Emeka Okafor’s recent return to the NBA, after missing more than four years due to a neck injury, is nothing short of remarkable. Not only has he recovered, but the 35-year-old is starting for the Pelicans as they try to make a playoff push.
His return also serves as a reminder of how much differently things could look today if Okafor had not gotten injured prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, when the Wizards made their first playoff appearance with John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Washington dealt Okafor and their 2014 first round pick to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat in late October, when it became clear in preseason that Kevin Seraphin wasn’t ready to handle starting center duties. While the deal worked out just fine for Washington, given the situation, they would have been in a more advantageous situation if Okafor was healthy because they’d still have a capable starting center as well as their first round pick.
If we assume Washington finishes around the same place in 2014 with Okafor instead of Gortat, they would have had some interesting options with their first round pick. They probably would not have taken Tyler Ennis, who the Suns wound up taking with their pick, but some solid players like Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, and Clint Capela were available in that range, as were some flops like Bruno Caboclo, Mitch McGary, and Jordan Adams. Aside from that there’s also the possibility the Wizards could have dangled the pick at the trade deadline or before the draft to add a player, like one of those new-fangled stretch 4’s people were starting to talk about at the time.
The other thing to keep in mind is Okafor was set to be a free agent at the end of the 2013-14 season, just like Gortat. While they’re fundamentally different types of big men, they provided comparable value as low-end starters. If Okafor is healthy, he probably gets a similar deal to the five-year, $60 million contract Gortat wound up signing for that summer.
Then the question shifts to whether or not Okafor would have been as good of a value on that kind of a deal as Gortat. Yes, Gortat has gotten a lot of easy points from John Wall over the years that Okafor also would have enjoyed, but he also does a great job of setting screens and getting in position to get those spoon-fed buckets. Suffice to say the offensive flaws in an Okafor-Nene frontcourt would have been exposed much earlier than the flaws in a Gortat-Nene frontcourt were. Don’t forget Okafor only shot 47.7 percent from the field during his one season in Washington.
Then again, Okafor’s defensive skills were great in 2013 and still translate to the modern game. His rim protection and defensive IQ would have allowed the Wizards to make a smooth transition defensively to the pace-and-space era. Plus, he probably would have been less of a squeaky wheel in the locker room than Gortat has been at various times in Washington.
A healthy Okafor probably isn’t the difference between the Wizards being a title contender or being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity, but his injury is one of the key moments in the development of the Wizards’ Wall-Beal core that altered the team’s trajectory, for better and worse.