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The Prospect of Emeka Okafor

Sam Amick of The Bee reports the Kings are discussing an Emeka Okafor-Kenny Thomas trade with the Hornets. Thomas's contract, as we all know, expires this summer. Okafor's deal runs through 2014. Here's a full salary breakdown, thanks to

Player '09-10 '10-11 '11-12 '12-13 '13-14
Thomas $8.7M -- -- -- --
Okafor $10.8M $11.8M $12.8M $13.8M $14.8M*


That 2013-14 season has an early termination option for Okafor. Clearly, in losing Thomas the Kings would only be losing a spot bench forward and the opportunity cost of using his expiring contract in another trade. There are very few big names expected to be available for expiring contracts this trade deadline -- Carlos Boozer, Stephen Jackson, Elton Brand and perhaps Monta Ellis lead that class. (Despite what you may have heard, Toronto ain't trading Chris Bosh for anything less than a couple of Sacramento's top assets -- think Kevin Martin and Jason Thompson, or something like that. Pipe. Dream.)

The real question here is whether Okafor is worth the cost of his own salary for the Kings. That's also an opportunity cost issue: if the Kings take on Okafor without losing one of its longer contracts, the free agency periods of 2010, 2011 and possibly 2012 are essentially wiped out. And that really depends on what you think the Kings could get in free agency right now.

I think free agency is a big risk. The best player the Sacramento Kings have ever acquired as a free agent (not including any extensions/re-signings) is Vlade Divac. At the time, the team overpaid for Vlade -- he was making All-Star level money despite a reputation as an average starting center with a few special skills. No one (but Geoff Petrie, perhaps) knew how well Divac would mesh with Chris Webber and friends.

Who is No. 2 behind Divac? Bobby Jackson, who at the time of his signing was a three-year vet with a career 8 ppg average? Shareef Abdur-Rahim? John Salmons? The Kings, even when great, have never signed high-level free agents. This is not particularly Sacramento-specific, either: few great players move in unrestricted free agency. This coming summer is a bit of an anomaly that players are even getting to free agency ... and it's still unlikely many of the big names will move.

So I'm not sure the Kings lose much by way of renouncing a big free agency splash for 2-3 years. As I said, you limit your trade deadline opportunities by sending away Thomas's contract ... but there was unlikely to be much out there better than Okafor (depending on your feelings about how Boozer would mesh here, or whether the Suns will careen and make Amar'e Stoudemire available again). Despite being traded recently, Okafor wouldn't be an easily movable contract for a while -- any trade including him is a necessarily big trade, and those are harder to pull off. So he becomes your "hardest to trade" asset, eclipsing Beno Udrih and Andres Nocioni. Further augmentation to the roster would fall to trades involving the team's bevy of non-stars/non-youths, trades involving the prospects, trades involving draft picks, mid-level or sub mid-level free agent signings and the draft. You'd have to be fairly comfortable that the current team (with Okafor and the 2010 draft pick and some internal growth) would be able to be a playoff team within a year or two to justify the trade.

And I think that's fair. When Kevin Martin is healthy, the Kings have clearly above average players at point guard (Tyreke Evans), shooting guard (Martin) and power forward (Jason Thompson). The team has one serviceable starter (as of today) at small forward (Nocioni) and center (Spencer Hawes). You'd hope Hawes will be more than that any day now, but let's not be deluded. He's not there yet. He's better than some starting centers out there, but not too many. He's not clearly above average today ... many would argue he's not average today.

Adding Okafor would give you an above average player at a fourth position. It'd also give the starting line-up its first elite defensive player (Evans isn't there) and it would likely cinch the Kings as an elite rebounding team. Okafor, while less versatile than Hawes, also happens to be a serviceable offensive weapon: he's smart with the ball, and has a career field goal percentage better than 50 percent. If he hurts the offense, it's in his lack of ability to stretch the defense. Given that Hawes has shot poorly this year but the Kings offense has been on fire (thanks to Martin, then Evans, Thompson and Udrih), I'm not sure how much of a concern that is.

The only real question which remains is what this means for Hawes. He can negotiate a contract extension this summer. As of today, it is quite easy to see that he and the Kings will be far apart on his value. He's the first prominent Kings kid in the post-Webber era that I think could get to restricted free agency. (Extending Kevin Martin early was a no-brainer, and Francisco Garcia got a fairly generous deal, which wasn't difficult to anticipate.) Either way, in the interim, Hawes is a good third big. A pissed-off Hawes could be a great third big. It's not terribly easy to explain, but pinning Hawes behind a middling, old center during an awful season felt a whole lot worse than pinning him behind an above average center in his prime during a surprisingly competitve season seems.

All this ignores a few other points that make the rumor itself a positive. I mean, are we actually talking about the Kings considering an expensive move?! A move that implies the franchise thinks they are fairly close to contending for a playoff spot? That's a huge step from where we were even three weeks ago. If the deal doesn't happen, this is still a blast of excitement in mid-November, and there's no discounting that after the last couple seasons.