On Thursday, Mehmet Okur quietly announced his retirement as a professional basketball player. Like most NBA veterans, no matter how good their prime, Okur had retirement forced upon him as much as he chose it. After rupturing his Achilles during the 2010 playoffs, and suffering through two injury-marred seasons, Okur found no market for his services in the NBA, nor anyone willing to meet his price overseas. So he decided to hang it up.
"A player of certain level should say goodbye to the sport he loves when his body doesn't let him to be as he used to be," Okur said.
Instead of remembering the hampered Okur who hobbled around in New Jersey at the end of his career, I would rather remember him as a unique archetype. I believe Okur is the greatest "stretch five" in NBA history. While the "stretch four" has basically become cliche, centers who shoot threes on a regular basis are still a rarity. Per Basketball-Refernece.com, Okur is one of just four players 6-11 or taller to make at least 500 career threes.
Dirk Nowitzki 1275
Troy Murphy 603
Mehmet Okur 596
Andrea Bargnani 548
Of course, Dirk Nowitzki leads this group by a wide margin, having made more than twice as many threes as any other player 6-11 or taller (let alone 7-foot). But Nowitzki, like Troy Murphy, has almost exclusively played power forward despite his height. Andrea Bargnani, who will likely pass Okur for third on this list in 2012-13 if he stays healthy, has split time between both frontcourt positions over the course of his career. Only Okur has been so prolific beyond the arc while playing entirely at center.
Among shorter players, there are a few guys with more threes like Clifford Robinson and Al Harrington who started out at forward--small forward, even--and eventually drifted toward the middle late in their careers. The only player who can really surpass Okur in terms of prolific three-point shooting from the center spot is 6-9 Sam Perkins, who also moved to center late in his career but did most of his damage from beyond the arc after the shift. Of Perkins' 849 career threes, 754 came after he was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1993 and made a stretch five by George Karl, a move that was decades ahead of its time.
At the same time, Perkins was a specialist who largely came off the bench. Okur was a full-time starter from his second season in Utah (2005-06) through his injury, averaging 16.2 points per game. In 2007, Okur was rewarded for his role on a 51-win Jazz team that claimed the Northwest Division title with a spot on the All-Star team.
Naturally, what stood out about Okur was his versatility. He was a fine outside shooter who made 37.5 percent of his career three-point attempts and ranked in the league's top 10 in 2008-09, making 44.6 percent (sixth). As good as Okur was at spacing the floor, he was also a threat in the post. The combination of skills allowed Okur to use plays at an above-average rate with an elite efficiency. Thanks to his size, Okur wasn't the defensive liability some of his fellow jump-shooting big men are. Never much of a shot blocker, Okur was an effective post defender who was better than average on the defensive glass.
Add it up, and Okur was a reliably above-average starter during his prime, posting at least 4.8 WARP every year from 2003-04 through 2009-10 and peaking at 9.6 in 2005-06. His total value was limited by his short career. Okur didn't arrive in the NBA until 23, and found himself as a backup on a Detroit Pistons team that would win the championship and return to the NBA Finals the following season with a frontline of Ben and Rasheed Wallace. It wasn't until Okur landed in Utah as a restricted free agent that he was able to play more than 22.3 minutes per game, and Okur's performance in a reserve role presaged his future success. Still, he finished just shy of 50 career WARP (49.3), putting him 178th among players dating back to 1980.
I leave you with Okur's player capsules from the four editions of Pro Basketball Prospectus, the first three by Bradford and the last one by me.
2009-10: Yet another glimpse into the Jazz without Carlos Boozer last season can be found in the subtle effect it had on Mehmet Okur's game. Okur became less of a three-point shooter, though he shot them at a much higher percentage. He spent more time on the blocks, where he drew more fouls but also committed more turnovers. In all, he posted one of his most efficient seasons on the offensive end. Okur blocked more shots last season, but he's still well below the level of his early days in Detroit. Overall, he's a solid defensive center, strong enough to hold sway in the post, but perhaps lacking the footwork to be a great pick-and-roll defender. Okur is a solid third wheel in the Jazz's attack. He signed a two-year contract extension to remain in that capacity through the 2011-12 season.
2010-11: Mehmet Okur went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon during the playoffs and isn't expected to return to action until December. However, players don't often bounce right back from Achilles injuries, so he might not be right until well after that, if at all. Okur hasn't really derived his value from athleticism anyway, and his faceup game should come back pretty fast. The rest of his skill set might lag behind, and his defense in particular could be an even bigger problem than usual. Okur is a solid rebounder whose overall percentage in that area is dragged down because he spends so much time around the three-point line. An underrated part of his game is his ability to put the ball on the floor against close-outs, and that's something that may be diminished until he gets completely healthy. Okur is on the wrong side of 30, and you have to wonder if he's entering a new, lower plateau as a supporting player rather than as the third part of a core trio, as he's been in recent years in Utah.
2011-12: Time is catching up with Mehmet Okur, the last surviving member of a Utah starting five that seemed so promising just a couple of years ago. Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Ronnie Brewer have all moved on. Okur was limited to 13 games because of back and Achilles injuries last season. Because of the physical problems, you can't really judge his numbers from last year. Okur is entering the last year of his contract and needs a bounce-back season to re-establish himself. Word from Jazz training camp was that he reported in great shape and was playing well. Even if Okur is in such good condition, his health still bears scrutiny. If the back or foot problems persist or have robbed him of mobility, his defense may no longer be playable. This development would be more troublesome to Okur than the Jazz. Utah is in full rebuild mode and has gathered plenty of depth to guard against an Okur decline.
2012-13: A ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in the 2010 playoffs effectively ended Mehmet Okur's productive career. Over the last two seasons, Okur has played just 622 minutes at a below-replacement level. Back trouble plagued Okur after he was traded from the Jazz to the Nets late in training camp and ended his campaign after just one month. Sent on to Portland in the Gerald Wallace trade, Okur was waived shortly thereafter. That might be it for Okur in the NBA. Given that he's already 33, teams are unlikely to risk a roster spot on the chance he can stay healthy and regain his effectiveness. An All-Star in 2007, Okur was one of the league's top 10 centers throughout much of his Utah career and a premier stretch five. Over the summer, Okur's agent was looking at overseas opportunities. Real Madrid hung up after hearing Okur's salary demands, according to Spanish basketball writer Paco Rabadan.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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