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John Schuhmann

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Emeka Okafor likely will be the fourth option on offense for the Hornets.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Trade for Okafor a puzzling move for Hornets

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jul 28 2009 1:21PM

The New Orleans Hornets surprised us all on Monday night by agreeing to a trade that will send Tyson Chandler to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor.

The deal, which was officially completed Tuesday, isn't shocking, especially for Chandler.

He was traded to Oklahoma City in February for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox before the Thunder rescinded the deal over concerns about his left big toe, and it was widely speculated that he could be moved again. But he was supposed to be traded for salary cap relief (like he was the first time), not for a guy that's owed $38 million more (as Okafor is).

This deal is a statement by the Hornets, who are telling their fans, the league, and most important, Chris Paul, that they're willing to spend money to surround their All-Star point guard with talent. The fire sale is over before it began and Hornets owner George Shinn will apparently pay for an upgrade of Paul's supporting cast.

But is Okafor really an upgrade over Chandler? A $38 million upgrade?

They're the same age, only born four days apart. Okafor, who stands 6-foot-10, is stronger and a bit more polished offensively, while the 7-foot-1 Chandler is more athletic. Okafor's numbers (13.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game over the last three seasons) are slightly better than Chandler's (10.2 and 11.2), but he has gotten more shots (10.3 field goal attempts per game vs. 6.9) and has never played next to another strong rebounder like All-Star David West.

Last year, the Bobcats signed Okafor to a new six-year, $72 million contract. It was too much to pay for a guy who wasn't worthy of franchise player-type money and hadn't improved much after his rookie season. This is especially true when you consider he was a restricted free agent and Charlotte wasn't bidding against anyone to keep him.

Chandler isn't exactly a bargain, either. He will make $12 million per season for the next two seasons, but with the trade, the Hornets are taking on the Bobcats' mistake and letting Charlotte get out of a bad contract that has five years and almost $63 million remaining.

Further, is Okafor a better pick-and-roll partner for Paul? He isn't as quick and can't elevate like Chandler for those alley-oops that Paul likes to toss up.

Is Okafor a better complement to West? Not hardly. The Hornets now have two bigs who are both slow-footed and best suited for the power forward position.

Defensively, Okafor blocks more shots, but isn't as versatile a defender as Chandler, who effectively defended both Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan in the 2008 Playoffs.

It also can't be ignored that Paul and Chandler were close friends, and Paul was reportedly very upset (along with the rest the Hornets) about the February trade. While getting Okafor is a much better return basketball-wise for Chandler than Smith and Wilcox, is it enough to make Paul forget about the chemistry he had with Chandler?

Okafor gives the Hornets more offensively, but as long as the Hornets are healthy, he's not going to be more than a fourth option (behind Paul, West and Peja Stojakovic) for coach Byron Scott. His addition also doesn't solve the Hornets' biggest problem of the last two years: an inconsistent bench.

Chandler will bring his share of warts to Charlotte. He missed 37 games this season after spraining his left ankle early on, having never let it fully recover. Immediately after the Hornets were eliminated in the first round of this year's Playoffs, Chandler had surgery on both his ankle and his toe.

Okafor, meanwhile, has played 82 games in each of the last two seasons. But it hasn't been that long since he had injury issues as well, as ankle problems caused him to miss 71 games from 2005-07. And when he was drafted, there were major concerns about his back.

Simply saying that Okafor costs $38 million more than Chandler is over-simplifying matters. Because Chandler's salary is less than Okafor's over the next two seasons, the Hornets will cut their luxury tax payments. And by 2011, they would have needed to pay in order to re-sign Chandler or replace him on the roster.

It's good to see the Hornets attempt to join the arms race in the West and stay competitive. But on paper, they're still behind the Lakers, Spurs and Mavs and have perhaps pulled even with the Nuggets. Hornets GM Jeff Bower should get some credit for shaking things up, but this deal raises some serious questions.

Is this more than just a lateral move on the court? Is Okafor going to give the Hornets more wins than a healthy Chandler would have this season? And is he going to be worth the $14.5 million the Hornets will owe him in 2013-14?

The trade seemingly doesn't do much for the Bobcats either. Chandler makes them more athletic, but he's not nearly as good a complement to D.J. Augustin, Gerald Wallace and Boris Diaw as he was to Paul, Stojakovic and West. Further, Charlotte ranked 27th in offensive efficiency last season, and Chandler doesn't do much to improve that.

For both teams, the Okafor-for-Chandler swap is more than just surprising. It's a bit puzzling.

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