Should Emeka Okafor be next in the long line of Laker reclamation projects?

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

As we start to look towards next season, it is become more or less evident that the biggest hole the Lakers will have to fill is in the frontcourt, especially with a player that provides the defensive and rebounding presence that has been missing for most of this year. Perusing the list of possible free agents, Emeka Okafor might be one of the most cost-effective options available.

The Lakers' frontcourt rotation this season has been a fascinating case study in how one has to balance size, rebounding presence, shooting, defense, and a host of other factors in a league in which positional labels have become increasingly defunct and matchups vary widely any given night. Going into this season, we noted that that the strength of this team was at the five, something lessened by what was perceived as most of their best players all happening to man the same position. Surprisingly, all four of the Lakers' centers are still on the roster even when none of them past Robert Sacre, who is inked through 2016, are expected to be re-signed, the result of a lack of buyers at a relatively underwhelming trade deadline.

Regardless, a consistent theme this year is that the frontcourt rotation was an oddball construction given Mike D'Antoni's preference for spacing the floor and he has more or less been forced by necessity to deploy conventional lineups when they arguably have become unconventional nowadays. Further complicating this was the limitations posed by the Lakers' conventional lineups due to the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the team's fives. At this point, these have become apparent: for Pau Gasol, his post scoring and passing stand out, but he is the weakest defensively; Jordan Hill's energy and rebounding on both ends belies his lack of offensive polish and range; Chris Kaman is a bit of a weird case in which he is essentially Pau-lite on offense while being slightly more serviceable defensively; and Sacre might be the best defender from a fundamentals perspective, although his anemic offense limits his playing time.

As mentioned, D'Antoni's offense relies more on spacing and guard play, so the fives really just need to set solid screens, roll to the rim hard, and hit a midrange shot in a pinch. Given this framework, divvying up the allotment of minutes at the five to more defensively minded players might have been advantageous, but that was impossible from the start by the simple fact that Pau had an ironclad hold on the starting spot. Combined with the fact that the offense was rather poor without Pau's offensive contributions and you see the issue of trying to buttress the team's defense and rebounding while staying true to the principles of D'Antoni's system.

Needless to say, this will be different next season between Kobe Bryant's return and any other additions they make in free agency and the draft. At the very least, we can expect a more consistent and dangerous perimeter game led by Kobe -- and if that's not the case, we have far more severe issues than can be reasonably dealt with during the course of next season -- and that puts the onus on the Lakers frontcourt to become more of a defensive presence. This is most easily accomplished by the Lakers drafting Joel Embiid or Noah Vonleh, but should they be unavailable in the case of the former or in the latter, farther down their draft board than other options, then Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding has an alternative in free agency:

It wasn’t just better talent that got the Lakers bouncing back from that horrid non-playoff 2004-05 season. Ask Bryant and he’ll tell you that there was a culture shift from a roster of too many kids trying to do their own stuff toward guys who understood how to build a collective team work ethic.

Gasol was a late part of that change, and now he is trying to appreciate his likely last days as a Laker. Gasol tried on defense far harder Friday night than in most games this season. That tenacity is something the Lakers have been missing in their paint, as explained by Mike D’Antoni after the game: "We have a hard time guarding the rim. We have a hard time being tough."

To that end, Emeka Okafor, 31, would be an ideal acquisition in free agency. Having missed all season because of a herniated disc in his neck, Okafor might well be available on a contract with only one guaranteed year—and he is a proven defensive paint presence who covers up others’ mistakes.

To be fair, we are primarily having this discussion because Okafor is very likely going to be a fairly cheap acquisition and the rest of the market for fives is absolutely dismal. Unless one wants to pony up the money to throw at Greg Monroe, Okafor is really one of the better options available and considering his past play, he does fit what the Lakers will need at the five going forward. Typified by excellent rebounding (career 18.3 TRB%) and generally solid paint protection, Okafor's game has always been dragged down by an inconsistent offense, but he's somewhat serviceable from midrange, has some limited utility in the post, and is a presence on the offensive boards.

The Lakers can live with Okafor's problems on offense, moreover, if he provides much of the same defense that has been his calling card since he was drafted out of Connecticut. When last healthy, he was quietly making Washington, which was fifth in defensive efficiency last season, significantly better on that end. Okafor isn't a flashy defender, but is superb at positional defense and knowing how to be effective on that end without fouling. His overall rebounding mark above also includes good work on the defensive boards, a career 25.1 DRB% that would rank as the thirteenth best mark in the history of the NBA.

It should be noted that there's a significant risk in whether Okafor can even get back onto the court, seeing as he's coming off a season-ending injury, but those are the breaks that the Lakers will have to absorb given how limited their free agent spending money will be as a result of their high draft position. And as Ding notes in his article, Okafor would help to fill a leadership void that has arisen without Kobe present to constantly drive the team; his teammates in Washington and elsewhere constantly heaped praise on Okafor for his professionalism in the locker room and elsewhere.

Ultimately, the Lakers need frontcourt help in the worst way going into next offseason and Okafor represents as good of a solution as any on the market. He won't require a significant investment and his strengths correlate pretty strongly with what the Lakers need to address. It is perhaps slightly ironic that what was once viewed as a financially motivated trade candidate for Pau could end up being useful to the Lakers from a basketball perspective, but looking back on the throw-ins included in Laker trades recently under Mitch Kupchak, it is not that surprising of a development. Reclamation projects appear to be a field the Lakers and Mike D'Antoni are especially adept at exploring and should they move to bring Okafor into the purple and gold, he very likely would be no exception.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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