Restricted free agent Okafor, Bobcats nowhere near deal

Updated: July 25, 2008, 2:54 PM ET
Associated Press

Nearly a month since becoming a restricted free agent, Emeka Okafor is not close to a new deal with the Charlotte Bobcats.

Yet general manager Rod Higgins remains confident Okafor will remain a Bobcat.

Higgins insisted Friday that talks have not reached a stalemate. He said he's spoken to Okafor's agent, Jeff Schwartz, as recently as Thursday and said the team is not entertaining sign-and-trade offers for their starting big man.

"As we've repeatedly stated, we want Emeka Okafor back on our basketball team," Higgins said. "We're going to continue to have that hope that we will have a resolution and go forward."

Okafor, the Bobcats' first draft pick and the second overall selection in 2004, turned down Charlotte's offer last summer worth more than $12 million per season. Higgins wouldn't say what they've offered this time. Schwartz did not immediately return a phone call Friday seeking comment.

"There aren't any hard feelings on either side," Higgins said. "We continue to talk."

But the pace has been slow, mirroring the status of other restricted free agents around the NBA. Andre Iguodala of Philadelphia, Josh Smith of Atlanta and Luol Deng and Ben Gordon of Chicago remain unsigned. No player in the group has accepted an offer sheet from another team.

The players are hampered by a lack of salary-cap space around the league. After a flurry of deals with unrestricted free agents, only Memphis remains well under the cap and able to offer players big contracts.

Josh Childress changed the dynamic slightly this week when the restricted free agent left Atlanta to sign with the Greek team Olympiakos. That left the Hawks with nothing in return, and some have predicted it could lead to more players spurning the NBA for overseas teams.

"I don't think you can say it raises a red flag only because we're the best basketball league in the world," Higgins said. "We'll continue to take care of the players that play in our league. That's what we're trying to do with Emeka."

What's uncertain is if Okafor wants to remain a Bobcat. He said he did during the final week of the season, but clearly had a strained relationship with coach Sam Vincent. While veteran Larry Brown replaced the fired Vincent, Okafor has remained mum. He did not reply to an e-mail Friday seeking comment.

Okafor averaged 13.7 points and 10.7 rebounds a game last season, and led the team in blocked shots (1.7 per game) and field-goal percentage (53.5). Brown has said it's critical they retain Okafor for his defense and inside presence on a team that struggled to rebound last season.

With the team losing money and struggling to sell tickets, there is added pressure to reach the playoffs next season for the first time. Keeping Okafor -- or getting a quality big man in a sign-and-trade deal -- is essential. But because of complicated salary-cap rules, it would be difficult for the Bobcats to pull off a sign-and-trade.

One option for Okafor is to accept a one-year qualifying offer worth about $7.1 million. While that would be far less than what a long-term deal would pay, it would allow Okafor to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

"I'm not going to comment on the negotiations per se," Higgins said. "But we're maintaining that we're going to get a deal done."

Notes: An MRI on rookie F Alexis Ajinca's sprained left knee was negative. Ajinca was injured during a summer league game, but was healthy enough to return to his native France this week. ... Higgins said they haven't decided whether to pursue another big man considering Ajinca's inexperience.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press