The Washington Wizards have surprised the NBA world by trading injured forward Rashard Lewis and the 46th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to the New Orleans Hornets for center Emeka Okafor and quick forward Trevor Ariza. With the Hornets certain to select Kentucky center Anthony Davis in the NBA Draft, Okafor was on the trading block, but I don't know of anyone who thought he would be coming to D.C. It is well-known that the Wizards preferred to trade Lewis rather than buy out his exorbitant contract so that part of it isn't a surprise, though, again, Okafor was not thought to be a target.
“We are pleased to add two more solid pieces as we continue to build our roster with a balance of proven veterans and the core of young talent that we have developed,” said team President Ernie Grunfeld. “Emeka’s defensive presence and rebounding ability will combine with Trevor’s versatility to add new dimensions to our frontcourt, and both players fit in very well with the type of team-first culture that we have been working to establish.”
Both Okafor and Ariza have two years remaining on their contracts after this year. Ariza is owed $7.3 million this year and has a player option for $7.27 million in 2013-14, while Okafor is owed $13.5 million next year and has an early-termination option for $14.5 million in 2013-14. Assuming Blatche is gone after this, that leaves the Wizards with about $54.5 million in committed salary for next season, with the salary cap at $58 million. In other words, the Wizards have decided not to play in the NBA free agent market this year or, possibly, next. I don't have a problem with that since I don't think the team is considered a top destination for desirable free agents and the Wiz would be unlikely to use the space to add a difference-maker to the roster. Of course, cap space can be used for other purposes, such as signing one-sided deals like this one. The question is: is this the correct deal for the Wizards?
First, this move, adding Okafor, would seem to indicate the Wizards will release and amnesty Andray Blatche, thus removing him from the roster and his salary from the cap. That's a good thing.
Secondly, it probably also means the team will draft Florida guard Bradley Beal, not Kentucky quick forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, since MKG plays the same position as Ariza. I'm on record as supporting the selection of Beal so I have no objections to that either. [I think MKG is a terrific player and will be a very good NBA starter.]
The trade adds two defensive specialists to a very bad defensive team, so that's a good thing for the Wiz. Additionally, Okafor  and Ariza  are both veterans and Okafor has won a national championship with UConn in the NCAA. These are two players who understand the NBA and what they should be doing on a basketball court. They're not more interested in looking good than winning and they're not screw-ups or goof-offs. This is part of the culture change the team is trying to make so young players like John Wall want to stay in Washington when they have a choice in the matter.
Why did the Wizards want Okafor and Ariza? Well, Okafor had a down season last year due to injuries that limited him to 27 games. However, he has been durable for most of his NBA career and his recent trouble isn't expected to limit his performance or health in the future. But here's what we know about Okafor.
He's a bit undersized [6'10" and 255 pounds] for center, but with the far more mobile Nene now on the roster, center is definitely where Okafor will play. And he can play that position. He's a solid defender and a decent shot-blocker, in addition to being a very good rebounder who has averaged just over ten boards per game during the course of his NBA career. He's a very limited offensive player, apart from offensive rebounding, and he's a terrible free throw shooter, hitting under 60% of his shots from the line almost every year. However, Okafor makes up for his limited scoring ability by almost never taking a bad shot. He knows he can't shoot well so he almost never shoots unless he's deep in the paint, with almost all his shots coming from less than 10 feet from the hoop.
He's a strong player who likes to go right at his opponent. That tendency, plus his relative lack of height for center, leads him to get a lot of his shots blocked. In fact, he's one of the league leaders in getting his shots blocked and has been for years. That won't change in Washington. In sum, though, Okafor is a strong and athletic big man who can absolutely control the defensive glass and will protect the bucket on defense. Don't expect much on offense, but at least you won't have to watch him take a bunch of stupid jumpers.
Ariza is an athletic 6'8" wing player with a well-deserved reputation as an excellent defender with abysmal shot selection. He averaged about 10 ppg and 5 rpg last season, shooting just 42% from the field. Ariza runs the floor well and can finish nicely at the cup, but he takes a lot of very stupid outside shots and loves to play isolation offense even though he's terrible at it. Like Okafor, Ariza is a poor shooter. Unlike Okafor, he doesn't know it. I don't know how many NBA players have worse shot selection than Ariza, but the list is not long. He loves to try to create for himself, but is utterly incapable of doing so. Ariza signed a big contract in Houston before the trade that sent him to the Hornets and this may have convinced him that he either needs to be a big scorer or that he is capable of being a big scorer. The answer is a resounding "NO" in both cases. I love Ariza as a wing defender, he's got long arms, can really move and is very adept at playing passing lanes. If the Wizards can convince Ariza not to try to create his own offense and instead settle for running the floor and picking up dunks and layups courtesy of a John Wall pass, they will have a valuable role player on their hands. And that's just what Ariza is - - a role player. He needs to understand that. If he does, he can be a valuable role player. If not, they'll have to limit his minutes. Ideally, Ariza can be a poor man's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which is why I now think the Wizards won't take MKG.
Right now, I'd say the Wizards roster looks something like this:
C - Okafor, Nene, Seraphin PF - Nene, Seraphin, Vesely QF - Ariza, Vesely, Singleton SG - Beal[?], Crawford PG - Wall, Mack
That's not a bad team. Not a bad team at all. Certainly it is much better than last year's team. With Nene, Okafor, Ariza and possibly Beal on the team, the Wizards should be much improved on defense and they go from a poor rebounding team to a pretty good one. They still can't shoot a lick, apart from Nene, but the team does continue to surround Wall with high-character, hard-working guys who can run the floor and match up nicely with the young point guard's strength at pushing the ball and running the floor. Is the instant improvement in the team worth the salary cap flexibility they are abandoning for the next two years? We don't know that yet.
What do you think?