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NBA

Top Free Agent Centers

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The center position has evolved rapidly over the last few years. Now it’s arguably no longer enough to be an effective back to the basket center. Teams are looking for centers that can perform in the pick-and-roll, protect the rim and run the court among other things. However, there are still quite a few big men who can’t knock down three-pointers but can be effective in other ways. With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the centers who can become free agents this upcoming offseason.

Tier 1

1. Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks

Earlier this season, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut and a first-round pick. Noel started out his career in Philadelphia as a foundational piece, but became expendable as the frontcourt becoming increasingly crammed. The team had to decide whether to keep Noel, a soon to be restricted free agent, or trade him to avoid having to pay him in the offseason.

The Mavericks have been looking for a long-term answer at center since the departure of veteran center Tyson Chandler years ago. With Noel, the team again has a potential rim-protecting, shot-blocking, athletic pick and roll threat who can play the role Chandler did so effectively years ago.

Drafted sixth overall in 2013, Noel is only 22 years old and arguably has not come close to his potential yet. While Noel looks like a natural fit with the Mavericks, his current statistics look remarkably similar to his numbers from earlier this season with Philadelphia, including points (8.9 to 9.5), rebounds (5.0 to 7.1) blocks (.9 to 1.2) and shooting percentage (61.1 to 60.3 percent). However, Noel is playing 22.5 minutes per game coming off the bench for Mavericks and is producing 15.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1 steal per game per 36 minutes. With Carlisle’s pick and roll heavy offense and more time to adjust, Noel could very well become a big-time contributor for Dallas, should the Mavericks re-sign him after this season.

Noel will be the most intriguing and arguably talented free center this offseason, but his status as a restricted free agent will likely dissuade other teams from making aggressive offers, knowing the Mavericks will likely match.

2. Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets

Currently playing for the Denver Nuggets, Plumlee is due for a pay raise as he heads toward his first non-rookie contract. Like Noel, Plumlee was also traded recently. Unlike Noel, Plumlee did not appear to be pining for a possible change of scenery. Plumlee started every game for the Portland Trailblazers prior to being dealt. Since the trade, Plumlee has seen his points per game drop from 11.2 to 9.2 as the Nuggets continually experimented with how to best utilize him.

Plumlee isn’t particularly great at any single thing, but he does a number of things very well, evidenced by a recent start alongside Nikola Jokic in which he contributed nine points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals in a losing effort to the Houston Rockets on March 18. Plumlee is a skilled passer for a big man and is averaging 3.9 assists per game. Plumlee doesn’t put up jaw-dropping numbers, but he is usually a positive contributor. It should also be noted that Plumlee’s playing time is down since being traded, so that partially explains his slight statistical drop-off.

Tier 2

3. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe is a talented, throwback center but has dropped off his production in recent seasons.  The fast pace of the modern game has sometimes relegated prototypical back to the basket scoring big men into becoming primarily bench scorers. Enes Kanter serves as an example with the Oklahoma City Thunder as he had been featured prominently as a starting center until 2015-16 when the Thunder permanently moved him to the bench.

From the 2011-12 to 2015-16 season, Monroe averaged 15.6 points per game in 31.6 minutes while starting the majority of games. In 2016-17, Monroe is averaging 11.8 points and career-lows in rebounds (6.6) and blocks (.5) in 22.5 minutes per game off the bench. In an era where there is a premium on big men that can score both inside and out, Monroe works almost exclusively down low and shoots at league average rate.  Monroe’s inability to shoot beyond midrange limits his effectiveness on offense.

Defense isn’t one of Monroe’s strengths as he is not an explosive athlete, a particularly effective rim protector or weak-side shot blocker. He does rank fourth amongst centers in steals with 1.2 per game and accountss for 28.1 percent of the Bucks’ overall steals. However, this doesn’t really offset how much of a liability he generally is defensively.

Monroe didn’t expect to suffer this sort of decline when he signed with the Buck before the 2015-16 season. Monroe passed on both the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, who had been looking for a premier free agent. He is still a talented player, but his lack of range and limited effectiveness on defense likely limit to being a paaaost-scoring big man off the bench. There is value in having a player like Monroe, but it’s still a significant drop off from the standing he used to hold across the league.

4. Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs have sustained a high level of success for longer than any other team in recent NBA history. How is this possible? In part, by finding and maximizing undervalued talent. Add Spurs center Dewayne Dedmon to the list of players that have found an effective role within the team’s system.

Dedmon’s statistics don’t jump off the page. He is averaging 5.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and .8 blocks per game in 17.4 minutes of action per night. However, Dedmond’s value for San Antonio stems from his ability to play solid defense, set effective picks and act as a lob threat on runs to the rim out of the pick and roll. Dedmon may not be the most talented center in the league, but he understands his role and stays within it to the benefit of his team.

Amongst centers, Dedmon ranks 9th in the league with .041 defensive win shares, per nba.com. Additionally, opponents are shooting 44.5 percent at the rim against him, which is good for 7th in the league.

Keep in mind that Dedmon got a very late start to his career at age 18 amidst unusual circumstances. Though he is already 27 years old, he may have more room for growth than one may expect. Considering this, it may make sense for a team to make a significant investment in Dedmon.

5. Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics

Olynyk is an intriguing player in this free agent market. At first glance, his numbers do not stand out — he is averaging 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.

Amongst centers, Olynyk ranks 23rd in the league in defensive win shares, ahead of fellow big men Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns and Noel, per nba.com. In addition, Olynyk is 23rd in the NBA, amongst centers, with 3.60 RPM wins, an estimate of the number of wins a player has contributed to a team’s win total, per espn.com.

Working against Olynyk is that he has never moved into a starting role with the Celtics, never averaged more than 22.2 minutes and has never averaged more than 5.2 rebounds in his career. Although he was a 40.5 percent three-point shooter last season, Olynyk’s shooting from distance has slipped to 35.7 percent this year.

At 25 years old, Olynyk’s best days may still be ahead of him. With three-point range and an underrated offensive and defensive game, Olynyk could be a nice addition for a team in need of a big man who can spread the court.

6. Alex Len, Phoenix Suns

Now in his fourth year and 23 years old, the discussion around Alex Len continues to drift toward potential rather than his actual on-court production. Len, who will be a restricted free agent, is aware of the issue and has discussed it with the media.

“It’s my contract year, so it’s a huge stretch,” Len stated earlier this season. “I just have to show everybody I can be a starting center in this league. I got an opportunity, I just have to prove it.”

The Suns have tried giving the starting role to Len on multiple occasions, only to reverse course at times. Len has never started more than 46 games in a season and is currently playing the fewest minutes so far through the past three seasons, partially due to the presence of the veteran Tyson Chandler.

Per 36 minutes, Len’s projects to score a solid yet unremarkable 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, according to basketball-reference.com. He has the size, length, mobility and athleticism to be a solid two-way player, but he hasn’t been able to prove that with consistent production. Any team that wants to sign Len will have to make an aggressive offer and hope that if Phoenix doesn’t match, he will develop into the versatile player many projected him to become.

7. Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spur

At age 36, San Antonio Spurs center Pau Gasol is still one of the most offensively talented centers in the NBA. In late January Gasol broke a finger during warm-ups. Upon return, Gasol accepted a bench role and has thrived ever since.

Since returning from the finger injury, Gasol is shooting 50 percent overall, 58.3 percent from three-point range (notably, a career high 15.8 percent of his total shots are coming from beyond the arc). This new role has Gasol thriving against other team’s second units and provides a blueprint for how best to use the thirty-six-year-old at this point in his career. As a back-up, Gasol is ranked 20th in the league among centers in defensive win shares is both surprising and respectable. However, Gasol certainly struggles to defend opponents who are decently mobile, an issue that will worsen as he continues to age.

Tier 3

8. Nene, Houston Rockets

Like Gasol, Nene is a player who has long since passed his peak but has found an effective and useful role as a back-up on a championship contender. In his first season with the Houston Rockets, Nene is averaging a career low in minutes (17.5) and rebounds (4.1), as well as near career low in points per game (8.6).

However, these low marks distort how productive Nene has been in limited minutes as he averaging, per 36 minutes, a career high 17.8 points. Nene is shooting above his career percentages from all distances, including a career-high 45.5 percent from 16 feet to the three point line.

In limited minutes, Nene’s defense is passable. Amongst centers, he is 49th in blocks per game (.6), 20th in steals (.8) and 17th in defensive rating (102.2). Nene isn’t a defensive specialist by any means, but he isn’t a major liability either.

9. Zaza Pachulia, Golden State Warriors

Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia is a gritty and deceptively productive player. He has served as a decent compliment to the athleticism and scoring prowess the Warriors display on a nightly basis.

The 13-year veteran, who has started every game this year, is neither a shot blocker nor a rim-protector and accordingly ranks near the bottom in these categories for centers. Pachulia is shooting a career-high 54.1 percent but otherwise has unremarkable averages of 6.4 points, six rebounds, .5 blocks and 1.9 assists per game. Pachulia is well suited to the rest of the Warriors and perhaps holds most value to this team.

It should be noted that despite his average statistics relative to other high profile players, Pachulia received tremendous support in his home country of Georgia, resulting in him almost being voted into the 2017 NBA All-Star game.

At 33 years old, Pachulia has likely reached the peak of his potential and production. But he can still provide quality minutes for a team looking for a big man that can do a lot of things well.

10. Aron Baynes, Detroit Pistons

In February, Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders reported that the Detroit Pistons were exploring the trade market for center Aron Baynes.

“Aron is a really good player and I said this after the last game, we’re going to be in a difficult situation by the [CBA] rules of trying to re-sign him next summer,” Van Gundy said. “I’m supposed to downplay him, not play him up and tell you, ‘You know, that guy’s a pretty solid backup,’ but the bottom line is he’s a starting-caliber NBA center who we’re very lucky to have as a backup.”

Baynes’ performance overall this season may not result in the payday that Van Gundy predicted, as Baynes is averaging 4.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 0.5 blocks per game this season. However, he is only averaging 15.2 minutes of action per game, so a team may take a chance on him after this season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

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About James Blancarte

James Blancarte

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.