As the season winds down and limps to a series of meaningless results, I thought I’d take a look at one of our most significant moves (or non-moves) of the upcoming off-season: what to do about Emeka Okafor. The two key numbers floating around the situation are his $5.4 million expiring contract and the $13 million dollar extension he refused at the start of the season. That was 4 months and another terrible-team-performance-in-a-mediocre-conference ago. Assuming the bridges haven’t been burnt between Okafor and management, Charlotte can still match any offers Okafor receives, and they’re free to unilaterally renegotiate with him in July. The question: what should they do?
First of all, I can’t stand visceral responses to questions like these. All they generally indicate is the respondent’s biases, which are usually dominated by what happened in the last five minutes. So let’s try a numerically-based response. I’m going to use John Hollinger’s PER statistic as a benchmark for performance, and I’m going to use, um, US American dollars as a benchmark for money.
Okay, currently, Mek sits 18th among power forwards in the PER rankings with a score of 16.64. Of the 17 guys ranked above him, the average salary is $9.5 million. Bear in mind, this spans the entire spectrum of salaries, from Carl Landry’s $400K to Kevin Garnett’s $23.8 million. Due to the wide range of numbers, it might be more instructive to choose the median value, or the middle salary of the 17 incomes. In this case, it’s Carlos Boozer’s $11.6 million (he’s ranked 5th). Either way you look at it, both the average and median incomes of the 17 players ranked above Okafor are LESS than what he rejected. Probably the biggest red flag in there for the Okafor camp is that Rasheed Wallace–ranked 15th on the list and with a far beefier resume than Omeka–only scores $12.5 million in annual income. If I’m Okafor’s agent, I might be a little nervous right about now.
One card Team Okafor might play is Emeka’s durability. This would have been utterly ridiculous before the season began, given that his average games-played coming into ’07-08 was just 55. Yet Okafor’s played a surprisingly robust 71 games this year, while the average games-played of the 17 guys ranked above him is just under 62. At first, this might seem like promising leverage for Okafor, given a guy like Chris Bosh, who pocketed $13 million this year while only appearing in 56 games so far. However, the salary-per-games-played average across the top 17 power forwards is $149K, and Okafor’s $13 million-per-games-played average would be $183 K. The median comparison is David West’s $167K-per-game, still far less than the amount Okafor nixed, and West was an All-Star…in the Western Conference. Comparisons in salary-per-MINUTES-played yield similar results. So far, Okafor and/or his agent look completely foolish for turning down $13 million. Likewise, the Bobcats would be foolish to repeat the same offer in any future negotiations.
Other than PER, what do the more traditional stats tell us about Okafor’s value? Glad I asked! Okafor’s scoring this year is at a career-low (13.1 per game), as are his blocks (1.6 per game). His rebounds, personal fouls, turnovers, and assists are relatively stagnant. Yes, he’s 6th in the league in rebounds and one of just ten players to average a double-double. The average salary among that elite bunch, though? $11.4 million. And for some extra hot sauce, if I were Charlotte’s GM, I’d add that every one of those double-double guys (with the exception of Shawn Marion) is taking his team to the playoffs (and Marion certainly would have had he not sulked his way out of Phoenix). Further, if Okafor’s agent wanted to get all statistical on me, I’d politely direct him to Okafor’s turnover rate—that is, his percentage of possessions that end in a turnover: 13.2%. This is horrifically bad among power forwards—52nd, in fact, below such legends as Brian Cook and Matt Bonner.
Of course, contract negotiations don’t happen in vacuums. As lots of economists love to point out (it’s practically their version of “it is what it is”), a player’s worth is what the market is willing to pay. So is there a team out there with $13 million that they wouldn’t mind flinging at Okafor? If that’s the case, then none of these statistical comparisons mean squat. A quick glance at the League’s payrolls shows a few teams with some obvious financial flexibility, such as Seattle and Memphis. There are also a handful of teams with some wiggle room pending a) the resolution of their own personnel negotiations, and b) how far over the cap they’re willing to go. Miami, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Orlando fall into this group. And a wild card to be worried about (that is, if you actually worry about losing Okafor)? Those dastardly San Antonio Spurs. They’re currently $11.7 million over the cap, but they’ve got Robert Horry ($3.6 mil), Kurt Thomas ($8 mil), Michael Finley ($3.1 mil), Brent Barry ($5.6 mil) and Jacque Vaughn ($1.2 mil) all coming off the books, should they choose not to re-sign. And the allure of San Antonio might allow the Spurs to get a discount in their offering—which they’d just about have to implement, because there’s no way they’re paying Okafor more than Ginobli ($9 mil) and Parker ($10.5 mil).
As for the Bobcats, we’ll have about $10.5 mil in spending money this summer at a minimum (I’m going out on a limb by assuming we’re not going to retain Othella Harrington and Derek Anderson). $10.5 would be a “fair” price to offer Okafor, because it’s right around those averages I laid out earlier. We’ll have potentially more depending on how we handle Sean May ($1.8 mil), Adam Morrison ($3.9 mil), Earl Boykins ($400 K) and the two-headed Ryan Hollins/Jermareo Davidson-combo of raw mediocrity (keep one but not both, right? That’s another half a mil). The two X-factors are trade options (impossible to predict) and the draft. A circa-8th round pick (which is about where we’ll fall) will run us in the neighborhood of $2.5-3 million bones. So we can’t even offer Emeka that “fair” price of $10.5 millon without making some other moves—unless of course we go over the cap, but does anyone actually see that happening?
So there’s my Frontline: Okafor piece. After all that analysis, I must admit that I still don’t know how both sides are going to play it from here on out. This is like the “sports contract” version of the Iraq War: it’s a total mess that was started by a series of blunders, and nobody’s sure about what to do now. First, the Bobcats did a monumentally stupid thing by offering way too much money–$13 million—to Okafor. And then Okafor somehow one-upped their stupidity by actually rejecting the deal. Then he went out and didn’t live up to that value this season, but it’s also going to be hard for management to redact it. There are going to be hard feelings either way—Okafor’s going to be bitter if he takes less, and management’s going to be bitter if he gets away out of spite or they end up forking $13 million over to him—that is, if they can even figure out how. So we’ll see how this quagmire turns out this summer, as well as how each side manages to put a good face on it…