The Okafor Line: How Emeka Okafor Went from Albatross to Anchor
The Okafor Line >>>
Earlier this season, in detracting from his poor play, and rather large contract, the “Okafor Line” was created. Do Emeka Okafor’s points plus rebounds exceed the amount he’s getting paid in millions?
Okafor is making $13.5 million this season and is due around $14.5 million next season, as reports indicate that he will not early terminate his contract which runs through 2013-14. Shattering the Okafor Line should be a cakewalk on paper, lots and lots of green paper.
Over his first 22 contests, Okafor averaged 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game—12.5, a whole unit below the Okafor Line, his totals falling fully below it in 11 of those 22 games. During this time, Okafor posted a minus-4.2 in plus/minus per game and shot .445 from the field.
As the Wizards settled into the season, and their 3-19 start, Okafor then had a stretch of 11 games, from December 19 to January 7, when he showed actual improvement. During this run, he only fell below the Okafor Line in two games. He averaged 28.2 minutes, 9.8 points and 11.0 rebounds—20.8 total, nicely above the Okafor Line of 13.5. His plus/minus per game over those 11 games was minus-2.8, and he shot .470 from the field.
Then we saw the return of John Wall on January 12, which effectively killed the Okafor Line and increased his court-time effectiveness. His averages over the 40 games since Wall’s return: 28.5 minutes, 11.6 points and 10.3 rebounds—a continuously solid 21.9 total. But with the point guardsmanship of Wall, Okafor has shot .501 from the field and is plus-2.2 per game in plus/minus. His points and rebounds total has fallen below the Okafor Line in just four of the 40 games.
What’s the difference?
“Basically, getting consistency. I need to know when I am playing, have consistent minutes,” said Okafor to TAI’s Adam McGinnis last Tuesday. “Once my minutes were consistent, I was able to go out there … also, learn my teammates and everything … sort of settle.”
Normally, talking “consistent minutes” is a de facto questioning of coaching rotations. It couldn’t be necessarily so in this instance—Okafor has to realize that just about everyone on the Wizards was playing terribly in the season’s early going. Sometimes, you simply gotta make shots. Or, be allowed to make shots; be provided a window of opportunity.
Of course, the inexcusable effort effort from the free throw line is worth mentioning. The career 58.3 percent shooter is making 56.8 percent of his attempts from the line this season (Dwight Howard’s career rate is 57.7 percent). Okafor can’t be wondering what often keeps him on the bench during fourth quarters.
“That guy spends more time in the weight room than wrestlers.
He is always preparing his body, not by just lifting heavy weights.”
—Martell Webster on Emeka Okafor
Pre-John Wall, Okafor shot 59.2 percent in the restricted area and 35 percent from midrange. With Wall, he’s up to 63.3 percent in the restricted area and 41.9 percent from midrange. Out of Okafor’s 201 field goals made since January 12, 50 have come from Wall assists. He is normally just enough of a threat from a distance to be a net-positive accompaniment to Wall’s speed.
So, credit due to Wall’s game, and credit due to… As Okafor tells it: “[John] has let people play their natural position. Everything else has kinda just fallen into place.”
Meaning that Ted Leonsis’ rearview mirror-less Ferrari is driven by the max contract recipient to-be, no matter how good Bradley Beal ends up being. In other words, with Wall on the court, the game for the Washington Wizards becomes more natural.
Still, teammate Martell Webster credits Okafor’s consistency.
“He has not changed anything from the beginning of the season until now. Except the ball is going in a lot more. That is the only difference,” Webster told McGinnis. It’s also worth pointing out that the difference in the personnel around Wall since his return from injury this season, compared to the characters over his first two seasons, should get all the credit in the world.
“It’s all about preparation,” Webster continued about Okafor. “That guy spends more time in the weight room than wrestlers. He is always preparing his body, not by just lifting heavy weights. Working with Drew [Cleary], our physical trainer, but not necessarily pumping iron, just really getting into it with his body. He is really into that.”
Okafor appeared in just 27 games last year with the New Orleans Hornets, missing the last 39 games of a lockout-shortened season due to obscure knee issues. This season, he’s been the most durable Wizard, only missing two games with the flu. When his contract comes up in the 2014 summer, Okafor will be 31-years old going on 32.
“Would you rather have a Mercedes for $20,000,
or a broken-down Chevy and broken-down Yugo for $250,000?”
—David Falk on Elton Brand vs. Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza
Other NBA centers who have averaged a double-double and better than 50 percent shooting from the field since January 12: Al Horford, Dwight Howard, J.J. Hickson, Nikola Vucevic, and Omer Asik. Out of all of them, Okafor has the best Defensive Rating of 98.5 (team points allowed per 100 possessions when on the court), compared to: 102.0 (Horford), 100.3 (Howard), 108.6 (Hickson), 108.8 (Vucevic), and 103.2 (Asik).
Agent David Falk, via Mike Wise’s hater-baiting Washington Post column on John Wall in mid-February, called Okafor a “broken-down Chevy.” (And Trevor Ariza a “broken-down Yugo.”) Falk called his client, Elton Brand, a “Mercedes.” And he wasn’t the only one who thought the better move would have been to not trade for Ariza and Okafor from New Orleans, and instead simply buy-out Rashard Lewis and put in a winning bid for the amnestied Brand, now with Dallas, via Philadelphia.
Since January 12, Brand has averaged 22.1 minutes, 8.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 49.4 percent from the field, and minus-0.6 in plus/minus per game for the Mavericks. I’ll remind you that Okafor’s comparable numbers are 28.5, 11.6, 10.3, 50.1 percent, and plus-2.2. Plus, Brand’s Defensive Rating (106.2) has been 7.7 points higher than Okafor’s.
Who’s the broken-down Chevy again?
Brand just turned 34 years old last month and his one-year bid contract will be up after this season. Would he have provided the Wizards with the constancy to compete next season? Would he have left Washington scrambling to sign an adequate big (remember, Nene’s health is unreliable) from a weak 2013 free agent class to a new, longer contract this summer?
Or does Okafor’s salary, albeit hefty, coming off the books after next season fit nicely with Wall’s forthcoming max contract extension set to kick in for 2014-15? It’s for you to consider.
I can’t vouch for all the decisions of team decision-makers, but the timing of this particular salary cap flexibility couldn’t be better. And Okafor’s continued presence could serve as another load-bearing wall in the re-building. In the summer of 2014, Wall will likely be signed till 2020, and the Wizards will have the ability to be a little more forward-thinking with his surroundings. Perhaps re-signing Okafor to a reasonable sum for three years will allow the Wizards to retain his anchoring defense and palpable jumper and get more help—Thabo Sefolosha might be nice, Luol Deng could be a distant option. (Also, guess who’s contract comes off the books when Bradley Beal’s would-be extension is scheduled to kick in: Nene’s $13 million.)
If you consider the Oklahoma City Thunder model, maybe Okafor is eventually Nick Collison, or even Kendrick Perkins-lite. Maybe it will ultimately be worth the extra cash paid to Emeka up front to him get part of the system for a slightly longer run. One thing is for certain, Okafor is no Gilbert Arenas, and he’s no Rashard Lewis. And just maybe, as Emeka shatters the “Okafor Line,” he becomes a key part of what defines a new culture around a franchise previously in desperate need of refinement.
[stats via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com; salary information via ShamSports.com]