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Free Agent Stock Watch: Emeka Okafor

Of the league’s remaining unsigned free agents, Emeka Okafor is at the very top of the list in earnings from last year. Despite not playing a single game with the Suns, Okafor raked in $14.5MM in the last year of the six-year, $72MM deal he originally signed with Charlotte. If and when Okafor does receive a new NBA contract, it will almost certainly be for a massive pay reduction.

A herniated disc in Okafor’s neck was the reason the center missed all of 2013/14 and will likely remain unsigned for the near future. After playing 79 games for the Wizards in 2012/13, the ailment was discovered last preseason and wrecked his entire 2013/14 campaign. Okafor was subsequently traded to the Suns, who planned on flipping his contract for another asset. The center was viewed by many as a hot commodity, but his value was exclusively tied to his substantial expiring salary, which would have been useful in clearing cap space for a potential recipient. Phoenix had extensive discussions with the Lakers about moving Okafor as part of a trade to acquire Pau Gasol, but a deal never materialized.

If the status of his health weren’t up in the air, Okafor would most likely be signed by now. An intimidating interior defensive presence, the former No. 2 pick has averaged 1.7 blocks for his career, a number bolstering a virtual double-double career average in points (12.3) and rebounds (9.9) per game. The veteran did show signs of offensive decline the last season he saw the floor, turning in a career-worst .278 rate of free throw attempts per field goal attempts and a .496 true shooting percentage, well below his career average of .535. However, he still produced an above average PER of 15.8 for Washington, and maintained an elite defensive impact. While his blocks per game dropped to a career-worst 1.0, he generated a 99 defensive rating, according to his Basketball-Reference page, and 3.7 defensive win shares, top-10 and top-25 marks for the season, respectively.

Ongoing concerns about Okafor’s neck have prevented the big man from securing a deal, but they haven’t kept roughly half of the league from registering interest in his services. Contenders including the Heat, Cavs, and Clippers are among the teams interested. Those teams make a lot of on-the-court sense, as a steady rim-protector is always high on a playoff hopeful’s wishlist. The Clippers are the only team that has reportedly worked out Okafor, and they have since signed Ekpe Udoh in a move that would presumably reduce their need for Okafor on the roster. The Heat were considering both Okafor and Udoh as potential interior additions, so while Udoh’s deal with Los Angeles may hurt Okafor’s prospects there, it could very well help his outlook in Miami.

While no word has surfaced on the impression Okafor’s workout left, the league is wary of his lingering medical issues. He isn’t expected to sign anywhere until mid-season, and it’s unclear if doctors have cleared him for full basketball activities at this point. As much as a big, defensively disruptive body excites general managers, the thought of a big, ailing body under contract distresses them.

All of the teams known to be interested in Okafor are limited to paying the veteran’s minimum, as are most contenders in general at this stage in the offseason. If Okafor were to alleviate concerns about his health, a minimum salary would seem to be a discount for a player of his caliber. Elton Brand doesn’t have the same ceiling as Okafor at this stage in his career, but he just received a $2MM contract for 2014/15 on the merits of being a sturdy big off the bench. Chris Andersen, another big man expected to fill a role that’s smaller or similar to the one Okafor might play, re-signed with the Heat for two years and $10MM. Of course, Okafor may be willing to play on a one-year deal for the minimum for the chance to contend and demonstrate his viability looking toward next summer and a more lucrative deal.

Okafor could end up with more options if he waits until midseason to look for a deal. In-season pickups earn prorated salaries, meaning a team without room to squeeze the big man under the tax line now could conceivably do so later in the season, when a minimum contract’s payout would shrink. As always, opportunities could open up for Okafor if any teams lose a frontcourt piece to injury. Teams currently unable to offer Okafor more than the minimum could gain that flexibility if granted a disabled player exception after a season-ending injury to one of their players.

At this point, we’re more likely to hear updates on Okafor’s health than any announcement of a signing. The center has bounced back from injury before throughout a solid career, and I expect him to do so again. Don’t be surprised if Okafor is unemployed as the regular season opens, but making a difference once the postseason arrives.

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