- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Facing a June 30 deadline in his contract to notify the Hornets whether he will invoke next season's $7.5 million salary or opt for free agency, West announced his decision through a team statement Monday after an ESPN.com report about his intention to venture into free agency.
"After many months of talking with the people around me, this is the best decision for myself as a player and my future," West said. "I love the city of New Orleans and have spent my whole career with the Hornets and am fortunate to be with such a supportive organization. I am continuing my rehab to get back on the court as soon as I can and look forward to conversations with the Hornets about my future and potentially continuing my career in New Orleans."
The Hornets had anticipated all along that West would become a free agent, even though the former All-Star was forced to undergo surgery in April to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered March 24. The reason: West still figures to be one of the two or three most coveted players on the open market in spite of the injury after years of consistent production and averages of 18.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 70 games last season.
West's decision will inevitably spark fears in New Orleans that the Hornets will lose Chris Paul's longtime sidekick and thus inch closer to losing Paul, who is eligible to become a free agent in the summer of 2012. The Hornets, sources said, have tried for months to convince West to sign an extension before Thursday's deadline -- even after the knee injury -- but the 30-year-old has resisted. It's believed that West will eventually earn more in free agency than he could in an extension that would have to be calculated with next season's $7.5 million salary as a starting point, even in a financial landscape forecast to be more restrictive starting next season and even factoring in his injury.
"David has been a tremendous player and person for us on and off the court during his eight years with the Hornets," New Orleans general manager Dell Demps said. "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."
Free agency will be delayed if the NBA, as expected, imposes a lockout July 1.
"We'll have to talk to them, obviously, and see where Dell is," West told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "The Hornets have an opportunity. But I'm looking for an opportunity to win, honestly. We'll see how things work out and what the Hornets do to make our situation better. That's really all it came down to. At this point in my career, I want to win and I want to win big."
The Times-Picayune reported on Friday that West has been rehabbing twice daily and started on that schedule even before New York orthopedist Dr. David Altchek reconstructed the torn ligament. Altchek re-examined West's knee in New York two weeks ago and proclaimed him ahead of schedule in a rehabilitation period that initially was expected to last six to eight months.
Demps told the Times-Picayune last week: "Whether he opts in or opts out, our goal is to keep David West here. We said it from Day 1: We want David West to retire a Hornet. He's been great to us on and off the court. 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.
"We're hoping for a speedy recovery. Our goal is to keep him. There's room for both (West and free-agent power forward Carl Landry). Our goal is to keep that core together. We're not changing off that plan."
While the Hornets say there's room for West and Landry, another frontcourt player, Aaron Gray, has also opted for free agency.
The 26-year-old reserve center said he'd be more than open to a return to the Hornets and West shared those sentiments.
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.
"That's just the way it is. This is what we felt I needed to do at this time."
West has been rehabbing at his offseason home of Raleigh, N.C., after his recovery timetable was initially set at six to eight months. He was selected by New Orleans with the 18th pick in the 2003 NBA draft and is a two-time All-Star who ranks in the top five in franchise history in games played (third with 530), minutes played (fourth with 17,160), points (second with 8,690, rebounds (second with 3,853) and blocks (third with 435).
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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