The Emeka Okafor/Trevor Ariza trade, one year later

Rob Carr

About one year ago, the Wizards acquired Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor from the New Orleans Hornets. Now that we've had a chance to see this play out, was the move the right one, or would one of several opportunities passed up have been better.

Eight days before the 2012 NBA Draft, the Washington Wizards made a trade that was met with mixed reaction from fans, writers and the basketball intelligencia. Rather than sit on a decent amount of cap room over the next two seasons had they released Rashard Lewis and used the amnesty clause on Andray Blatche, the Wizards opted to cash in for certainty in the form of Hornets veterans Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor.

Most of the objections centered around the two player's salaries, which were seen as a bit much for players of their quality and might have prevented the Wizards from using cap flexibility in other ways. Here's what I wrote about the deal after it happened:

Essentially, the Wizards are getting two potentially useful rotation pieces that are excellent defensively, not great offensively and don't address the Wizards' biggest need (though the draft pick might). They're short-term upgrades on the incumbents -- Ariza on Chris Singleton, Okafor on the combination of Trevor Booker and Jan Vesely -- but the cost is any possible salary-cap flexibility the Wizards have for the next two seasons, as described here. Nobody really knows for sure what would have resulted from that flexibility, but I would argue that doing nothing here was preferable to getting Ariza and Okafor.

Now that we're a year into the deal, we have a better idea of what Ariza and Okafor were worth on the court and whether any good potential opportunities slipped by the Wizards. It's as good a time as any to reflect on a trade that prompted some of this site's biggest arguments.

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Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

THE PLAYERS

Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza's stocks were at a low point before Ernie Grunfeld acquired them. Both players floundered on an aimless Hornets team that was ticketed for the top of the lottery after trading away Chris Paul right before the season. Two years before, they were starters on a 46-win team that challenged the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, but without Paul, their usefulness went away. Okafor's season was lost in February with a knee injury, while Ariza was told to sit in April so the Hornets could get closer looks at Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry.

Grunfeld made the trade figuring that Okafor and Ariza would recover to their 2010-11 levels while playing for a similar kind of team. For the most part, he was right, though it wasn't always so clean.

Faced with the prospect of once again not having their star point guard, both players began the year dreadfully. Okafor found himself benched at the start of the year, while Ariza loafed on both ends and failed to provide the kind of scoring the Wizards needed without John Wall and Nene. The trade initially looked like a disaster as the Wizards struggled.

Things started to turn around, though, once the Wizards' stars returned. Nene came back in early December and was eventually moved into the starting lineup with Okafor. Together, they were a solid defensive tandem, with Nene doing most of the lateral switching on the floor and Okafor cleaning up at the rim and on the defensive glass. (They remained a bad offensive duo, but the defense more than made up for it on many nights). Ariza, after missing most of December with a calf injury, benefited from Wall's health more than anyone, shooting 45 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range after the All-Star Break.

BF's 2012-13 Player Evaluations: Emeka Okafor Trevor Ariza

With the Wizards' stars healthy, Okafor and Ariza could focus on what they did best. Okafor's scoring efficiency took a major hit because he was forced to shoot more mid-range jump shots than he wanted, but his defensive rebound percentage was the highest of his career. He also proved to be as good a teammate as advertised, lighting into Wall when he was struggling in a moment that may have turned Wall's season around. Ariza's shot distribution changed significantly once Wall arrived, as he shot significantly more (and better) from the corners, which explains his career-high 36.4-percent mark from three-point range.

They both ultimately provided what was expected of them. The only surprises: Okafor's poor shooting efficiency, Okafor's elite defensive rebounding and Ariza's solid three-point mark. They were decent rotation players when they could be rotation players, which is why they were acquired.

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Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

THE ALTERNATIVES

Of course, given their salaries handed out by other teams, Okafor and Ariza were still overpaid. Both provided contributions that would be appropriate for someone making half their salaries. If Okafor made $7 million and Ariza made $3.5 million, they would be steals, but instead they soaked up an additional $10.5 million or so in salary this year and next.

This is where the initial flexibility argument comes into play. Now that a year has played out, what opportunities were missed?

LAST SUMMER

Okafor and Ariza made a combined $20.75 million last year, according to StoryTellers' page. Post-trade, the Wizards' team salary was at around $54 million, plus spare cap holds that essentially ate into any remaining cap space (the cap was set at $58.044 million). The Wizards' team salary at the end of the year for players on the active roster was about $57.5 million, plus some spare cap holds.

Had the Wizards not done the trade, they would have given themselves some more cap room last summer, though perhaps not as much as initially expected. Subtracting the $20.75 million from Okafor and Ariza would have put the Wizards' salary at $36.75 million. We should also subtract the $1.75 million from Martell Webster, then add back $1.2 million for Jordan Crawford, who would have been on the roster at the time. That puts the Wizards at $36.2 million. (Note: that figure also includes the veteran's minimum contracts for several players signed after the summer, but I'm leaving those on because the NBA requires you to have veteran's minimum cap holds for every roster spot still open until they are filled).

If the Wizards bought out Lewis and used the amnesty clause on Blatche, they would have eaten an additional $13.8 million in cap space and $20 million in Ted Leonsis' pocket. Let's assume that Leonsis would not have seen the $7.1 million Blatche amnesty cost as prohibitive. That would have given the Wizards around $8 million in salary cap space, give or take a million or two in either direction depending on contract incentives.

What could the Wizards have done with that $8 million?

MAKE A PLAY FOR RYAN ANDERSON OR ERSAN ILYASOVA? It's funny that the Wizards are seeking a Stretch 4 now because two of the best were on the market last summer. Ilyasova signed a five-year, $45 million deal with the Bucks that paid him $7.9 million in his first four years and a non-guaranteed $8.4 million in the final one. He could have fit at that price, theoretically. Anderson was scooped up by the Hornets, now flush with cap space thanks to the Okafor/Ariza trade, on a weird four-year deal that starts at $8.7 million and settles in between $8.3 and $8.5 million for the final three years. To make that happen, the Hornets surrendered Gustavo Ayon and his $1.5 million salary in a sign and trade.

That's a lot of funky math to say that the Wizards could have probably finagled some money to make room to steal either of those players away had they not traded for Okafor and Ariza. (Trading Trevor Booker or Chris Singleton, for example). It's right on the border, though.

MAKE AN AMNESTY CLAIM AND SAVE MONEY FOR LATER: Some examples: Brendan Haywood and his $2 million per season for the next three years, Elton Brand and his $2.1 million for next year; Luis Scola and his $4.5 million per season for the next three years. Doing that would have allowed the Wizards to maintain some financial flexibility for this summer (more on that in a minute). Of course, Haywood, Brand and Scola all aged in dog years this year.

SIGN A YOUNGISH PLAYER FOR UNDER $8 MILLION: A list of players under 27 that signed multi-year deals for less than $8 million, but more than the bi-annual exception last summer includes (in alphabetical) Darrell Arthur, Brandon Bass, Michael Beasley, Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, Alonzo Gee, Danny Green, Gerald Green, Kirk Hinrich, Courtney Lee, C.J. Miles, Steve Novak, Brandon Rush, Ramon Sessions, Mirza Teletovic, Jason Thompson and Lou Williams. Others, including D.J. Augustin, Jerryd Bayless, Aaron Brooks, Carlos Delfino, Spencer Hawes, J.J. Hickson, Chris Kaman, Robin Lopez, O.J. Mayo, Brandon Roy, J.R. Smith, Greg Stiemsma and Nick Young, signed short-term deals that could have maintained financial flexibility.

USE THE CAP SPACE FOR A TRADE: The following players have been acquired in unbalanced trades using cap space or trade exceptions for less than $8 million in the last calendar year: Kyle Korver, Reggie Evans, Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Samuel Dalembert (sorta), Dorell Wright, Eric Maynor and James Johnson. Had the Wizards banked the cap space this long, you could add Thomas Robinson to the list. There are also countless others who might have been available had the Wizards asked, of course.

That's about as comprehensive a list as I can put together for last summer. It is worth noting that the Wizards technically signed Webster using cap space, so a couple options could have been closed off if you keep Webster on the team. But still, there you have it for last summer.

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

THIS COMING SUMMER

This is where we still don't really know what opportunities were passed up, but we do know that cap space was a cost. By now, Lewis' dead money would have been off the books. The Wizards would still have owed Blatche $7.8 million minus whatever his new contract is this summer, but that's only a dollar hit to Leonsis' pocket, not a cap hit. But with Okafor and Ariza's salaries on the roster (both plan to opt in), the Wizards essentially have no cap space and would have to use part of the mid-level exception to keep Webster if they so choose.

Subtracting Okafor and Ariza from the picture would leave the Wizards with this sheet.

  1. Nene: $13 million.
  2. John Wall: $7.5 million.
  3. Bradley Beal: $4.3 million.
  4. 2013 No. 3 pick: $3.6 million.
  5. Jan Vesely: $3.5 million.
  6. Kevin Seraphin: $2.8 million.
  7. Trevor Booker: $2.4 million.
  8. Chris Singleton: $1.7 million.
  9. TOTAL: $38.8 million
That's not the most accurate number, of course. Maybe Crawford doesn't get traded, for example. Also, had the Wizards used some of their $8 million last summer, you'd add that to the total. (Ilyasova at $7.9 million, for example, brings things up to $46.7 million). Various cap holds, plus the second-round pick(s) also bite a few million into that number.

Nevertheless, the Wizards could have potentially had a good deal of cap room this summer. Max cap room is unlikely, so we can kiss pipe dreams of Dwight Howard or Chris Paul behind, but it's possible Washington would have found a way to dig up eight figures of space. (Some of that money could still have gone to Webster, of course, which would have eaten into it further).

For the sake of this exercise, let's assume the Wizards would have entered the summer with a core of Wall, Beal, Nene, a likely high draft pick and somewhere around $10 million in cap space. Some interesting free agents to consider (full list here):
Space could have also been cleared to go after bigger fish, and the nature of the cap flexibility saved would have also made it possible to make unbalanced trades for guys rumored to be on the market.

Then again, it's not that simple either. There's the matter of Webster potentially leaving if the Wizards chose one of these players instead. In addition, these players would have signed long-term deals, and that would have cut into space earmarked for John Wall's future contract extension and other eventual moves. One of the nice things about the contracts of Ariza and Okafor specifically is that they end right before Wall's eventual extension begins. (In a nice little coincidence, Nene's deal runs out just before Beal's new one would begin). That is also something to consider, as well as all of the on-court and intangible changes that would have taken place in either direction if Okafor and Ariza weren't here.

But still: the Wizards did sacrifice cap room this summer to get Okafor and Ariza.

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Was this all worth it? That's the million dollar question.

Okafor and Ariza proved to be useful players this year when the rest of the team was healthy, but could others have done the same for less money over the past two years? What would a Wizards team with Ilyasova, Webster and perhaps another good value signing (Stiemsma?) looked like last year instead? On the flip side, what about Lee and Wright, both of whom disappointed this year?

Also: did any additional options open up because of Okafor and Ariza's expiring contracts? Grunfeld already tried to trade Ariza for Caron Butler at the trade deadline. Could he flip either of those players for someone else this year?

That's for us to reflect on next summer after Year 2 post-trade. For now, I hope this spurs a discussion about whether the Wizards ultimately took the right path with this trade given how Year 1 has played out.

More on BF:

  • All of BF's draft scouting reports.
  • All of SBNation.com's scouting reports.
  • The Wizards' workout database.
  • Noel loves D.C.
  • Otto Porter comes to town
  • "Shy" Bennett visits D.C.
  • Atlantic Division trade targets
  • Central Division trade targets
  • Southeast Division trade targets
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