Emeka Okafor is one of the more polarizing Hornets' players

Why The New Orleans Hornets Need Emeka Okafor

How’s everyone doing deep into this NBA lockout? Going a little stir crazy? I know I am. Anyway, I bet a couple (many) of you are going to be a little upset at that title, huh? I know he’s not the most popular Hornet, has a bloated contract and is criticized a lot—both fairly and unfairly, but without Emeka Okafor, the Hornets are hanging out deep in lottery territory. Let’s do this…

First and foremost let’s get the contract talk out of the way. For the 2011-12 season, Okafor is due to be paid $12,492,500.00 (his salary increases by about a million for the 2012-13 season). It’s a lot of money, no doubt, but this isn’t one of those Gilbert Arena-Antawn Jamison-Rashard Lewis-type of contracts. Okafor actually provides good (you could even say strong) production.

The lovely basketball-reference.com lets you do a search based on certain parameters. I decided to search by 30 or more minutes per game, 10 or more points per game and 9 or more total rebounds per game. Here is the list of players who had those types of numbers this past season. Sorting that list by win shares, Okafor comes in at 9th. That’s pretty good company to be in if you’re a center. Furthermore, the Wages of Wins blog has Okafor as the 107th most underpaid player and the 436th overpaid player. Going by their formula (which is by no means definitive), Okafor is actually more underpaid then overpaid.  Okafor might not be in the elite center category, but he probably is somewhere in the level below that.

Regardless of where he fits into the rankings of NBA centers, I could even make an argument that Okafor is more important to the Hornets on-court success next season than Chris Paul. I know you’re thinking I’m crazy, but this argument is based off depth at the center position more than Okafor’s talent. If Chris Paul goes down with an extended injury, Jarrett Jack is capable of stepping in and keeping the team competitive. If Okafor goes down, well, do you remember that stretch in February the Hornets went 3-7 without him? It wasn’t pretty.

While Okafor was hurt, Jason Smith had one good game against the Wizards onFebruary 1st. But after that, the center position was decent at best. There is simply no depth behind Okafor. Smith is just not capable of being a starting center. Per 36 minutes he would only average 8 total rebounds (Okafor would have 11) and according to 82games.com only 18% of Smith’s shots are taken in the paint. Okafor by comparison takes 68% of his attempts inside. Personally, I prefer centers to play underneath the rim. Smith is a jump shooting power forward and nothing else. Aaron Gray has decent looking numbers per 36 minutes (11.6 rebounds and 8.7 points) but he’s nothing more than a backup.

Take a look at these stats from 82games.com. Based off the +/- statistic, Okafor has 43 wins and 26 losses. His 62.3 winning percentage is second only to Chris Paul’s 64%. I know +/- is not the best stat to go by (I prefer going by the +/- of a unit), but that is still shows his value to the team.

Should the Hornets decide to get rid of Okafor there is almost no replacement. Right now the team has very few assets, other than Chris Paul, to trade. In free agency, there is no affordable replacement. Yes, Okafor was embarrassed in the playoffs, and has a contract which is a little too much, but even with all that, the Hornets could be doing a whole lot worse. I know some of you will disagree, so let us know in the comments below.

I’m going to go non-metal (WHAT?!?!) and a little more relaxed this morning…

Tags: Aaron Gray Chris Paul Emeka Okafor Jarrett Jack Jason Smith New Orleans Hornets

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