Having a great center is the key to many playoff victories. From the Spurs and Tim Duncan to Grizzlies and Marc Gasol every team needs a center that not only fits the system, but can contribute on the offensive end. It is no secret that Chris Paul wants to win a championship. He wants the talent around him to make a run and that isn’t there… Yet.
Some fans feel like Emeka Okafor has to leave because he is undersized and had difficulty against the Lakers bigs. I’m here to try to put things into perspective. Should we get rid of him for other options? What about drafting a replacement? Can he develop his offense? How did he really do in the playoffs? We look to analyze all these things and more.
The 2011 Playoffs
The New Orleans Hornets entered the playoffs undermanned and under talented. They had only one good wing player in Trevor Ariza and the only other true rebounder of size was Aaron Gray and he was bothered by an ankle injury. In a way Emeka Okafor was left on an island. He was the only talented big man that could be relied upon to defend both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
In effect, he was playing two on one, and trying to grab rebounds when both of those guys are on the floor is no easy feat in itself. Another problem was the terrible job that the Hornets guards did of boxing out the Laker guards. Ron Artest had 14 offensive rebounds as he simply outmuscled Marco Belinelli for position. In a shortened way, Emeka had a tough series.
If we continue the rebounding trend it was widely discussed that Okafor was pathetic when trying to rebound the basketball. At one point in the series Okafor had just 12 defensive rebounds in 149 minutes, he finished with 16 defensive rebounds in 188 minutes. The reason we are making such a big deal about rebounding is because in the Lakers series it was a pivotal indicator as to which team would win the game. If we follow Rohan’s 10-20-15 rule we can better judge how Emeka played the boards. In his first playoff series Emeka had a mark of 12-11-11 which means he was effectively a below average center in terms of grabbing rebounds.
I’d make the argument again that Emeka had to try and cover two 7-footers, trying to box them out to give his team mates an opportunity to grab the rebound. But because the Hornets guards were terribly positioned and undersized (namely Marco Belinelli) the Hornets suffered ten-fold.
Can Emeka Play Any Better?
Most definitely, 100 percent, yes. If we look again to his rebound numbers the playoffs are by no means reflective of his ability to rebound the ball. Glancing back on his regular season play and comparing it to the playoffs we can better understand how well he can actually hit the boards.
Sifting through the numbers (for those that aren’t all that great with them) essentially in the regular season Okafor was better at everything in the categories listed. He rebounded better offensively and defensively, he blocked more shots, he grabbed more rebounds per minute. He under performed in a big way. But I keep coming back to this notion that the Lakers exposed the Hornets front line. Sure there was Carl Landry, but often Okafor might be out there with a small ball lineup more than he might not be. If Emeka can be surrounded with players than can box-out better and contain opposing big men, then he can return to the form of 2009-10 and 2010-11 when he was an excellent rebounder (based on the 10-20-15 mark).
What About Replacing Him?
I’ve heard various murmurs, grumblings among other things from Hornets fans that want Emeka out and someone better in. The general consensus on this train of thought is that we need to find a true 7-footer who is big strong and won’t stand down. Basically they want Tyson Chandler back.
Well for those of you thinking along those lines you can forget it, there isn’t anyone out there on the market that will be readily available within the next 12-18 months.
Tyson Chandler can become a free-agent after this season is over, but that is never going to happen because no logical, plausible scenario is having Chandler walk and Marc Cuban being fine with it. There is Samuel Dalembert who actually had a nice season for the Kings, but he’s going to be over-paid by the Knicks. It appears that Nuggets center Nene is leaning towards opting out of his contract with to explore Free-Agency. The Problem is, he’ll also be demanding a high, 14 million a year and there’s no way of getting rid of Okafor as well as signing Nene.
Replacing Okafor seems difficult, the trade market does not value him highly because of his large contract and lack of true seven foot size. I think that the only way Emeka leaves is if somehow the Hornets have a serious shot at Dwight Howard and we all know how much he’s worth.
As for drafting a replaceable center there is no clear cut, truly talented player available within the entire draft. The Hornets sit at the 45 position so you can forget about it.
Things For Him To Work On
There are two things I wish Emeka Okafor could implement into his game that would make him a better basketball player. One, I’d love to see him work on his jumpshot (as well as his free-throw shooting). He does have a decent release on the ball and he’s actually shown that he can hit the baseline jumpshot from time to time. Even if he shows enough to develop into a Tyson Chandler lite (extending his range to 15 feet) it could be enough to make him a lot more valuable.
The second thing is he needs to work on his pick and roll game with Chris Paul. Where Tyson Chandler would roll to the basket looking for the ally-oop, Okafor tries to set the perfect screen up top before he decides to roll. Slipping the pick is just as effective as actually setting it. What it does is put the defenders in two minds. If the big man decides to hedge the screen it allows the guard to draw two men. When that is done, if Okafor is rolling to the basket he needs to be aware of a lob pass which he can go and get. By no means is it the most simplistic of sequences, but if he can implement it into his game he can be a better center for this team.
So, What Does This All Mean?
Well when we think back to the start of the conversation we tried to relate this to winning championships. While Emeka Okafor is a top 10 center in the league, he lacks a lot of the production numbers in terms of PPG. Building a championship roster in New Orleans is going to be difficult, but I can see a way in which the Hornets can be a top 4 seed in the West with Emeka on the roster.
The Hornets will have to find a scoring option on the wing as well as a future replacement for David West. Even if Okafor isn’t a scoring machine it is essential to have a 20-point scorer in the low post opposite him. If there is not such a player at the power-forward position you can forget about a championship. Having balance on your roster is necessary, you don’t need five, 20-point scorers which is why Okafor could fit. He’s a defensive shot-blocker who also is a terrific rebounder. That is at least passable.
If the Hornets get an opportunity to get Dwight Howard then by all means gut your roster and surrond Chris Paul and Dwight Howard with talent. But we live in reality and Emeka Okafor could work as a playoff center. There are three precedents that must set in order for Okafor to be a good playoff center:
1. Have a 20-point, low post scorer opposite him at Power Forward
2. Get a solid rebounding option off the bench
3. Scoring Option needed on the wing
If those things can fall into place then Okafor weaknesses can be overcome and it will allow him to highlight his strength’s. There still is a lot to be done from the front office by means of acquiring more talent. Cohesiveness is a term that many fans have a tough time grasping. Having that continuity and cohesion can make an above average team good, and a good team great.