When it comes to injuries, there are few terms more frightening than "out indefinitely". Unfortunately for the Washington Wizards, that's the safest designation for Emeka Okafor right now due to a herniated disk in the veteran center's neck.
Although Okafor is optimistic about rehab alleviating the issue, the lack of a timetable for the big man's return is a little disconcerting. Since he's on an expiring contract this season, there's a chance we've seen Okafor in a Wizards jersey for the last time.
It's a shame if the injury is truly that serious, because once John Wall returned from his injury last season, the Wizards played .500 ball and built some nice momentum heading into this season. This roster looks capable of a playoff spot, but remove Okafor from the equation for a significant period of time and it changes the outlook, even in a weakened Eastern Conference.
How important is Okafor to the Wizards? His impact defensively was tremendous last year. Great defenses dictate where opponents get their chances, and Okafor's ability to roam the back line and protect the rim helped Washington force opponents into a ton of low-percentage shots.
According to HoopData.com, the Wizards' opponents shot the third most attempts in the league from 16-23 feet, which happens to be the least efficient shot in basketball. Better yet, the Wizards held their opponents to 34.5 percent shooting from that zone, the best defensive percentage in the league.
As a result, despite finishing 29-53 last season, the Wizards established an identity as a team built from the inside out defensively and ended up fifth in defensive efficiency on the year.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Wizards were also seventh in the league in defensive-rebounding percentage. Okafor's 12.1 rebounds per 36 minutes had an awful lot to do with that, and his on/off numbers tell the story of his overall impact, as Washington was better in nearly every category when he was on the floor.
Bracing for the worst-case scenario, how can the Wizards replace Okafor if he's off the court for an extended period of time?
Okafor's injury shifts a lot of the defensive responsibility on Nene, the prospect of which should have the coaching staff and front office terrified. It's not that Nene isn't a very skilled player; it's just that he can't stay on the court. Over his 11 years in the league, Nene has only played in 70 percent of the possible games. With more miles on the odometer and a lengthy injury history, counting on him for even that might be a stretch.
That leaves the Wizards in a tough situation. On the bright side, backup big man Kevin Seraphin is capable of adding some stretch offensively and providing a different element for the league's worst offense last year, as you can see in Seraphin's short chart via NBA.com.
It's important to note, however, that head coach Randy Wittman hasn't trusted Seraphin with big minutes before, and asking him to anchor a defense is asking too much.
Outside of Seraphin, the pickings are awfully slim. Jan Vesely has a long, long way to go before even being a serviceable NBA player, as he shot 30 percent (!) from the free-throw line last season and often looked completely lost.
Otto Porter and Trevor Ariza can play some small-ball 4 against the right lineups, which might be the best option the Wizards have right now. Ariza and Porter both rebound the ball well, but both players are perimeter defenders at heart.
The only other true 4 on the roster is Trevor Booker, and he's best suited for a bench role. Al Harrington can provide some outside shooting and a few hot nights every now and then, but he's not a long-term solution or a big minutes player at this stage of his career.
Through free agency
For all those reasons, it would be smart for the Wizards to take a long look at some of the big men available in free agency.
If Washington wants to try and replace Okafor with a similar player and keep continuity throughout the roster, center Cole Aldrich should get a look. The 7-footer from Kansas has played 703 career minutes spaced out over three seasons, but his per-36-minute career averages of nine points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks offer a bit of promise, so long as you don't dismiss garbage time completely.
Another option, albeit with a much lower ceiling, would be for the Wizards to bring back Jason Collins. The post-defending specialist finished last year with the Wizards, so there's a level of familiarity there from both sides.
If Washington wants to swing for the fences, signing Tyrus Thomas would accomplish that. Maybe it's grasping at air considering Thomas shot a dreadful 36 and 35 percent from the field in his last two seasons, but the athletic 6'9" forward did average (per 36 minutes) 17.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and an 18.2 PER three seasons ago. If there's a chance that Thomas can be revived into that player, it's worth exploring.
Other names the Wizards could look into include Hamed Haddadi, for pure size purposes, or Chris Wilcox, for veteran knowledge. Neither player provides much value over your average replacement player, however.
Through the D-League
Inviting a few D-League standouts to training camp is another path the Wizards will likely explore. Shot-blocker extraordinaire Sean Williams doesn't bring a whole lot to the table offensively, but he'll clean the glass and erase his share of attempts at the rim. Character questions have always been the issue with Williams, however, and that's something Washington has tried to stray away from as of late.
If the front office decides they want to help out the offense, big man Brian Butch is intriguing. He's a negative athlete but has hit 1.5 threes per game in each of his last three seasons in the D-League, and he's not afraid to mix it up inside.
Another option is Hilton Armstrong. He's bounced around the league (he was with the Wizards in 2010-11) and, although he's not spectacular in any one area, he won't embarrass himself on the court.
Through a trade
Since it's unlikely any free agent or D-League pickup would move the needle much for the Wizards, exploring the trade market could be the best way to go.
Problem is, the Wizards don't have many assets they can move at this point. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are locked in and not going anywhere right now. Martell Webster can probably be added to that group as well. Nene simply can't be dealt given how badly the Wizards need him and how much other teams won't want his contract.
In reality, Trevor Ariza is the only viable trade asset. He's a good one, however, as Ariza will be attractive to teams thanks to his expiring contract worth $7.7 million this season. Teams looking to shed salary in advance of the 2014 offseason could use the Wizards, a team that has taken that opportunity in the past with Nene.
Who are some targets for the Wizards on the trade market? Players that likely wouldn't require the Wizards to forfeit anything more than Ariza and possibly a second-round pick is a good place to start.
Inquiring about Omer Asik should be the first phone call Ernie Grunfeld makes. With Dwight Howard in Houston, there's pretty much no way around Asik's role being reduced, and he may not be happy about it. Asik is a better defender than Okafor at this point, as well, and could immediately plug in with the Wizards' young core going forward.
Of course, you have to consider Ariza's short tenure in Houston back in the 2009-10 season being a flop, but he'd give the Rockets a big-wing defender and, more importantly, the chance at cap flexibility a year earlier than planned.
Scary as it sounds, Houston would then be only one Jeremy Lin trade away from having right around max cap space next offseason. Would the allure of, say, Chris Bosh in free agency be enough for the Rockets to downgrade from Asik to Ariza right now? Maybe, especially with the Rockets having Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones as cheap, enticing frontcourt options waiting in the wings.
Probably a more realistic trade target would be Sacramento's Jason Thompson. He's likely buried behind Carl Landry and Patrick Patterson, and new head coach Mike Malone might want to find time for plus-frontcourt defenders like Luc Mbah a Moute and Chuck Hayes.
That could leave Thompson scrapping for minutes, and the new Kings regime might want to jump all over the chance to deal his contact (that runs through 2016-17) for a solid wing defender like Ariza, who might finally help solve some of the issues the Kings have had at small forward over the years.
It's probably not advisable given the youth of the roster and the projected strength of this year's draft, but the Philadelphia 76ers would likely dump Thaddeus Young in a heartbeat for Ariza and a first-round pick. And if John Henson is as good as he looks, Milwaukee might be willing to part with Ersan Ilyasova to clear time and cap space.
There are plenty of options for the Wizards to explore in replacing Emeka Okafor, but they might require a shift in identity from defensive-minded to slightly more balanced. Regardless, whether it's a big move or a little one, something probably needs to be done.