Bobcats make signing Okafor to longer deal a 'priority'
For the second straight summer, the Bobcats will try to lock up the first draft pick in team history to a long-term contract. This time, however, the sense of urgency is greater because Okafor becomes a restricted free agent Tuesday.
While the Bobcats can match any offer another team makes -- and few teams have the salary cap space to offer the power forward big money -- managing partner Michael Jordan showed some concern about getting a deal done with Charlotte's top rebounder, shot blocker and defensive force.
"We're going to do everything, but sometimes negotiations can be tough," Jordan said last week. "We felt like we put out a great value for Emeka last year and here we are dealing with the same situation."
A person with knowledge of the negotiations said Okafor was offered a five-year deal last summer worth at least $12 million per season. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly, said Okafor could have earned up to $13 million a year if he met certain incentives.
Okafor's agent, Jeff Schwartz, did not return phone messages on Monday. When asked about his future late last season, Okafor said, "Of course I want to be here."
If they don't agree on a deal again, Okafor could sign a one-year qualifying offer worth $7.1 million. He would then become an unrestricted free agent after the 2008-09 season.
"We plan on trying to get something done, like we tried to get something done last year," general manager Rod Higgins said.
Dwight Howard of Orlando, the only player selected ahead of Okafor in the 2004 draft, received the NBA maximum, five-year, $85 million deal last summer. But Howard is a two-time All-Star and dominant offensive player.
While Okafor was tied for 10th in the league with 39 double-doubles last season and has averaged 2.0 blocks per game in his career, he's not a consistent scorer. He averaged 13.8 points a game last season, but struggles to finish around the basket and is still working to develop a consistent 15-foot jumper. Okafor also shot a miserable 57 percent from the free-throw line last season.
But the Bobcats need Okafor's presence in the paint, and working in their favor is the salary cap plight of most of the league's teams. Only Philadelphia and Memphis, and perhaps the Los Angeles Clippers, could open enough cap space to offer Okafor something approaching what Charlotte offered a year ago.
If the Bobcats lock up Okafor in the $12-13 million a year range, it would leave them little wiggle room under the cap to go after other free agents in what's considered a weak class.
One possible target was taken off the market Monday. Antawn Jamison, a Charlotte native and former star at North Carolina, agreed to a deal that keeps him in Washington.
The Bobcats could also get involved in sign-and-trade deals with free agents. The Bobcats' dangling of forward Gerald Wallace as trade bait last week before the draft showed there are few untouchables as new coach Larry Brown shapes the roster.
Brown has had high praise for Okafor, whom he coached in the 2004 Olympics. Okafor had a strained relationship with former coach Sam Vincent, with whom the mild-mannered Okafor had a heated exchange during a December practice.
With former coach and vice president Bernie Bickerstaff leaving the organization this spring, Higgins will likely be Charlotte's chief negotiator with Okafor's agent.
"The guy is a priority," Higgins said. "It needs immediate attention."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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