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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To trade David West or not to trade David West?

That is the question. Hornets blogger (writing for ESPN’s Daily Dime) Niall Doherty thinks the team should move David West before it’s too late.

So what is New Orleans to do? Do they stand pat and suffer mediocrity for now, bumbling along until they can unload some crippling contracts (e.g. Morris Peterson and Peja Stojakovic) this summer or next? Or would they be better served blowing up the core (e.g. David West and Emeka Okafor) and hoping they can rebuild fast enough to keep Chris Paul in town beyond 2012?

My best guess is that GM/coach Jeff Bower will opt for the former, since he’s known to carefully weigh his options and refrain from doing anything drastic. But in the long run, I think that’s the wrong move. The Hornets aren’t going anywhere with West as Paul’s primary sidekick. Sad but true. D-West’s All-Star days are behind him, and the Hornets would be wise to move him before everyone else realizes it. Swap him out for some young, athletic talent, go after a legit second banana when Peja comes off the books, and Paul will be more likely to call New Orleans home beyond 2012.

The Hornets are 22-19, but have won eight of their last 11 games. They’re currently sitting in the #10 spot in the crowded Western Conference, but seem like a team destined to sneak into the playoffs and exit early. Doherty suggests that now is the time to move West, since his All-Star days are behind him and argues that he’s just not good enough to be Chris Paul’s primary sidekick.

However, West is playing very well of late (19-8 with 52% shooting in December and January), and while he’s not likely to make the All-Star Game this season, if the team were a little better, he has the statistical resume to get his third consecutive nod. Moreover, his contract is reasonable ($8.3 million next season, $7.5 million an an option to terminate in 2011), so it’s not like his salary is killing the Hornets financially.

So should New Orleans trade him? Well, it depends on who they could get. West is 29 and his pop-and-shoot game should age well (think Karl Malone). Without making any big moves, the Hornets won’t have any significant cap space until the 2012 season, which is the summer that Chris Paul can opt out. Depending on what kind of contract West will be looking for next summer (2011), it would make sense to hold onto him. Really, he’s the perfect complement for Paul’s drive-and-dish game, and I have a feeling that if they do move him, they’ll soon be wishing they had a power forward who could knock down an open jumper. Trading West now isn’t going to do much for Paul’s morale, so unless the Hornets can get a good young piece (that looks very capable of being Paul’s sidekick), it’s probably just better to keep the Paul-West core intact.

The funny thing is that if the Hornets hadn’t made the Tyson Chandler-for-Emeka Okafor swap, they would have had plenty of cap space in 2011 (~$25 million or more) to both re-sign West and add a big-time free agent. If Okafor is still on the roster that summer, the Hornets will have to decide whether to bring back West or use the cap space on another player.

Hornets to move West?

Yesterday, we discussed the possibility of New Orleans trading Chris Paul, and now Henry Abbott of TrueHoop is bringing up the possibility of the Hornets trading David West before the February trade deadline so that they can avoid paying the luxury tax this season.

Yet the Hornets are currently $3.3 million over the tax line and remain prepared to send away Brown in a deal that brings back no guaranteed money, as seen over the summer when New Orleans felt it had to essentially donate Rasual Butler to the Los Angeles Clippers because of the tax benefits.

There is a belief among some rival executives — or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a hope — that the Hornets will not be able to resist moving All-Star forward David West before the Feb. 18 trading deadline to ensure that they get comfortably under the tax threshold.

New Orleans’ preference would obviously be moving out player(s) from its list of veterans with contracts that stretch beyond this season. That list presumably includes Emeka Okafor, Peja Stojakovic, James Posey, Mo Peterson, Darius Songaila and Julian Wright.

West has two years left on his contract, but he’ll almost certainly terminate the final year since it’s only worth $7.5 million and he’s likely to make more than that in a new deal. If the Hornets trade West, expect Chris Paul to become very unhappy. If the team was so concerned about the luxury tax, it should have thought about that before trading for Peja Stojakovic, signing Morris Peterson and James Posey, and trading for Emeka Okafor. West’s affordable deal is obviously not the problem, but it’s movable and that might appeal to the Hornets.

I still think the team will do what it can to hold on to its nucleus and weather the financial storm. The Okafor trade was a signal that owner George Shinn is willing to spend.

Emeka Okafor on the trading block

Sam Amick of the Sacramento Bee reports that the Kings are considering a trade involving Hornets big man Emeka Okafor.

A source with knowledge of the situation says the Kings are discussing a trade with New Orleans that would send Kenny Thomas to the Hornets and bring center Emeka Okafor to Sacramento.

The deal would be ideal for the Hornets, as Thomas’ expiring contract worth $8.7 million is just the kind of contract that would trim their enormous payroll. The question, of course, is whether the Kings see Okafor as a big man solution worth the five years and approximately $64 million left on his deal.

I don’t get the Hornets plan of attack for the last year or so. They have the best point guard in the NBA, yet instead of making a clear commitment to spend to build around him, they’re slashing salary again. The confusing thing is that they tried to slash salary last year when they negotiated a trade that sent Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City, only the Thunder sent Chandler back after their doctors had a chance to look him over. Then they turned around this offseason and traded Chandler (who has a short, expensive contract) for Okafor (who has a long, expensive contract). So it looked like the Hornets were willing to make a long-term commitment to build a winner.

Now, after a 3-7 start that has Chris Paul sidelined for a few weeks with a sprained ankle, they’re ready to give Okafor away. What kind of signal does this send to Paul? He’s signed through 2011-12, but at what point does he become disgruntled? They’ve already traded away Chandler and fired Byron Scott, and now they’re looking to move a sure double-double guy in Okafor. He’s not worth his contract, but he’s still valuable, and if the Hornets want to get back to competitive, they could really use him manning the middle.

It’s not like jettisoning Okafor’s salary is going to give the Hornets any immediate salary cap space. They’re sitting at almost $72 M for next season and won’t have any flexibility until the summer of 2011. Paul is 24, so he has plenty of basketball left to play, but David West is 29, and by the time the Hornets have a chance to be competitive again, he might be 31 or 32 and on the decline.

This is a sad situation. The Hornets looked to be on the cusp of competing for a title a couple of seasons ago and now they’re starting a rebuilding process that looks like it’s going to take a while.

Where do the Hornets go from here?

It was a disappointing season for Chris Paul and Co. as they were unceremoniously eliminated from the playoffs last night in Denver. After last season’s near-miss against the Spurs in the Western Conference semis, along with the addition of do-it-all forward James Posey, many pundits (including myself) thought that they might be the team best positioned to threaten the Lakers’ chances of a return trip to the Finals. But it was not to be.

According to John Hollinger’s PER, Chris Paul had an even better statistical season than last year, when he was in serious contention to become the league’s MVP. David West played his usual 21/9 ball as well.

So what happened?

1. Tyson Chandler wasn’t himself. He battled injuries all year and was even traded to Oklahoma City (and subsequently untraded due to the Thunder’s concerns about his foot). Here are his stats for the last three seasons:

’06-’07: 9.5 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 62% FG%
’07-’08: 11.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 62% FG%
’08-’09: 8.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 57% FG%

That may not seem like much of a fall off, but three points, three rebounds and a 5% decrease in field goal shooting certainly has an effect. It’s not Chandler’s fault that he had some nagging injuries, but that was part of the reason for the Hornets’ decline.

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