Defending Emeka Okafor

The pendulum of public opinion swung so quickly and so forcefully on Emeka Okafor that it's difficult to remember even our own initial sentiments on the trade. Virtually every Chris Paul trade idea tosses in the notion that any trade partner must be willing to take back Okafor's horrible, awful long-term deal. Among rumor mongerers, it's accepted as fact. But how rooted in reality is Okafor's perceived mediocrity?

Emeka Okafor is not bad at basketball. He's not even average. For the entirety of his healthy basketball career, Emeka Okafor has been, at worst, a slightly above average center. The Dwight Howard comparisons will never serve Okafor well, nor will his quiet personality. Let's turn to the numbers. For 2009-2010, easily Okafor's worst season since 2005-2006, there's a solid case for Okafor as a top-10 center in the league.

A large amount of Okafor's production is based on his rebounding ability. Since entering the league in 2004, Okafor has ranked in the top ten in rebounding percentage in every healthy season he's had (5 of 6 total). Since 2004, he's ranked, in order, 9th, 5th, 8th, 8th, 6th in TRB% among centers. While his rebounds don't come in the spectacular style of Tyson Chandler's tap outs, he's been Tyson's equal on the boards. In a sense, it's interesting that many people view Joel Pryzbilla as a valuable addition in a Chris Paul deal. Pryzbilla is a better rebounder than Okafor, but the Hornets would be wise to address their rebounding issues by looking at other positions. 

In terms of scoring, Okafor ranks around average to a little bit above average. This past season, he finished 17th among centers in eFG%, coming off a 10th place rank in 2008-2009. As awkward as some of his moves look, he doesn't need a guard to create all his shots, as Chandler did. His career 4.7 FTA/36min would be a lot more impressive if he didn't miss so many foul shots. 

Defense is where the majority of questions lie. This post from RaptorBlog has a breakdown of Synergy's defensive numbers from centers in 2009-2010. We've covered the flaws of the Synergy system before, but it still provides a good overall snapshot. For 2009-2010, Okafor ranked 29th among centers. That's decidedly mediocre. The guys flanking him, though, are Joakim Noah and Anderson Varejao- two players I'd normally consider solid defenders. Basketball Prospectus' numbers also indicate that Okafor experienced a severe defensive decline after the switch from Charlotte to New Orleans, something that could potentially correct itself in 2010-2011. Overall? The numbers are tough to read, but I'd still consider Okafor a league average defensive center. And let's remember that David West did Okafor absolutely no favors last season, on defense or on the boards. 

Since returning from his major injury in 2007, Okafor has been the fourth most productive center in the league, by at least one overall standard (behind Howard, Horford, and Camby). He's played in 255 straight games. He's also one of the NBA's better shot blockers. 

Now the numbers that make everyone nervous:

10/11

11/12

12/13

13/14

Emeka Okafor

$11,795,000

$12,792,500

$13,790,000

$14,787,500

But as we saw earlier this summer, front court players are in high demand. Al Horford will surely sign for a contract similar to Okafor's. Andrew Bynum already makes more, and he's significantly less proven and way more injury-prone. The Bobcats will pay Nazr Mohammed almost $7 million this year. Brendan Haywood just received a 6 year/$55 million deal as a 30 year old. Dan Gadzuric (PER the last four years: 10.5, 12.2, 10.7, 11.9) will make $7.2 million this season. Nick Collison is another guy paid in the $7 million range. Most teams in this league "overpay" centers. Even among the few that don't, most will have to dole out long-term, expensive deals to the cost-controlled players they currently have on the cheap (Horford, Gasol, Noah, etc). 

Look, I think Emeka Okafor is overpaid, and long term deals are rarely a good idea. Even relative to the poor decision making teams have shown at the center position, his contract isn't great. But the way his deal has been portrayed by mainstream media is absolutely absurd. Here's a slightly above league average center that's being paid maybe $4-$5 million than he's actually worth. But in a market where basically every center is being paid more than they're worth, it isn't that bad at all. 

Look at this way: very few teams in the NBA have a good deal on their center. Even if New Orleans moved Okafor, odds are they'd end up in a similar situation unless they lucked out through the draft (and by "lucked out," we're talking a Noah or Horford type- a top 10 selection). How much do you think Chris Paul would like to have a top 10 selection next June? 

Emeka Okafor is a good center. He's also an overpaid center. Welcome to the NBA in 2010. 

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