Let's start with a conclusion: the New Orleans Hornets must rebuild.
Last year's Hornets squad overachieved, which meant finishing seventh in the Western Conference and getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. It's not entirely clear how New Orleans gets better. The team's second-best player, forward David West, is a free agent. He's also about to turn 31 and coming off a torn ACL, so his best days are behind him. If the Hornets re-sign West, it will be difficult to bring back many of their seven other free agents, a group which includes four rotation players.
While the New Orleans lineup is not especially long in the tooth, only second-year forward Quincy Pondexter has any real room for growth. The Hornets' best young prospect was guard Marcus Thornton, who was unable to win the trust of coach Monty Williams. Thornton was traded at the deadline for forward Carl Landry, an unrestricted free agent who is likely to walk.
It is difficult, and maybe impossible, to see how New Orleans gets from battling for a playoff spot to legitimately contending in the Western Conference. Given that, loyalty to the Hornets is the only compelling reason for Chris Paul to stick around should he opt to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
That doesn't necessarily mean New Orleans should immediately look to trade Paul. If the Hornets let West walk, for example, they have just three players under guaranteed contract for the 2012-13 season: Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack and Emeka Okafor. So going far under the cap to sign a replacement for Paul when and if he leaves is one possible scenario.
Still, New Orleans certainly ought to explore its options. And if the Oklahoma City Thunder express a willingness to swap Russell Westbrook for Paul, it's a move the Hornets must make.
Westbrook's reputation around the nation is at a low point after the criticism he took during the Thunder's playoff run. In front of a TV audience that had seen relatively little of Oklahoma City throughout the season, Westbrook was the scapegoat for the Thunder's inability to construct an effective late-game offense. Westbrook deserved some of the blame; he lacks the kind of court vision to find teammates when they slip open for a split second, which is part of what makes Paul so special. Westbrook also has a tendency to overdribble when the play breaks down, trusting his own ability more than that of his teammates.
Still, Westbrook can only run the plays called from the sideline, and Oklahoma City's half-court playbook is limited. When defenses took Kevin Durant away with physical defense, Westbrook creating on the fly was often the only alternative. Additionally, the Thunder was a victim of its own success. Oklahoma City's problems were only revealed because the Thunder made an impressive run to the Western Conference finals--further in the postseason than Paul, for one, has ever advanced.
The playoff scrutiny overshadowed a breakthrough season for Westbrook, who made his first All-Star appearance at the age of 22. Westbrook's steady progress in terms of playmaking and outside shooting enabled him to finish ninth in the NBA in Basketball Prospectus' wins above replacement (WARP) statistic, just behind Durant.
During all three of their NBA seasons, Westbrook's numbers have been strikingly similar to those of Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls. Rose was the better player during his MVP season, make no mistake, but the difference between the two was not nearly as large as conventional wisdom would indicate. Westbrook actually had a better assist rate and played a slightly smaller role in his team's offense, making him more pure as a point guard, statistically speaking.
Because of his precocious success, Westbrook has one of the league's most optimistic three-year WARP projections. Players similar to Westbrook averaged a total of 36.2 wins above replacement over the following three seasons, which puts him fifth in the league behind Dwight Howard, Durant, LeBron James and Rose--all of whom finished in the top five in last year's MVP voting.
That's not to say the Hornets would not miss Paul, who has rated as the superior player throughout his career. New Orleans' offense is built around Paul's ability to run the two-man game, at which Westbrook is not nearly as adept. Paul is also stronger at the defensive end of the floor. Looking deeper, however, there are a number of advantages in Westbrook's favor. He's three and a half years younger and has never missed a game due to injury in his career, while Paul's left knee is worrisome due to missing cartilage. And Westbrook's next contract will be smaller than Paul's if the new collective bargaining agreement continues to tie the maximum salary to experience.
Those other factors are all reasons the Thunder might not be willing to swap point guards. If they are, the Hornets should make Westbrook the centerpiece of their rebuilding efforts. In time, he has the chance to be the leader of an upgraded New Orleans team capable of advancing deep into the playoffs.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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