Hornets Center Emeka Okafor Faces an Uphill Battle for the All-Star Game

Published: January 29, 2011

Emeka Okafor. Sexy.

Unless you’re of the female gender, or just appreciate how a jacked man with shoulders the size of basketballs looks, those two words mix together as well as shrimp and crude oil. Press most Hornets fans and they will acknowledge that his basketball game is really more girl next door than Girls Next Door, and that’s OK.

Emeka rarely has huge dunks, or giant scoring outputs anymore. His career high in points (30), rebounds (25) and blocks (10) took place in 2005, 2006, and 2007. He’s never made an All-Star team, and he’s never made the postseason. This season, he’s only scored over 20 points twice. His high in rebounds is a mere 16. Blocks? A season high of just five. Compare that to say, Blake Griffin or Kevin Love, and you can understand why I say that sexy doesn’t quite fit the description of his basketball game. Regardless, his overall production and consistency allows him to come out looking pretty good against his competition at the center position.

Statistical Highlights (among qualified WC Centers)

  • He’s the only center averaging a double-double, whatever that is actually worth.
  • His 10.3 rebounds per game is first.
  • His field goal percentage second (59.2) to Nene (64.6)
  • 7th in blocks per game (1.77)
  • 6th in scoring (11.0)

His numbers are good, but not enough so that he will be challenging Pau Gasol for the starting center spot. That by itself normally wouldn’t be a problem since the team takes three centers, but this year things seem to be playing out a little differently. What really is the most detrimental to his All-Star campaign is that the NBA has reportedly sent out an email to coaches, asking them to make their choices for backups based on what is best for the game itself.

As Marc Stein points out, “you can thus rest assured that the coaches are going to the accept the NBA’s invitation to apply the sort of points-wings-bigs thinking Hollinger outlined and, as stated right in the e-mail coaches get from the league office, make their selections based on what’s ‘most advantageous for the All-Star team.'”

If you aren’t an ESPN insider, Hollinger’s article discusses how teams in the NBA now look at players as either guards, wings or bigs, and that the only game which really distinguishes a center from a power forward is the All-Star game, something which he thinks will change. It’s hard not to agree with him. Even on this little site we often talk about how we need a backup big man, as opposed to distinguishing between centers and power forwards.

As good as Okafor’s numbers are compared to the centers in the Western Conference, they are a far cry from the power forward crop. Right now SportsNation has a poll up asking who the Western Conference backups should be. They presume that the starters will be Paul, Kobe, Carmelo, Durant, and Pau Gasol (who has played 6/7th of his minutes at Center this year).

Okafor isn’t on it. Neither is West, but we can talk about that another day. But before you get all riled up, think of what the All-Star game is. It’s a place where absolutely no defense is played, huge dunks are the norm rather than the exception, and flash comes before substance. It’s not a place where help defense is valued, or where altering a shot is appreciated. Setting a nice pick and rolling for an easy two point layup is all gravy during a normal game, but in the All-Star game you need to slam that bad boy home in style.

And therein lies the problem for Emeka. The All-Star Game isn’t about who the best players are.

The Only Hope

There was a time in the long long ago in which fundamental basketball skills were valued. In this magical period, defense was the first priority, and a two point jumper from the top of the key was worth the same amount as a 360 degree dunk. Players cared about the team, as opposed to their personal statistics, and they willingly gave up shot attempts so that their teammates would have better opportunities to score. It was in this time and place in which most coaches learned to play, and then to coach.

Fortunately, a lot of the coaches still vacation there from time to time, and on rare occasion can be convinced to give some love to the old way of life. Emeka Okafor is a blast from the past, a selfless team-first guy who focuses on what the coach tells him. He doesn’t jack up bad shots, and he rarely commits stupid fouls, a testament to his high IQ both on and off the court. Now for the first time in his career, both he and his squad have exceded expectations. He’s the key player in a defense which has made one of the all time great leaps in basketball history.

To say that Emeka Okafor is not an All-Star is to acknowledge to every single young player watching that defense doesn’t matter, that team-first play doesn’t matter. By denying players who make their biggest impact on the defensive side of the ball (and are damn efficient on offense) the right to call themselves All-Stars, you are literally telling players, both NBA and otherwise, that it’s better to be selfish and offensive minded than it is to be team first player and have your focus on defense.

The league might as well just issue a press release to young players everywhere stating that it is not only better to jack up 19 shots to score 24 a game while playing mediocre, apathetic defense (Carmelo) , than it is to take 7.5 and score 11 while playing great defense, but remarkably so. One will make you a starter, and one won’t even get you real consideration outside of your home state.

Here are a few more choice stats:

  • Okafor’s Defensive Win Shares: 3.1 (3rd among all players)
  • Hornets Defense: 91.2 PPg (1st)
  • Hornets Defensive Efficiency: 98.7 (3rd)

Basketball takes place on both sides of the court, and it’s a shame that the All-Star game doesn’t. Despite being the backbone of a defense widely regarded as the best in the Western Conference, Emeka’s only real hope lies with Monty Williams. Can he convince the other coaches that defense matters, just like he did his own team? Will he be persuasive enough to convince the other guys that even though this game is offensive minded, there is still room to put one of the true All-Star defenders of the first half in there?

If not, all hope is lost for both the integrity of the All-Star game and Emeka’s chances of ever making it. The methodology in choosing players will only continue to grow more offensive as time passes.

As will the game itself to true basketball fans.


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