Emeka Okafor probably won’t have any sort of on-court impact this year, since he seems destined to miss the season after suffering a neck injury this past autumn. The 31-year-old center could nonetheless have a significant effect on the Western Conference playoff race and this summer’s free agency, thanks to his outsized expiring contract.
The Suns have been planning to trade Okafor ever since acquiring him from the Wizards just before the regular season began, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote this week. He’s making nearly $14.5MM in the final season of a six-year, $72MM deal on which he’s already been traded three times. Whichever team finally winds up holding Okafor’s hot potato of a contract can renounce his rights this summer and clear significant cap room for a free agent push.
The cost of taking on Okafor’s deal will probably involve at least one veteran who could help the Suns make the playoffs. Phoenix has won five of its last six, including two victories over the Pacers, but while the Suns are in sixth place in the Western Conference, only three games separate them from the ninth-place Grizzlies, who’ve been even hotter since Marc Gasol returned from injury. It’s uncertain when Eric Bledsoe will come back from his torn right meniscus to try to give Phoenix a similar boost, so the Suns, who are determined to make their fairy tale push for the playoffs come true, appear to be seeking outside help.
The current collective bargaining agreement makes it easier for teams to create cap space, so expiring contracts like Okafor’s aren’t as valuable as they used to be. The Suns may have to attach a first-rounder or two with Okafor to find the kind of deal they want. GM Ryan McDonough suggested last month that the team is willing to trade one or more of their four potential 2014 first-round picks for a star player. The Suns are also prioritizing the acquisition of players on short-term deals so they can preserve their cap space, but those might be competing aims.
It seems logical that if the Suns were to acquire a star, they’d want to find someone who wouldn’t simply be a three-month rental. If Phoenix instead receives offers that include second-tier players, it would be difficult for the Suns to trade Okafor and receive only players on expiring contracts, and virtually impossible unless Phoenix includes at least one first-rounder. Perhaps a rival team would be willing to package one or two expiring contracts that would allow the Suns to retain their flexibility going forward along with another deal that ends after next season, but that would also be hard to for Phoenix to pull off.
A workable scenario might exist between McDonough and the Celtics. Boston GM Danny Ainge, McDonough’s former boss, is reportedly anxious to trade Jeff Green and Avery Bradley in an effort to clear cap room. Green, a non-star whose four-year, $36.24MM deal runs through 2016, probably wouldn’t interest the Suns, but Bradley might. The fourth-year guard’s aggressive on-ball defense could help solidify a Phoenix team allows the 12th most points per possession in the league, according to NBA.com, and he could provide backcourt depth while Bledsoe is out. He’s up for restricted free agency this summer, so the Suns can retain him if they want to or renounce him and clear his cap hold from their books. If McDonough could convince Ainge to give up Brandon Bass, and he accepts Keith Bogans from Ainge, the Suns could come away with a pair of useful players and no commitments beyond next season. The cost would probably be Okafor plus draft considerations, and Ainge has spoken about his belief in building through the draft.
The Sixers are looking for first-rounders in exchange for Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young, so perhaps the Suns could get involved with Philadelphia. Turner would be an upgrade over Bradley, but Phoenix would be in a similar position, since he’s also a restricted free agent this summer. Hawes is on an expiring deal, but Young’s contract, which pays him an average of more than $9MM a year through 2016, could be tough for McDonough to stomach. Still, the salaries would match if the Suns traded Okafor for just Turner and Young, and the Suns could facilitate such a deal with a first-rounder.
Okafor might not bring the sort of return he could have under the old CBA, but he’s nonetheless an intriguing asset who could bring in a return that helps the Suns now and for the future, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Western Conference GMs, fearing Phoenix’s warm-weather, large-market advantages in free agency, are skittish to help the fast-rebuilding Suns along, leaving McDonough to deal chiefly with Eastern Conference clubs. GMs around the league expect the Suns to trade Okafor somewhere, so I’d be surprised if Phoenix doesn’t cash in its Okafor ticket by the deadline.