Knicks Free Agent Targets: Centers

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The remainder of the New York Knicks’ 2014-15 regular season has essentially been rendered meaningless, save for the impact it can have on the number of New York’s ping-pong balls in the draft lottery hopper. Thus, we are looking ahead at brighter days for the Knicks franchise and its fans, when the team will be able to drastically improve their roster via free agency.

Last week, we examined the pros and cons of making a serious (max money) run at Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green. Today, we’ll look at a number of centers that may be on the Knicks’ wish list in July.

Among the many reasons for the Knicks putrid performance this season, not having a legit starting center is near the top of the list. Team president Phil Jackson traded away Tyson Chandler last June in order to obtain point guard Jose Calderon. In retrospect, the trade can only be viewed as an abject failure. Calderon, who has two years and $15.2 million dollars remaining on his contract, has dealt with a number of nagging injuries and has struggled mightily when he has been healthy enough to play. Meanwhile, Chandler (playing on an expiring contract) has enjoyed a terrific all-around season for the Mavericks. The center the Knicks got back in the trade, Samuel Dalembert, quickly proved he was unable to hold down the center spot in New York. Jackson tried desperately to trade him, but found no takers and eventfully waived Dalembert, eating the remaining portion of his salary.

Heading into next season, the Knicks only have four players under contract. None of them are centers. And while Cole Aldrich and Lou Amundson have given respectable effort for the Knicks each night, neither player is viewed as the team’s center of the future.

Thus, landing a potent pivot this offseason will obviously be a top priority. The first chance the Knicks have at securing a center will be in June’s draft. If they win one of the top two picks, will they draft either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns? Or would Phil target a point guard (another position of need), such as D’Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay?

If the Knicks don’t nab one in the draft, then securing the services of a legit center via free agency becomes essential. In addition, even if they do draft Towns or Okafor, you don’t want a rookie playing 35 minutes a night.

This brings us to the free agent center crop of 2015…

Marc Gasol (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Gasol is the crown jewel of the free agent center crop. A terrifically well-rounded big man, he can score on the low block or face up. He can defend the rim and rebound. He’s also one of the best passing centers in the NBA. Gasol would be a perfect fit inside “The Triangle.” Unfortunately, it seems implausible that Gasol would leave a comfortable and successful situation in Memphis, and forfeit upwards of $20 million, to leave the Grizzlies and sign with the Knicks.

Al Jefferson (Player Option)
With the NBA salary cap set to spike in 2016, it will be very interesting to see how free agents with player options choose to handle their situations this summer. Do they opt-out and secure a long-term deal with plenty of guaranteed money? Or, do they roll the dice and play out the final season of their contracts, and then cash with a much bigger contract and far more guaranteed dollars next summer – when the salary cap could be as high as $95 million? Jefferson has a $13.5 million player option for the 2015-16 season. He’s struggled to stay healthy, but is a potent offensive force when on the floor.

Omer Asik (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Asik has been solid, if unspectacular, since becoming a starting center. He signed with the Houston Rockets entering the 2012-13, which was his first opportunity to showcase his full skill set as a starter in the NBA. Then, last summer, he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a first-round pick. In the nearly 200 games he has played over the last three years, Asik has averaged 8.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks. He’s not a stud, but certainly a serviceable starting center who will protect the rim and chip in offensively. In a league bereft of quality big man, Asik will have plenty of eager suitors when he hits the open market in July.

Roy Hibbert (Player Option)
Hibbert has had an up-and-down few seasons in Indiana. He starred in the postseason back in 2013, when he was a major reason the Pacers were able to oust the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but then struggled mightily down the stretch and in the postseason last year. Still, he’s a solid defender and is seven-feet tall. He’ll attract plenty interest if he does opt out. Hibbert has a $15.5 million option for next season.

DeAndre Jordan (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Jordan has steadily improved year-to-year, and how now firmly established himself as one of the NBA’s best big men. He’s currently averaging 11.8 points, a whopping 15.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, while shooting a mind-boggling 71.5 percent from the floor. Jordan is currently on pace to join Wilt Chamberlain as just the second player in NBA history to average at least 15 rebounds per game and shoot over 70 percent from the floor. He’ll demand at or near max money on the open market. Yet, considering how invaluable he’s been for the Los Angeles Clippers this season, it’s hard to imagine Doc Rivers letting him leave L.A. (the Clippers will have his “Bird Rights” – which means they can offer a fifth season and significantly more money than other suitors).

Enes Kanter (Restricted Free Agent)
Kanter remains a bit of a mystery. He’s been in the league for four years, but is still just 22 years of age and has never averaged more than 27 minutes per game in any season. He’s getting a chance to play on a winning team in Oklahoma City over the next few months. Will a team make a big offer and force the Thunder to match? What offer would be high enough to scare OKC away? Those are the big questions as Kanter prepares to hit restricted free agency.

Brook Lopez (Player Option)
Lopez is arguably the best offensive center in the NBA. He’s averaged at least 20 points per game in five straight seasons. The problem is, he’s also missed at least 65 games in two of his last four seasons. Even though he has a $16.7 million option he can exercise for next season, it’s safe to assume he’ll opt out and get a new long-term deal if (a big if) he stays healthy for the rest of this season.

Robin Lopez (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Not nearly as accomplished on the offensive end as his brother, Robin is a better defender and rebounder than Brook. Robin has also been far more durable. He’ll be available at a relatively affordable cost compared to the rest of the centers listed here. If you have plenty of offensive firepower on your roster, Lopez is solid fit as he will be happy to clog up the paint, board and bang.

Tyson Chandler (Unrestricted Free Agent)
It is obviously extremely unlikely that Chandler would consider returning to the Knicks, especially after rumors circulated that Carmelo Anthony requested that Phil Jackson and company move Tyson last offseason. However, the Knicks’ terrible 2014-15 season proves how valuable Chandler can be. Anthony has always been the Knicks’ best offensive player, by far, since the day he arrived in New York; however, when the Knicks found brief success during Melo’s tenure – including the 54 win season in 2012-13 – Chandler was arguably the team’s most valuable player. That season, Chandler won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, the only player in franchise history to receive the honor.

Greg Monroe (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Monroe flashed elite talent and very intriguing upside early on in his career. As a 21-year-old, he averaged 15.4 points (on 52.1 percent shooting), 9.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game in his second season. However, he’s never taken his game to the next level. His field goal percentage has dipped below 50 percent for three consecutive seasons. His steal and block totals have decreased three years in row. Still just 24, some team will throw plenty of money (and possibly even a max deal) his way.

Brandan Wright (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Currently on the Suns, Wright is playing for his third team this season. He had the best season of his young career last year in Dallas, when he averaged 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 67.7 percent from the floor. Still, there are noticeable flaws in his game. Can he handle the rigors of starter’s minutes? Is he worth upwards $5 million a season? We shall see…