle room to sign anyone else, so their best bet is to overpay West to stay. That puts the franchise in the same position they were in this season — good enough to make the Playoffs, but not good enough to do anything once they get there.

The writing is on the wall: Provided Paul stays healthy, the Hornets will win 40+ games again this season, but he’ll enter free agency next summer and be playing elsewhere in 2012.

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