Cost-Effective Center Upgrades for New Orleans Pelicans in Free Agency

Ryan Clutter@@RyanCluttContributor IIIJuly 10, 2013

Greg Stiemsma is an affordable option for Dell Demps to upgrade his frontcourt.
Greg Stiemsma is an affordable option for Dell Demps to upgrade his frontcourt.USA TODAY Sports

In an active offseason, the New Orleans Pelicans have focused all of their efforts on improving the backcourt. 

The acquisitions of Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, plus the signing of Anthony Morrow, has changed the scope of New Orleans’ guards.  

With an already impressive power forward trio of Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith, there is just one position that general manager Dell Demps needs to upgrade. 

The departure of Robin Lopez leaves a big hole in the middle. Losing the team’s fifth-highest scorer from last season, a player who started all 82 games—averaging 26 minutes per game—with a 19.0 player efficiency rating, is not easy to replace with budget restraints. 

Former Kansas center Jeff Withey, acquired in the Lopez trade, and 7’2” Mindaugas Kupsas of Lithuania will compete for a roster spot in the Pelicans’ summer league games.

Withey was projected to be a top-25 pick in June’s draft, but he fell to the second round and could contribute in the frontcourt rotation from game one. However, due to the lack of experience between the two, development is crucial this summer.

If Demps brings back Lance Thomas, Darius Miller and Brian Roberts—all on the summer league roster—that would put the 2013-14 salary at $58.48 million (per HoopsWorld), just under the $58.678 million cap.

Last season, New Orleans ranked 28th (of 30) in defensive rating, surrendering 110.1 points per every 100 possessions. Additionally, the team ranked 27th in defensive rebounds. 

Establishing a paint presence is critical for a team that wishes to be successful. The $2.652 million mini mid-level exception is the route Demps needs to take here. 

With spending room at a minimum, there is only so much Demps can do to bring in an experienced body that clogs the middle. 

DeJuan Blair

DeJuan Blair is in need of a change. After seeing his role in the San Antonio Spurs offense diminish with the emergence of Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw, Blair is testing the open market. 

According to KABB Fox San Antonio, Blair was drawing interest from over 10 teams as free agency began. Demps made contact with Blair’s representatives at that time.

Now with a strong need to upgrade the center position, Blair is a cost-effective option who could start immediately. With a starting five of Holiday, Eric Gordon/Evans, Al-Farouq Aminu, Davis and Blair, this Pelicans team would have unbelievable depth. 

At 6’7”, Blair is undersized for a traditional NBA center and needs to keep his 270-pound body in shape. However, his athleticism, confidence and ability to make the mid-range jumper shouldn’t be overlooked. He possesses a career 52.8 field-goal percentage.

Plus, Blair spent the past four years under future Hall of Fame coach, Gregg Popovich.  

Playing just 14 minutes per game last season led Blair to a mere 14.66 player efficiency rating. This was down from his career average of 18.9 minutes per game and a 17.0 PER.

Coming to New Orleans would provide Blair with the help he needs in the paint. The skills of the power forwards who can slide over to center will allow Blair to play his style of defense, which needs work due to the height disparity among other bigs around the league. 

Blair is an excellent rebounder for his size, as he grabbed over 10 boards per 40 minutes in each of his four NBA seasons, per ESPN’s Hollinger stats (subscription required). For his career, he’s averaging 5.6 rebounds.

Blair made just over $1 million last season, and with a subpar campaign, he could be signed for the veterans' minimum.

Cole Aldrich

At just 24 years old, the 6’11” Cole Aldrich could make a return to the team that drafted him in 2010. Aldrich was traded on draft night to the Oklahoma City Thunder and has played sparingly during his stint in the NBA. 

The Sacramento Kings awarded Aldrich with over 11 minutes per contest during 2012-13. The most impressive stretch in his career came on back-to-back games in mid-April.

Aldrich played 49 minutes over the two games. He was 12-of-13 from the field, scoring 24 points, blocking four shots and grabbing 25 boards.

A defensive-minded player like Aldrich is just what the Pelicans are in the market for. With shooters like Gordon, Evans, Anderson and even Holiday, there is a clear need for a big man who doesn’t automatically look to score. 

Making vast improvements each year as a professional, Aldrich is ready to play starter minutes. He just needs the opportunity. 

New Orleans plugged Lopez in as a starter after playing in a bench role for much of his career. If indeed Aldrich ends up in New Orleans, he may face a similar situation. In the case of Lopez, and even Davis, coach Monty Williams showed that the staff can develop young big men.

A bona fide center who is an elite rebounder with the ability to block shots should be enough for Demps’ interest. Making just under $2.5 million last season, the mini mid-level exception would be a slight raise for Aldrich and a more than fair price tag.

Playing alongside Davis would entice any big man, and having a fellow Jayhawk—Withey—in New Orleans could interest Aldrich as well.

A young, affordable, defensive-minded center is a perfect fit for the Pelicans. If the opportunity should arise, Demps shouldn’t pass this one up.

Greg Stiemsma

The Minnesota Timberwolves have released Greg Stiemsma, making him a free agent.

At 6’11”, the 27-year-old Stiemsma is a pure shot-deflector. Averaging 1.2 blocks per game, Stiemsma recorded three or more blocks eight times this past season. 

Stiemsma was at his best when he saw increased playing time. In the last two months of the regular season—when Stiemsma averaged over 20 minutes—he scored in double figures seven times. In the first four months, he reached double figures just five times. 

He was set to earn $2.69 million before his release, making him a prime candidate for the Pelicans’ room mid-level exception ($2.652 million).

USA Today NBA Insider, Sam Amick, shared via Twitter that New Orleans is among a dozen teams interested in Stiemsma. 

Stiemsma had a 49.8 true shooting percentage in 2012-13. From Hollinger (Insider access required) he scored 10.2 points per 40 minutes, grabbed 8.6 rebounds per 40 minutes and possessed a 10.52 PER.

While his turnover ratio is a bit high (14.8), Stiemsma’s value comes from his defense. He disrupts plays with his length and quick hands.

He would be a valuable contributor to the Pelicans' frontcourt, providing elite shot-blocking abilities and much-needed depth in the middle. 

With the offensive weapons on the Pelicans, an affordable addition to bolster the inside defense would solidify this team moving forward.


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