The Prospect of Losing Emeka Okafor

Thanks to Ziller for breaking it here on At the Hive, below.

According to Sam Amick: "A source with knowledge of the situation says the Kings are discussing a trade with New Orleans that would send Kenny Thomas to the Hornets and bring center Emeka Okafor to Sacramento. No deal is imminent and this is merely a discussion between the two sides at this point."

Here's the salary situation, via Sactown Royalty, via ShamSports:

Player '09-10 '10-11 '11-12 '12-13 '13-14
Thomas $8.7M -- -- -- --
Okafor $10.8M $11.8M $12.8M $13.8M $14.8M*

 

First of all, this isn't a surefire deal for Sacramento. On their end, they have to question Okafor's health a little bit, the length of the contract, the overall money, and Okafor's eventual ceiling (which he's, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt reached). They have to worry about the development of younger guys in Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson with Okafor around. And finally, they have to wonder whether a nearly 9 million expiring can get them something more useful.

From New Orleans perspective? It's basically a straight salary dump, the likes of which the league doesn't see very often. The Hornets slash about 46 million off guaranteed salaries over the next four years. Kenny Thomas hasn't played competitively for multiple seasons now. The sale of Okafor would likely force Hilton Armstrong or Sean Marks into a starting role, effectively ending the Hornets' season.

What does this trade discussion say about the Hornets? Well, three different options, off the top of my head.

(a) Money Problems

The team is in dire straits, financially. After the recovery of the last two years, in terms of fan attendance and general marketability, I would have deemed this unlikely as recently as two weeks ago. Now? I'm not so sure. The team is paying the luxury tax right now and is scheduled to do so next year, without adding any new money to the payroll. Not only would the addition of Thomas save more than 2 million this year, it puts Shinn off the Okafor hook for four more years. The Hornets can simply add minimum contracts to fill out the front court over the offseason and save tons and tons of money.

The more this team struggles this year, the more attendance is going to drop off. It's a simple fact of life. In the short term, there are no signs of a turnaround. Shinn could have gone all-in during the offseason, opting to trade Chandler for a player of similar contract value. Early on in the season, he has a quick option here to opt out of his initial decision. So this trade could very easily be financially motivated.

(b) Chris Paul

Chris Paul's injury is worse than has been left on. The current estimate is that he'll be out two weeks at least. If that number escalates into the months, then this season is pretty much over. If the team has any reason to believe that Paul won't return until December/January, they won't trust the 3-10 Hornets to recover to a playoff spot.

In that case, Okafor vs. Thomas in 2009-2010 doesn't really matter much. Sure, Thomas will contribute far, far less, but for a team missing the playoffs, what does it matter?

This second option would obviously be linked with financial motivations. George Shinn could go ahead and save 2 million dollars (4 million with the tax) if he feels that the team won't make the playoffs anyways. And ostensibly, the team would stand to pick up a higher draft selection with Thomas, rather than Okafor.

(c) Strategy

I guess this could be an option; that an Okafor for Thomas swap could be executed completely strategically, with no financial impetus whatsoever.

What are the strategic gains, one might wonder. The major one is roster flexibility. With this swap, the Hornets go from committing 71.8 million next year, down to 59 million dollars. But I question the logic here.

Next year's salary cap is projected to be in the 53 million dollar range, with the luxury at around 65. So while the team gets away from the luxury tax, they'd still be unable to add free agents without the use of the exceptions (midlevel, biannual, veteran's). Essentially, they'd be trying to nab a free agent center at a discount or attempting to draft a quality rookie. The 2010 draft class will be better than this year's, in my estimation. But both those things are obviously risky propositions.

If the Okafor move is made strategically, it must be part of a larger fire-sale strategy for the Hornets to get under the salary cap (and thus make a run at a bigger free agent). Overall, there are just far too many ways this can backfire. One or two slip-ups, the Hornets have another horrible year next year, and the following season could be Chris Paul's last in New Orleans (he can choose to leave in the 2012 offseason).

Overall

There is something to be said for building a team through smart drafting. It's definitely the best way to create a stable, long-term franchise plan, something any team in New Orleans desperately needs. In this case, though? The sale of Okafor for Thomas would indicate severe financial issues more than strategic foresight. Could it work? Absolutely. If Paul is going to miss serious time, the Hornets could seriously free themselves financially (especially in the 2011 offseason) and pick up some sharp rookies.

But you're going to have a hard time convincing me the Hornets' hand wasn't forced if this deal goes through.

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