Emeka Okafor won't be suiting up for the Wizards any time soon. (Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images)
The hits just keep on comin', Washington Wizards fans.
Less than two hours after announcing that forward Chris Singleton will miss up to two months after surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot, the team announced that starting center Emeka Okafor has been diagnosed with a "herniated C4 cervical disc" in his neck and will be out of the lineup indefinitely while he rehabilitates the injury. From the team's announcement:
“I have worked hard over the summer and was looking forward to the start of training camp next week, so this is a disappointing and frustrating situation for me,” said Okafor. “But I have confidence that my teammates and coaches will be able to continue to take steps towards our goal of making the playoffs and that I will be able to do my part to help them once I return.” [...]
“Emeka’s professionalism and dedication to taking care of his body are among the best I have ever seen during my time in this league as a player, coach and executive and I know that he will be diligent in his efforts to return to the court as soon as possible,” said [general manager Ernie] Grunfeld. “Until then, his absence will create opportunities for other players to step up and provide the rebounding and defense that Emeka normally contributes.”
You can't fault Grunfeld for trying to put a positive spin on crummy news, and for trying to rally the troops with a "next man up" attitude. And, for what it's worth, Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears reports that Okafor "is not considering retirement" and "hopes to return this season." That said, while "indefinitely" is scary and open-ended enough, "hopes to return this season" certainly suggests a long and arduous path to recovery, and that's something that the Wizards absolutely can't afford.
Grunfeld's rosy perspective aside, the reality is that none of the Wizards' limited non-Okafor options at the five spot — chiefly backup Kevin Seraphin, who disappointed last season after showing promise in his sophomore season, but also possibly underwhelming 2011 lottery pick Jan Vesely, who played center at Las Vegas Summer League but has yet to regularly show a capacity to anchor in the paint in the pros — figure to offer anywhere near Okafor's post defense or glass-clearing. That's a problem, because those traits made Okafor an integral part of a Wizards defense that surprised many by finishing last season allowing the league's eighth lowest number of points per possession, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
The Wizards' expected starting five — Okafor at center, Nene at power forward, re-signed Martell Webster at the three, rising sophomore Bradley Beal at shooting guard and the maxed-out John Wall — played only 142 minutes together last year, thanks to a variety of injuries. But that group was great in its limited playing time, outscoring opponents by a whopping 24 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-best mark of any five-man group in the league that saw at least 100 minutes of shared burn. That group with Seraphin in Okafor's place shared the floor for only six total minutes last season, and while they were a +4 in that cameo, there's a lot of familiarity to develop and some big shoes to fill. Plus, while the Nene-Okafor pairing was a good one (+4.7 points per 100 possessions in 912 minutes) for Washington last season, the Nene-Seraphin duo was not (-3 points-per-100 in 318 minutes).
Coach Randy Wittman could look toward smaller lineups with frontcourt tweener Nene sliding up to the five alongside, say, Trevor Booker, recently signed stretch-four Al Harrington or Singleton, once he returns to the lineup. But such lineups won't offer nearly as much on the defensive end and, Harrington aside, probably wouldn't be much better offensively either; despite this, the Wizards aren't expected to look to bring in any outside help, in part because they're already working with a full 15-player roster and in part because they apparently don't think there's anything of considerable defensive value out there at the moment. You can understand that — Jason Collins and Joel Przybilla aren't exactly game-changers likely to capably eat up 20 minutes a night — but losing something valuable without taking steps to replace it probably won't leave a great taste in Wizards fans mouth. (There's the trade market, but if you were a team with depth in the middle, wouldn't you try to squeeze the Wizards here, knowing they're over a barrel?)
As it stands, the most likely scenario is that the Wizards head into the season with Seraphin starting in the middle, hoping to high heaven that Nene's persistent plantar fasciitis problem doesn't flare up, and praying for any sort of sign of life from Vesely (who, to his credit, performed well for the Czech Republic in the 2013 Eurobasket tournament, outside of his continually abhorrent free-throw shooting). If they get lucky there, it'll be up to the highly touted Wall-Beal backcourt to produce enough offensively to make up for the likely defensive drop-off and keep the Wizards in the race for a lower-tier Eastern Conference playoff spot, which might be an awful tall order.
With its strong starting five, the addition of lottery swingman Otto Porter and a couple of nice bench additions, Washington (while far from a sure thing) seemed like a decent bet to compete for its first postseason berth since 2008, turning over a new leaf and charting a new direction for Wizards basketball. Now, with a major piece sidelined and the start of training camp just two weeks away, you wouldn't blame Wizards fans for fearing that the same sad story might just remain the same this season.
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