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.
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.
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.
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.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.