Emeka Okafor has an early-termination option in his contract for next season and could exercise it to become an unrestricted free agent. On the surface, it appears he has no plans to do so, telling CSN Washington that his "plan" is to be with the Washington Wizards next season.
"My plan is to be here next year," Okafor said Sunday after contributing 19 points and 10 rebounds in a 109-92 win vs. the Toronto Raptors. "My mind-set is to be here next year. I just think that this team has a lot of potential. If we had everybody healthy, it would be a different around here. We'd be playing for (playoff) position."
Many have interpreted Okafor's words to mean that he will play out the final year of his contract, which will pay him $14.5 million next season. Indeed, this is the most likely scenario.
However, one other possibility would be for Okafor to sign a multi-year contract extension this summer that will have him start at a salary significantly below $14.5 million. The Spurs did this with Richard Jefferson in 2010, signing him to a four-year, $39 million deal rather than having him make $15 million in the final year of his contract.
What's the upside to signing an extension now? Besides keeping Okafor, who has played well since a slow start, this could open up some cap room next summer. If Okafor didn't opt out, the Wizards would have about $57 million in committed salary, putting them right near last year's $58 million cap number. (The value of the salary cap could rise this summer, but it probably won't in any significant way). However, if Okafor opted out and signed a three-year extension that would place his first-year salary at, say, $7 million, the Wizards' total team salary would be closer to $50 million.
That additional cap space could prove to be significant when it comes to keeping Martell Webster. Based on my understanding of the CBA, the Wizards do not have Webster's Bird Rights this year, on account of him signing just a one-year contract last summer. (I will double-check this when I get a chance). If Webster's price tag exceeds the mid-level exception for any reason, the additional cap space saved from negotiating an extension with Okafor would give the Wizards the ability to match anyone who throws out a big offer.
The creation of cap space could also be useful if Webster's price tag doesn't rise. Depending on where the cap level comes in, the Wizards could have enough room to keep Webster and sign another veteran to shore up their bench. Perhaps a third guard, like Atlanta's Devin Harris, Golden State's Jarrett Jack or someone else, could be secured with the additional room. If the Wizards didn't give Okafor an extension, they would be relegated to the mid-level exception, and unless my read of the CBA is off, that will likely be needed to keep Webster.
Of course, the trade-off is the elimination of some cap room in future years and the possibility that Okafor declines. The Wizards must weigh that when making a decision.
I just want to note that just because Okafor says he will remain in D.C. next year doesn't necessarily mean he will play out the final year of his old contract. The extension route is an alternate possibility.