Emeka Okafor Could Change the Landscape of the Western Conference

Western ConferenceAt this very moment, the fate of the Western Conference might be hanging in the balance of the Phoenix Suns’ front office.

Let me explain.

Let’s start out with a simple question:

Does anyone still take the Clippers seriously as Western Conference favorites? We’ve seen this act before: Chris Paul and Lob City put up highlights every night and make fans drool over the thought of a potential star-studded Heat-Clippers Final.

When the playoffs eventually come around, however, the Clippers recede back to looking like the fourth- or fifth best team in a loaded Western Conference. Sure, they pushed the Grizzlies to seven games last year. However, if you think DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin can effectively defend top-ranked opponents for an entire postseason, I’d like to invite you to play a quick game of “Name That Big Man.”

Player A has played 18 games and has defended 6.2 shots at the rim per 33.4 minutes a game, allowing 49.1% to go in.

Player B has played 19 games and has defended 8.2 shots at the rim per 35.4 minutes a game, allowing 59% to go in

Player C has played in 19 games and has defended 6.1 shots at the rim per 37.2 minutes a game, allowing 52.6% to go in.

I’ve got bad news for Clippers fans; two of three these guys are Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The third is David Lee, who is considered by some to be the worst interior defender in the NBA. Here’s the kicker: Lee is actually Player A and Jordan and Griffin are Players B and C, respectively. Comparatively speaking, DeAndre Jordan is making David Lee look like Roy Hibbert. 

Opponents have attempted 14.3 shots at the rim against Jordan and Griffin per game and have scored on well over half of those attempts. That equates to more than thirty points a game on easy shots in the paint against only those two players. Note: this total doesn’t even begin to consider the added points that come from fouls. By the way, Griffin and Jordan collectively commit 7.1 fouls per game. (Exactly 2.5 more per game than the Spurs’ big man trio of Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw.)

Part of the problem for the Clippers is that neither Jordan nor Griffin plays particularly tough interior defense. As you may recall, Chauncey Billups called Griffin soft after two years of playing together.

Just look at these two plays from the first half of Wednesday’s loss to the Hawks to see why L.A. gives up so many points in the paint.

1. Al Horford overwhelms DeAndre Jordan

2. Al Horford overwhelms Blake Griffin

When Jordan and Griffin get beaten up down low, they invariably get lazy and start hacking — sending them into early foul trouble with consistency. When the fouls toll up and Doc Rivers is forced to sit them, they get replaced by two of the league’s least effective 7-footers.

For my money, Byron Mullens is the worst interior defender in the NBA. For starters, he owns the worst Defensive Rating for any center in the league. Per 100 possessions, L.A. has been outscoring opponents by five points on the season. However, when Mullens is in the lineup, the Clippers have been abysmal, getting outscored by 16 points per 100 possessions. Mullens has a very rudimentary understanding of where he should place himself on the court and when to help out on defense, resulting in embarrassing defensive breakdowns like this:

While some have referred to Mullens and his partner-in-crime Ryan Hollins as the Clippers’ offense-defense 7-footer platoon, it’s a very crude designation to make. It is true that Hollins is better than Mullens on defense. Regardless, he’s still well below a league-average defender as well. He’s compiled an astounding 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes so far this season, by far the most for any player with over 150 minutes of logged action.

Hollins is also one of the league’s worst rebounders for a 7-footer, averaging fewer than seven rebounds per 36 minutes.  This puts him right on par with some of the league’s better rebounding guards (Evan Turner, Lance Stephenson) but well below most competent centers.

Jordan. Griffin. Mullens. Hollins.

That’s it. That’s the extent of the Clippers’ interior depth. I mean, if you were so inclined, I guess you could include 37-year-old Antawn Jamison. But he’s only appeared in seven games this season and is undersized for a big man as is.

Rumors have been swirling that Lamar Odom might return to the team as a free agent in January. I’m skeptical Odom would be worth the investment. He’s an inherent distraction for the locker room and is an old 34 years of age. While he became a somewhat effective interior defender in recent years, he’s also coming off a tumultuous summer of alleged drug use, which has him looking more like the skinny Odom of the early-2000s than the bulky Odom from last year (that’s not a good thing.)

The Clippers’ pick-and-roll defense ranks 29th in the league, allowing 1.17 points per game, per Robby Kalland via Synergy Sports. This is a result of everything I’ve spelled out; Jordan and Griffin are below average rim protectors and Mullens and Hollins are the league’s least effective backup interior defenders. Not to mention, outside of Matt Barnes and the possible exceptions of Chris Paul and Jared Dudley, every player on the roster is better known for their offense than defense.

So, let’s go back to Phoenix, where I mentioned the Suns could change the balance of power in the Western Conference. How so, you ask?

Through one simple move.

As you might remember, Emeka Okafor was traded to Phoenix in October as a part of the Marcin Gortat trade. Okafor has been sidelined all season with a herniated disc in his neck and likely will not return to the court until January at the very earliest. He’s also in the final year of a six-year, $72 million deal and is currently making about $15 million this season. One thing is certain: he has no future with the Suns. They already have two promising young centers in Miles Plumlee and 20-year-old Alex Len.

Emeka Okafor

The Suns’ front office, meanwhile, is extremely tactful. They’ve saved millions of dollars and have picked up several assets in trades with the Pacers and Wizards since the start of the summer. If Okafor gets healthy and starts itching for a chance to play in a playoffs, as I suspect he will, the Suns will likely pounce on the opportunity to save even more money through negotiating a buy-out.

Now, of course, the Suns themselves are in the playoff race so it might be too soon to guarantee that a healthy Okafor will be bought out. There’s still a small chance his expiring deal could get traded again. Or, perhaps he will stay on and vocally lead Phoenix during the playoff stretch. More likely though, Phoenix will be negotiating a buyout with Okafor’s as soon as he gets healthy enough to play.

Consider this: Los Angeles can’t trade its first-round pick this year under the NBA’s Ted Stepien rule because they already owe next year’s pick to Boston. They’re also fully capped out on contracts and lack the expendable salaries necessary to swing a trade for a veteran defensive presence (a la Elton Brand or Zaza Pachulia). To put it kindly, their only expendable asset is Reggie Bullock, who’s not overwhelmingly valuable to begin with.

That leaves the Clippers with three options. They can stick it out with the rotation they have and hope to sign a healthy Odom by January; they can search the free agent scraps for slim pickings (Earl Barron, anyone?); or they can undersell Bullock, Willie Green and a distant future first-rounder for a backup big making under $5 million.

To me, none of those options sound too great.

This is where the Suns’ decision with Okafor becomes so important for the Clippers.

My gut tells me that if Okafor gets healthy, he and the Suns will agree on a buyout. If that happens, I predict Okafor will sign with the Clippers for the playoff stretch.

It almost makes too much sense not to happen.

Okafor has been teammates in the past with five of the Clippers’ current 14 players. That’s a ridiculous coincidence. To have five former teammates on board, all of whom with a good rapport and strong praise for Okafor, would be a huge advantage for L.A. in the post-buyout recruiting circuit.

“Emeka is a friend of mine,“ said Willie Green, who started alongside Okafor and Chris Paul in New Orleans and now plays with Paul and the Clippers. “He was a great teammate. I’m sure whatever team he lands with is going to be getting a contributor. He’s a good basketball player and he rebounds the ball well. He’s smart and takes care of his body. If he’s here, it would be exciting to have him.“

Okafor would provide the defensive presence up front that Los Angeles has lacked ever since the birth of Lob City.

Last season, the Wizards’ eight best defensive lineups featured Okafor. More tellingly, Okafor anchored the Wizards to the fifth best defensive efficiency in the league. Individually, Okafor’s impact is also apparent: he ranked within the top 10 players for defensive efficiency at 99.0 points per 100 opponent possessions, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Okafor’s biggest asset is his strength and power, which more than makes up for the fact that he’s not quite 7-feet tall.

“He might possibly be the strongest guy in the NBA,” said Hollins, who backed up Okafor in Charlotte from 2006-2008. “He’s athletic and he rebounds. He’s also got probably the best timing there can be with blocking shots.”

Okafor’s not the shot blocker he was early in his career but he still can get up to contest attacks at the rim in big moments. Less than a year ago, he had an emphatic rejection on an accelerating Kevin Durant:

“He’s a good fit for anybody,” said Darren Collison, Okafor’s teammate in New Orleans who now backs up Chris Paul in Los Angeles. “What he does defensively is bring that presence. He’s also a guy who you can count on to be a good veteran in the locker room.”

After John Wall returned to the court for Washington following a season-long rehabilitation last year, the Wizards finished the season at 24-25. If they played near-.500 ball for the entire season, Okafor would’ve been anchoring a playoff team.

Though he’s been hurt, he’s still only 31 years old and should have a couple of good seasons still left in him. His reputation for constantly getting hurt is overridden by his other reputation for being a player who takes great care of his body.

This is Okafor’s ninth season in the league and he’s played at least 67 games in six of them. Last season, while not his most impressive visually, Okafor played some of the most efficient basketball of his career. Sure, he’s no Iron Man but –then again – a herniated disc in the neck isn’t exactly the type of thing you want to rush back from too fast.

“He’s someone who took care of his body better than anyone I had seen,” said Jared Dudley, who was once Okafor’s Big East rival and eventually became Okafor’s NBA teammate in Charlotte. “He did things like yoga stretching and palates. He focused on that more than anything else. His whole thing was, ‘If I could stay healthy. I could contribute.’”

For years, Okafor has contributed. He averaged a double-double in each of his first five seasons in the league. He’s averaged close to a double-double in every season since.

Remember, when Chris Paul found out that Okafor would be joining him in going from the Hornets to the Lakers in 2011 (before the trade was eventually nixed), Paul called Okafor’s addition to the trade “icing on the cake.”

Now that Okafor is a serious buyout candidate, the two might have an opportunity to team up in Los Angeles after all. Only this time, it would be with the Clippers. Los Angeles has a roster spot available and wouldn’t have to pay Okafor more than the veteran’s minimum to sign him.

Add Okafor to the Clippers’ front line and all of a sudden their interior depth looks respectable. And when you already have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leading the charge, respectable front line depth is all you really need to have a shot at winning in the playoffs. For all the summer hoopla that surrounded the arrivals of Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in L.A., it could actually turn out to be a winter pickup of Emeka Okafor that ends up differentiating this Clippers team from the disappointing playoff performances in Lob City in 2012 and 2013.

Jared Dudley said it best:

“If [Okafor] came back healthy like the Emeka he was before, he could definitely help a contending team – easy.”

Jacob Eisenberg is a junior at Emory University and works as a credentialed reporter at Atlanta Hawks games. Check out his website here and be sure to follow him on twitter @eisenberg43.

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