Emeka Okafor Is and Is Not the Problem
While Chris Paul hasn't done anything remotely similar to Kobe's FoodMax squeal, the gravitational pull of his personal labor strife with the Hornets has pulled Emeka Okafor into the damning spotlight. Paul isn't explicitly questioning Okafor's will to win or his ability, but, considering Okafor is New Orleans's third highest-paid player (Peja Stojakovic's massive expiring deal comes in second) yet isn't an All-Star, and given that Okafor's contract will likely keep the Hornets from being major free agency players next year, it's clear Paul's reported demand for answers from N.O. management is as much as indictment of Okafor as anyone.
Actually, it's an indictment of Jeff Bower, the now-exiled general manager who assembled both the glorious 2007-08 Hornets team, which had the West's second-best record, and the 2009-10 Hornets team, which struggled through an injury-laden and uninspiring campaign. But Bower's not around, so his N.O. offspring get to pay the old man's debt, and that means Okafor is the bad guy. Only -- again -- Paul hasn't directly accused Okafor of holding him down. The circumstances just make it look that way.
Here's the thing: Okafor's contract isn't that bad. The forward-center is overpaid, sure, but who isn't? There are numerous high-dollar contracts worse than that of Okafor. We all know teams pay premiums for big men, especially ones who can defend the rim. Okafor, despite his flaws as an offensive player, is among the league's best paint defenders. He's a rebounding savant (despite his sub-peak height) and a smart rotator and help defender. He makes teams better, and again, big men who make teams better get paid. The center Okafor replaced in New Orleans, Tyson Chandler -- he gets paid as much as Okafor.
Ah, and there's the real issue. Okafor is better than Chandler, and was much better than Chandler last season. But Chandler's contract expires in 2011 while Okafor's seems interminable. (For the record, Okafor's deal expires in 2014.) When New Orleans rages against Okafor, it rages against the Okafor deal, which, all told, was among Bower's most short-sighted decisions. Okafor was an immediate upgrade, given his good health relative to that of Chandler, plus the aforementioned defensive prowess (though it's worth noting Chandler has also been a plus defender). But Okafor's contract in comparison to that of Chandler was simply a flexibility killer. Bower cast his die thinking the modest Chandler-becomes-Okafor upgrade would launch the Hornets from Western also-ran to contender of highest repute.
Clearly, that was pure lunacy, given the team's deep, troubling lack of depth at the wing positions and behind Okafor and David West in the frontcourt. And let's not even get into the special Paul-Chandler chemistry the trade destroyed.
That Bower's out can't immediately pacify Paul because, well, the damage has been done. The Bobcats flipped Chandler for the mystical unguaranteed contract of Erick Dampier, essentially turning the former Hornet into an expiring contract. New Orleans seems saddled with Okafor for the foreseeable future, given that the Magic (a team that gave Rashard Lewis $120 million, mind you) has told FanHouse's Tim Povtak they wouldn't take on Okafor's contract to get Paul.
So Okafor is not the problem, but Okafor is the problem. It's a tough place to be for a player who has always worked out and earned his keep. But that's the reality of today's NBA -- you are only considered to be as good as your contract is fair. If you dare convince a team to pay you too much money, you become a problem.