NEW ORLEANS – David West is uncertain whether his NBA future lies in New Orleans or elsewhere.
What the Hornets' leading scorer knew for sure on Monday was that he wasn't going to allow recent reconstructive surgery on his left knee to scare him away from free agency.
"It's about making the best decision right now for my family," West said in a phone interview in which he explained his decision to opt out of the final year of his contract.
"It's not taking New Orleans out of the equation, just an opportunity to sign a better deal, and an opportunity to make sure the decision I make for the next three to four years puts me in the best possible situation to win — not just winning and making the playoffs, but legitimately having a chance to compete for championships."
West, a two-time All-Star who was drafted 18th overall by New Orleans in 2003, started 70 games last season, averaging 18.9 points to go with 7.6 rebounds before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament during a victory at Utah on March 24.
While the injury could undermine his value on the open market, West, whose offseason hobbies include boxing, said he was not inclined to succumb to fear of the unknown.
After gauging the progress of his rehabilitation and mulling options with his agent, Lance Young, West walked away from the $7.5 million he would have made to play in New Orleans next season.
Hornets general manager Dell Demps said he still hoped to bring West back.
"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," Demps said.
West had surgery April 12 and his rehabilitation is expected to take six to eight months, but he said he already is jogging on a treadmill, keeping up his weight training and even doing some low-impact work on the basketball court, such as set shots.
"Two days after surgery I dove headfirst into rehab. I haven't let up. I'm going six days a week," said West, who'll be 31 on Aug. 29. "I'm really attacking it and I feel good. I haven't had any pain."
It is not clear when free agency will begin because the NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of this month and a lockout is widely expected to follow. However, West said he was confident that "players and owners are going to get something worked out, whether sooner or later, that's fair on both sides."
Even if the lockout drags on, that could help West by giving him more time to recover before free agency begins.
West's decision means the Hornets must find a starting power forward through free agency, whether that means bringing back West with a new deal, re-signing fellow free agent Carl Landry, or finding someone else.
New Orleans did not add to its roster during last week's draft. Because of past trades, the Hornets did not have a first-round pick and only one pick in the middle of the second round, which they sold to the New York Knicks for about $750,000.
After West went down last season, Landry, who had been acquired in a trade that sent Marcus Thornton to Sacramento in February, moved into West's starting power forward spot. The Hornets won five of their last 10 regular season games to finish at 46-36, good enough for the seventh playoff seed in the Western Conference.
If Landry also chooses to go elsewhere, that would leave the Hornets thin at power forward.
New Orleans currently has only five players under contract: guards Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack; center Emeka Okafor; small forward Trevor Ariza; and second-year swingman Quincy Pondexter. Center Aaron Gray also opted out of the last year of his contract on Monday, while shooting guard Marco Belinelli and forward Jason Smith are both restricted free agents whose future with the Hornets remains uncertain.
West said he spoke to Paul on Monday morning about his decision and that Paul, who has played with West his whole career, took it well.
"He understands what's going on," West said. "I'm not leaning any particular way or anything. It's just an opportunity to see what's out there, and a chance to play on that (championship) stage late in the year."
If New Orleans is unable to lure West back or otherwise put together a competitive roster by next season, the club could be more inclined to see what they can get in a trade for Paul. The Hornets have so far rebuffed trade offers for Paul, a four-time All-Star and 2008 Olympic gold medalist who is the face of the franchise. But Paul will have the right to opt out of his contract after next season, meaning the Hornets would lose him without getting anything in return if they failed to either trade him or sign him to an extension.
The direction the Hornets go on that front may depend on who owns the team by then. Currently, the NBA owns the club, but the league wants to find new owners who are committed to keeping the Hornets in New Orleans.
In order to assure prospective buyers that the franchise will be able to financially stay afloat on the bayou, the club has called on the community to help them reach a season ticket base of 10,000. The Hornets have sold about 8,300 season tickets so far, but it remains to be seen how tough of a sell season tickets will become now that one of their best players has confirmed his decision to enter free agency.
West was popular in New Orleans not only for his steady production on the court but his charitable work in the region. He often spoke of being moved by his interaction with people who suffered during Hurricane Katrina, particularly children, and took part in numerous activities to promote the city's recovery.
"I've enjoyed my time in New Orleans," West said. "Off the court, my wife, myself, my family, we tried to be as productive in the community as we could. It was important to us."
West also stressed that he liked playing for Monty Williams, who in his first year as an NBA head coach led the Hornets back into the playoffs this past season.
"In terms of my production last season, I felt like he was a really big part of that because of the way his basketball mind is, his approach to the game and his approach to work," West said. "He knows where I am in terms of wanting to win and wanting to make sure that the team is going in the right direction."