The days of dominant big men roaming the paint and causing terror on a nightly basis in a city near you are likely gone and never coming back. Yet while the league has developed into a pace-and-space, guard-dominated, strategic chess game, make no mistake: teams still pay top dollar for big men who are capable of producing a double-double on the box score – even if it is only on an occasional basis.
To see this play out, one would need to look no further than the free agency frenzy of 2016.
There were no shortage of big men offered eight-figure salaries per year who were not focal points of their previous employers. Some of these guys didn’t start the majority of their team’s games this past season. In a league where dominant guard play and the three-point shot are starting to gain the majority of attention, successful teams – or teams attempting to be successful – continue to load up on big men at every opportunity and pay them handsomely for their production.
Let’s take a look at some centers around the league who were paid in full this summer. Keep in mind, some of these guys rode the pine the majority of last season, while some were in the nightly starting lineup. But one thing is certain, big men have traditionally and will continue to earn top dollar – even though the era of back-to-the-basket dominant warriors in the paint likely ended when Shaquille O’Neal hung up his high tops for good.
Obviously heading into the summer, it was common belief that market values for guys such as Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside and Dwight Howard would hover near $20 million annually. So the below list primarily focuses on guys who were expected to have slightly lower market values heading into free agency.
Timofey Mozgov, Center, Los Angeles Lakers
Deal: Four years, $64 million
The veteran big man played the role of a good soldier all season despite a diminishing role in Cleveland. His patience, work ethic and ability to sacrifice for the team ultimately landed the veteran a title and a lucrative four-year, $64 million dollar deal from the Los Angeles Lakers. Mozgov isn’t a guy who’s going to threaten to score 20 points a night or grab 10 or 12 rebounds per game, but he has proven to be effective when given minutes. On a team full of promising young guard and wing talent, Mozgov has been placed in position to become a dependable big man on the block for the Lakers, who are attempting to leave the league’s basement.
Ian Mahinmi, Center, Washington Wizards
Deal: Four years, $64 million
In one of the summer’s most surprising moves, the Wizards offered Mahinmi a four-year, $64 million contract. Now Mahinmi started the majority of the season for the Indiana Pacers last year, so the guy has already proved he could handle the rigors of being a starting big man full time. The head scratching comes from the fact the Wizards have a solid starting center in Marcin Gortat already in the fold. It will be interesting to see how the Wizards deploy their Gortat – Mahinmi combination moving forward. In the past few seasons, the Wizards have deployed a Gortat – Nene combo that worked decently when all parties were healthy. Nene is now in Houston and it remains to be seen how Mahinmi will fit in his new environment.
Bismack Biyombo, Center, Orlando Magic
Deal: Four years, $72 million
Biyombo spent the majority of the campaign playing behind center Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto in a limited role. But the veteran emerged on the big stage during the NBA playoffs, producing a steady dose of solid performances, which led to him being able to cash out this summer to the tune of four years and $72 million. The Magic have spent the past few seasons meticulously rebuilding around a young core group, but abruptly changed those plans this summer by being an active buyer on the free agency market.
Biyombo could be in a similar situation playing behind starting center Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, but the Magic have found a strong defensive performer who has been productive in spot starts and when given quality minutes.
Miles Plumlee, Center, Milwaukee Bucks
Deal: Four years, $52 million
The Milwaukee Bucks re-signed Plumlee to a whopping four-year, $52 million deal earlier this summer. The franchise is obviously banking on the athletic center’s potential. Plumlee has been unable to lock in a consistent nightly role since entering the league and has never averaged more than 25 minutes per game in any season. This trend will likely hold true, as Plumlee will continue to log minutes behind a productive guy such as Greg Monroe, making a larger role difficult to attain (barring injury). But Milwaukee likes the versatility that Plumlee brings, and he plays well with emerging core members Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Al Jefferson, Center, Indiana Pacers
Deal: Three years, $30 million
It may not be fair to put a player of Jefferson’s stature on this list being that he spent the majority of his prime as a borderline All-Star-caliber talent. However, Jefferson spent last season injured and when he was able to come back from his stint on the disabled list, he never truly reclaimed his former role of being the top focal point in the Charlotte Hornets’ offense.
But the Pacers entered the summer looking for increased scoring around All-Star forward Paul George. So Indiana was active on the trade front by bringing in former All-Star guard Jeff Teague and forward Thaddeus Young. The team then shifted their focus to scouring free agency and secured Jefferson’s autograph on a three-year, $30 million deal. On paper, the Pacers have significantly upgraded offensively, but can Jefferson’s body hold up for a full season?
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