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Art Garcia

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The Hornets are hoping their offseason trade for Emeka Okafor pays off big this season.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Hornets look to Okafor to help team return to glory

By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Aug 31 2009 12:43PM

The way Jeff Bower explains it, all the Hornets did was take a shortcut. The one-time salary dump of Tyson Chandler that turned into a salary grab in Emeka Okafor isn't as confusing as it appears. The end game was always the same.

"When you look at it you start to understand it a little bit more," the New Orleans general manager said. "The trade during the season was made to bring in two additional players [Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox] into the frontline and we felt that they would help us improve our depth and our team at that moment. They also would have had provided us with flexibility this summer for free agency, knowing we would have had a need at that position."

Had the Hornets moved Chandler to Oklahoma City during the season -- a deal rescinded after the center flunked his physical -- it would have opened up room this summer to bring in someone of Okafor's caliber. Bower ended up skipping the middle man to get another man in the middle.

Considering the investment in Okafor and the Hornets' tenuous place in the Western Conference food chain, Bower hopes it's the right man in the middle. The same goes for Chris Paul and David West. After the surprise run of 2007-08 that culminated with a 56-26 record, Southwest Division title and trip to the West semifinals, injuries and uncertainty tripped New Orleans up last season.

The team fell to seventh in the West at 49-33 and was humiliated in the first round by Denver. The five-game romp featured an all-time franchise low, a 58-point beatdown at home in Game 4. The momentum from the season before had dried up.

Okafor signals a new direction.

"We were trying to change and break out of what we were comfortable with to improve," Bower said. "Emeka will add a threat in the low post, which we'll be able to take advantage of. He's used to playing against double and triple teams on every catch. The other players that will be on the floor with him will make it hard to do that and the amount of attention that Chris generates is going to open up the floor for him as well."

As a focal point in the Bobcats' attack, Okafor has averaged 14 points and 10.7 rebounds during his career. Compare that with 8.2 and 9.0 for Chandler, and the move seems to be a sizable upgrade. Okafor, 26, has also averaged more blocks than the more-athletic Chandler (1.8 to 1.4 per game) despite giving up three inches.

Chandler, set to make $11.9 million this season, has an option at $12.8 million for 2010-11. Okafor's contract runs for five more years, going from $10.5 million this season to $14.5 million in 2013-14. For those who contend that Hornets owner George Shinn is simply trying to cut costs at every turn, the math doesn't add up.

"He wants us to improve and continue to work to get better, and at the same time, we're trying to increase our flexibility," Bowers said of Shinn. "We know where the luxury tax is, but his charge to us is to improve the team and take every stop possible to do that along the way."

Bower is confident that rookie guards Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, plus the continued development for former first-pick Julian Wright, will shore up the backcourt and make up for basically giving Rasual Butler away to the Clippers this summer. Bruising power forward Ike Diogu, a part-time player the last two seasons, was also added to the mix.

Like just about every potential contender, health is the Hornets' key concern going into the season. Moving the oft-injured Chandler alleviates one variable, but Peja Stojakovic's well-being looms as a very big question. Stojakovic never hit his stride last season, missing 21 games and his 13.3 points per game was his lowest average in a decade.

The reports on Stojakovic this offseason have been encouraging, Bower said. The GM has also gotten positive feedback from Paul and West on the direction of the franchise. Not knowing who was coming or going last season proved an unnecessary distraction for a team that began the year with high expectations.

"Anytime there are discussions during the season it impacts in small ways," Bower said. "We're all human and you couldn't ignore that. Now, we'd like to think with the addition of Emeka, the addition of our rookies, along with the added experience we gained that we'll be a stronger, hardened bunch. It's a great situation to go into training camp with."

If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an e-mail.

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