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Why Emeka Okafor is key trade asset for Suns

NBA: New Orleans Hornets at Phoenix Suns
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Emeka Okafor, now with the Suns, has yet to play this season because of a neck injury. (USA Today)

As momentum gathers for the NBA's Feb. 20 trade deadline, the Phoenix Suns hold one of the league's most valuable assets for deal partners wanting to save themselves several millions of dollars: the expiring – and insured – contract of injured center Emeka Okafor.

Once Phoenix reached the midway point of its season on Wednesday with Okafor still sidelined with a neck injury, an insurance policy began to take over payment on 80 percent of the remaining $14.4 million on his 2013-14 contract, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Whoever deals for Okafor before the trade deadline will receive an insurance payout of $5.7 million – roughly $141,000 per game.

For the Suns, the appeal of Okafor's financially friendly deal – armed with approximately $5 million in remaining salary-cap space – has general manager Ryan McDonough on the search to fortify his roster for a playoff run. Despite the loss of point guard Eric Bledsoe to knee surgery, the Suns – 25-18 and holding the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoff chase – are determined to reach the postseason.

Bledsoe, who had surgery to repair torn cartilage, is expected to return to the lineup sometime after the All-Star break.

The Suns have expressed a willingness to absorb a veteran player on a short-term deal who wouldn't compromise the organization's ample salary-cap space for the future, league sources said. As rival teams explore ways to shed payroll and avoid luxury-tax payments, the Suns could have a multitude of deal possibilities to consider over the next few weeks.

The Suns could control six potential first-round draft picks over the next two years – including four in the 2014 draft. Those picks, coupled with maximum-contract level cap space, could make the Suns a significant factor in free agency and trade discussions.

McDonough has expressed publicly his willingness to explore using his draft picks, young assets and cap space to explore possible deals for All-Star-level players who could become available on the market.

Okafor has been away from the Suns, rehabilitating a herniated disc in his neck in New York. After Okafor suffered what is believed to be a season-ending injury, Washington traded him and a future first-round draft pick to Phoenix for center Marcin Gortat. All along, the Suns' plans have been to flip Okafor's expiring and insured deal before the trade deadline.

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