In case you hadn't heard, Emeka Okafor is hurt. The Washington Wizards center is out indefinitely after having herniated his C4 disc during a five-on-five game in New York a few weeks ago. He should be back at some point this season, although it's anyone's guess when and how well he'll play when he returns.
Okafor's absence is an enormous blow to Washington, in particular on defense. Okafor has anchored some of the NBA's best defenses throughout the years and the 2013 iteration of the Wizards was no exception. Okafor was an excellent rim protector and rebounder who was a perfect complement to Nene, a similarly sized player who was at his best defending the pick and roll and cutting off penetration, last year. Between the two of them, as well as impressive efforts from the team as a whole and Trevor Ariza in particular, Washington was able to muster up the NBA's fifth-best defensive efficiency last year.
No one player currently on the roster is capable of filling Okafor's size 15s. Washington will be forced to alter its rotation to account for his absence, so bumps in playing time for Al Harrington, Kevin Seraphin and Summer League Sensation Jan Vesely are probably in the works. Washington's defense was incredible whenever Okafor and Nene shared the floor last year, but much more pedestrian whenever Okafor sat, despite the alternatives (Seraphin, Vesely and Trevor Booker) playing the overwhelming majority of their minutes against less offensively-gifted second units. Not only is Washington going to lose Okafor's contributions, they're going to be forced to fill his minutes at center with either a guy who can't protect the rim (Harrington) or someone who performed worse than a replacement level player last year (Seraphin and Vesely).
The scariest part of all of this is that Nene will almost undoubtedly be asked to play more minutes, something that could lead to disaster considering his age and injury history.
Where each member of the rotation will play could also change in the wake of Okafor's injury. Nene split his time between center and power forward last season and was effective at both positions. He's a middling rebounder (8.8 per 36 minutes last season), though, and seems to prefer playing the less physically demanding power forward position. Seraphin, Vesely and Harrington, all of whom were projected to play the majority of their minutes at power forward, could all see some time at center depending on matchups. Of the three, Seraphin probably has the most potential as far as holding the defense together while Nene sits, but he's been playing basketball for less than 10 years and still hasn't mastered the nuances of team defense.
There isn't much the team can do if it wants to bring in a free agent, too. Washington currently has all 15 of the team's roster spots taken up by players on guaranteed deals, so someone would need to be waived in order to bring in a free agent. Even if that happened, there aren't many players who would be an upgrade over who the team already has. Of the big men currently not signed to a team, the only names that would make one iota of sense for the team are Drew Gooden, Earl Barron, Chris Wilcox and Tyrus Thomas. None of these guys did anything of note last year and only Gooden could even conceivably be considered an upgrade from Seraphin. Thomas is still reasonably young and would make a great reclamation project -- he was very good the last time he was able to play significant minutes at his natural power forward position -- but his attitude has been Blatche-like historically.
The team could also attempt to go small, going with more offense and shooting and less defense and rebounding. Ariza and Otto Porter have the length necessary to guard most smaller power forwards, plus both should be above average rebounders next year. The team played a four perimeter player sparingly last season, using a converted small forward at the power forward spot for only 540 minutes over the course of the year. The results were surprisingly good, as the team outscored opponents by more than six points per 100 possessions with four perimeter players on the floor at once. This should in theory improve with the addition of Harrington, whose most natural position is as power forward in a small lineup and who should have less trouble guarding big men than one of the team's converted small forwards.
Every team experiences injuries throughout the course of a season. If anything, Washington should count its blessings that at least a month and a half of Okafor's recovery will take place before the season starts. If the typical recovery time from an injury like this is three months, Okafor should be back by January and should only miss 20 or 30 games. If this had happened in November, he'd miss twice that amount. The team is also fortunate in that it will have an entire training camp to tinker with new offensive sets, lineups and defensive schemes that can mask its lack of rim protection and rebounding.
That's why, despite the doom and gloom noted elsewhere, I don't think Okafor's neck injury automatically prevents Washington from making the playoffs. Even if no one on the roster is able to replicate his production, the pieces are there to hold the team together until he comes back.