NEW ORLEANS -- Chris Paul remains the face of the Hornets -- for now.
General manager Dell Demps intends to do what he can this summer so that it stays that way beyond next season.
Paul is not eligible for a contract extension until after July 9, by which time there could be a lockout preventing contract talks. But if a labor agreement is in place, Demps intends to reach out to Paul and is optimistic that the All-Star point guard's confidence in the franchise has at least been restored enough that he'll be willing to reopen negotiations.
"When that time arises, we'll have those conversations," Demps said. "Chris has been engaged since Day 1. ... We have open lines of communication and we believe it will stay like that as this thing continues."
Before the hiring of head coach Monty Williams 11 months ago and the addition of Demps to the front office shortly after that, Paul publicly expressed interest in being traded if the Hornets failed to demonstrate an immediate commitment to contending for a title.
Demps was flooded with trade offers, but he and Williams remained firmly committed to making Paul the centerpiece of the franchise. That vision remains unchanged, even though Paul, in essence, has only one more year remaining on his contract because he can opt out in 2012-13.
"He's made some comments to us that he's happy and he likes the direction that we're going," Demps said, "and we're happy with him and we want to just keep building and growing."
While Paul has often praised Williams' performance, he has avoided discussing his future beyond saying that he is looking forward to trying to help the Hornets improve next season.
Calls to Paul and his agent, Leon Rose, on Wednesday were not immediately returned.
Demps added that the Hornets "really want to keep the core together," which would mean bringing back power forwards David West and Carl Landry to play alongside Paul, center Emeka Okafor and swingman Trevor Ariza.
West, who averaged a team-leading 18.9 points in 70 games, can opt out of the one season remaining on his contract, although that may be risky because of his left knee injury in late March that required reconstructive surgery. Other teams may now be reluctant to pay more than the $7.5 million left on his Hornets deal, given that he'll be 31 and may not be ready to play until December or later.
"David's a big part of what we do," Demps said. "The goal is still for him to have his jersey retired in the rafters. He represents everything that we want this franchise to represent. He's a good person. He works hard, and [he's a] blue collar guy that's very talented.
Landry, acquired in a trade in February, averaged nearly 12 points in 23 regular season games with New Orleans and started after West went down. He is a free agent.
"When we made the trade for Carl, we assumed the risk," Demps continued. "We knew he was going to be a free agent, but we also had an opportunity to have him here for 23 games and the playoffs. Carl has become an important part of our team."
The Hornets were 46-36 this season, and improvement of nine wins over the season before and good enough for the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Paul, who played 80 games after missing 37 with three separate injuries a season earlier, finished the regular season with averages of 15.8 points, 9.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game. He was even better in a first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, helping the Hornets push the series with six games with averages of 22 points, 11.5 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals.
Even if the Hornets surround Paul with West and Landry again, they will likely need to add some new players in free agency because they currently have no first-round draft choice.
New Orleans struggled to find reliable scoring at shooting guard, where fourth-year pro Marco Belinelli started most of the season. Although Demps did not rule out an upgrade at that position, he also noted that Belinelli had not been given consistent minutes before this season and still has a lot of upside.
Demps said the Hornets also could use more depth at center.
However, Demps said he did not want to pinpoint specific positions for improvement. He and Williams agreed that finding the right additions would be more complicated than that because they want players who fit their style both offensively and defensively.
"Chris is the kind of guy you need to put athletes and shooters around him," Williams said. "It's easy to say you've got to get [a player at a certain spot], but in getting that, does it fit with what we do? ... There's no need in having a guy who can flat out knock down shots but he couldn't guard a bike if he was riding it.
"The fit makes more sense to me."