Okafor, Bobcats officially sign off on 6-year, $72 million deal
"It was very important for us to get a deal done," Higgins told The Associated Press. "He creates a sense of security around the basket for us. He's a guy that I think his skills are still developing in a lot of ways. Having Larry [Brown] as our head coach now, Emeka will benefit having a great coach to teach him."
The agreement with Okafor, a restricted free agent, by far represents Charlotte's biggest expenditure on one player as the club readies for its fifth season. Okafor turned down a five-year deal with a similar $12 million annual average before last season, preferring to wait for restricted free agency.
"The Bobcats and the entire Charlotte community embraced me from day one," Okafor said in a statement. "It's exciting to enter this season with a Hall of Fame coach and teammates who are committed to winning."
Okafor was the Bobcats' first-ever draft choice with the No. 2 overall pick in 2004 and was widely viewed around the league as a prime sign-and-trade candidate, on the premise that the Bobcats wouldn't spend to keep him. Charlotte raised questions about its own interest in retaining the 25-year-old Okafor by making what sources say was a five-year contract offer starting at the $5.6 million midlevel exception to veteran center DeSagana Diop early in free agency.
But Diop elected to take a similar deal from the Dallas Mavericks, while the Bobcats -- most notably new coach Brown -- kept publicly proclaiming their intention to resist any sign-and-trade interest in Okafor and eventually come to terms with their most accomplished interior force defensively.
Several top restricted free agents have endured slow-moving negotiations with their teams -- Atlanta's Josh Smith, Chicago's Luol Deng and Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala chief among them -- in a marketplace where only the Memphis Grizzlies have the salary-cap space to extend a lucrative offer sheet to Okafor and his peers in the restricted class. But Memphis has made it clear that it prefers to save its cap room for next summer.
The only other ways for top restricted free agents to create leverage -- either to secure the level of compensation they desire or force a sign-and-trade -- are by threatening to sign a one-year qualifying offer that would lead to unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2009 or by entertaining lucrative interest from overseas, as Atlanta's Josh Childress did and ultimately accepted from Greek giants Olympiacos.
It's believed that Okafor, because his salary on a one-year qualifying basis would still be a healthy $7.1 million, convinced the Bobcats he was serious about going that route. The Bobcats then could have lost Okafor without compensation next summer once he became an unrestricted free agent.
Okafor averaged 13.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks last season in 33.2 minutes per game but never clicked with coach Sam Vincent, who was fired by team president and former teammate Michael Jordan after just one season. Okafor has already played for Brown on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team and has generated plenty of praise from the bench veteran lately.
"I hope that it works out because I was with him a little while and he's a terrific kid," Brown said earlier this month. "He plays a position that's very hard to find. And he's the second pick in the draft. I'm sure we'll do what's right. Hopefully he'll be here."
Although he was limited to 26 games in his second NBA season because of a persistent ankle injury, Okafor played all 82 games last season and has averaged a double-double in each of his four seasons in the league.
An annual salary of $12 million would be in line with the contract extension 2005's No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut received from the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this month. Bogut signed a five-year deal for $60 million with hard-to-reach incentives that, if realized, could take the overall worth of the contract past $70 million.
"It's unfortunate when people criticize our ownership," Higgins told the AP, referring to Bobcats owner Bob Johnson and suggestions that the team wouldn't spend what it took to lock up Okafor.
"Bob has been very supportive of what we want to do. Last year we brought in Jason Richardson and signed [Gerald] Wallace. We're continuing to bring in very good talent. Securing Emeka just shows that our ownership and Bob are committed."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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