Free-Agency Rankings: Top Available Centers

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 29, 2017

Free-Agency Rankings: Top Available Centers

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    The best kind of modern NBA big man shopping involves selecting from 7-footers built to do a little of everything—shoot, protect the rim, switch defensive assignments and maybe pass a little.

    But for buyers in the 2017 free-agent center market, it's not about building a do-it-all wish list but rather deciding which concessions they are willing to make.

    This crop is flush with flawed players. Some guys are past their prime, while others haven't done enough to show how their primes will play out. There are scoring specialists who are traffic cones on defense, and there are defensive anchors who have their effectiveness sapped once they cross half court.

    But there will be interest in all of them and potential bidding wars for several, since they all have some positive qualities to sell. Those with the most obvious and stable skills score well here, with an added bonus extended for new-age abilities. Health and age are also part of our evaluations.

    As for eligibility, only players who logged the majority of their minutes at the 5 this season, according to Basketball Reference, will qualify. With our parameters in place, let's assemble our big man big board.

Honorable Mention

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    JaVale McGee, Golden State Warriors

    Don't discount the resurgence McGee has enjoyed with the Dubs. Even when accounting for superteam statistical inflation, his numbers are bananas—23.0 points on 65.2 percent shooting, 11.9 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes. His oversimplified role of see ball, dunk ball is the perfect utilization of his freakish physical gifts. But history isn't high on his chances of replicating this success anywhere else.


    Willie Reed, Miami Heat

    Don't be fooled by his "Showtime" nickname; Reed is a grinder. He was one of only eight qualified players with an offensive rebound percentage of 13-plus and a defensive rebound percentage of at least 21. He isn't as polished as most 27-year-olds since he didn't take a direct path to the NBA. But that could mean he has some untapped upside, which he hinted at in five spot starts (14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks).


    Marreese Speights, Los Angeles Clippers

    The term "stretch center" brings a sexier image to mind than a journeyman like Speights, but the 29-year-old is precisely that. Freed to fire at will in L.A., "Mo Buckets" was one of only four centers to splash at least 100 triples on 37-plus percent shooting. But he's more of a spark than a consistent flame, and he doesn't do teams a ton of good when his shot is off.

10. Zaza Pachulia, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 33

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $2,898,000

    Zaza Pachulia's free-agency sales pitch is simple—what you see is what you get.

    He looks like an enforcer and fills that role for the Golden State Warriors. Some might see him as a dirty player, but more than anything he embraces physicality and sometimes does so in a clumsy fashion.

    The stat sheet paints him as a jack of all trades. None of his numbers appear overwhelming, but collectively they speak to his value: 12.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per 36 minutes. His 12.9 offensive rebound percentage ranked 10th among qualified centers, while his 3.21 real plus-minus ranked fourth at the position, per

    "Pachulia excels at spacing the floor, setting screens and crashing the glass," Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. "Unlike his predecessor, Andrew Bogut, he is hardly a rim protector. Still, Pachulia is a solid defender who has settled in as the ideal complement to fellow starters Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant."

    With Pachulia, it's less about individual play than it is his impact on the team. He works to simplify the game for his teammates, finishing with the third-most screen assists per 36 minutes (6.9) among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes. The 33-year-old is neither a good athlete nor a great finisher, but his strengths should attract more suitors than his weaknesses scare away.

9. Nene, Houston Rockets

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    Age: 34

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $2,898,000

    Nene doesn't need another NBA contract. He could leave his family with generational wealth by selling whatever anti-aging solution he found over his first season spent with the Houston Rockets.

    The 34-year-old—one of only three active players from the 2002 draft class—shot a career-best 61.7 percent from the field and crushed 95 dunks, his most since 2010-11. He bullied his way to the seventh-best restricted area field-goal percentage (70.8) among players with four such shots per game and raced into the 76th percentile of transition scorers.

    "This place was a blessing for me," Nene said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "They brought me back. They brought the real Nene back. ... Here, I got young. I got healthy. And I got happy."

    If not for the Touch of Gray tinge to his dreadlocks, Nene would appear to be turning back time. In actuality, he benefited from a full-time deployment at center, carefully managed minutes (17.9 per game), superb spacing given Houston's wealth of snipers and an ongoing commitment to the weight room.

    He's a rock on defense and an old-school banger at the other end. But he holds modern value in a supporting role as long as he keeps setting solid screens, running rim to rim, crashing the glass and dunking like a player who doesn't already have 15 seasons of mileage.

8. Alex Len, Phoenix Suns

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    Age: 23

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $4,823,621

    Forget about Alex Len's draft position (fifth in 2013) or the expectations that came along with it. Take him at face value, and the 7'1" former gymnast remains an intriguing project for some size-starved suitors to tackle.

    Granted, the big guy missed a golden opportunity to boost his bank account with a colossal contract year. The Phoenix Suns fully committed to a youth movement once their misguided playoff hopes fizzled, and Len couldn't capitalize. He averaged the fewest minutes since his rookie year, backtracked in scoring and rebounding, and fouled at an alarming rate (5.6 per 36 minutes).

    But he quietly progressed—just not as dramatically as Suns fans had hoped.

    He brought his field-goal percentage back up to a respectable 49.7 while ditching long 2s in favor of more interior looks and a handful of corner threes. He posted his highest rebound percentage (17.8), his second-best block rate (2.3 per 36 minutes) and the 11th-best defensive field-goal percentage at the rim among volume centers.

    He's still big, long, athletic and skilled. He's also been limited enough (career 19.8 minutes per game) that a suitor could easily convince itself he's worth the economic and developmental investments.

    "He's continuing to grow," Tyson Chandler said, per Gavin Schall of "He's very young as a big man. With a big man, it takes a while for them to develop. He's continuing."

7. Alan Williams, Phoenix Suns

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    Age: 24

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $874,636

    If you don't know Alan Williams, you're probably not alone. He has just 57 NBA games under his belt, all of them played with some dreadful Suns teams.

    But in a nutshell, he's the undrafted, undersized, underrated reason Len failed to soar in the youth-driven second half. Williams outplayed his more highly touted frontcourt peer, surging to averages of 11.4 points and 9.1 rebounds after the All-Star break—a line just 10 centers posted for the season. He was the only player to tally at least 15 double-doubles while averaging fewer than 21 minutes a night (15.1).

    "He's one of the league's best rebounders and a surprisingly effective shot-blocker at 6'8"," ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton wrote. "Don't be surprised if Williams forces his way into more playing time next season."

    Williams is the kind of free agent who won't excite a fanbase but will pleasantly surprise it down the line. He's not selling a high ceiling—his athletic and offensive limitations could prevent him from ever handling a full-time starting gig. But he can market a high, stable floor thanks to tremendous instincts, consistent energy and a willingness to play within his strengths.

    Combine his smarts and approach with the fact he already possesses an elite skill (22.4 rebound percentage, which would have been fifth had he qualified), and he looks like he could play a long time in this league.

6. Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics

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    Age: 26

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $3,094,013

    Remember the Kelly Olynyk who willed the Boston Celtics into the Eastern Conference Finals with 26 points on 14 shots in Game 7 of the semis? That guy is a max-money player, a walking mismatch as a 7-footer with three-point range, enough handles to slither around defenders and a feather-soft touch near the basket.

    But the real Olynyk is much more of a gamble. An intriguing one, for sure, but still a sporadic contributor.

    "He's a great shooter and will destroy mismatches if given one," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote. "He's also not a go-to weapon. You want him as a complementary component only, and a bench role is pretty ideal."

    Olynyk's up-and-down year still yielded a well-stuffed stat line. He finished as one of only six centers with at least 300 rebounds, 100 assists and 60 threes. He had the second-highest field-goal percentage of that group (51.2) and by far the lowest minutes total (1,538, closest was 2,193).

    One-on-one defense isn't always a strength, and he's just as likely to fade into the offensive background as he is to force his way into the highlight reels. But his greatest attribute has never been more valued (shooting), and his occasional outbursts speak to his rare combination of size and skill.

5. Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio Spurs

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    Age: 27

    Free-Agency Status: Player Option

    2016-17 Salary: $2,898,000

    There's always some apprehension about paying one of the San Antonio Spurs' discoveries, since neither the coach nor the system that uncovered and polished these hidden gems is part of the deal.

    But Dewayne Dedmon seems different. The Spurs didn't uncover a ton of secret talents in the 27-year-old—rather, they carved out the perfect role to best utilize his known strengths. He was precisely the player San Antonio envisioned.

    "He's a Bruce Bowen in a bigger guy's body," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters back at training camp. "We want him to play D, rebound, block shots, run the floor and keep things together in that regard."

    How did Dedmon fare with the direct task list? Well, he was one of only three players to have a defensive rebound percentage of 30-plus, a block percentage of three-plus and a defensive rating of 100 or lower. He was second among all centers with a 3.94 defensive real plus-minus and second among qualified centers with a minus-5.7 defensive field-goal percentage.

    Dedmon's offensive repertoire is limited to rim-running and rim-rocking, but he's the type of do-it-all defender who can anchor a modern unit.

4. Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets

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    Age: 27

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $2,328,530

    The Denver Nuggets' midseason deal for Mason Plumlee seems like it should elicit some buyer's remorse. The Nuggets parted with the best draft pick and—based on what we've seen so far—the more productive player (Jusuf Nurkic).

    But Denver wasn't duped. Plumlee provided what was expected.

    "Mase brought a lot of what we thought he would bringintensity, a vertical threat at the rim. An athletic big. A very good passer," general manager Tim Connelly said, per's Christopher Dempsey.

    Plumlee also arrived with clear limitations, which could scare off would-be suitors. His offensive range doesn't stretch much beyond the restricted area, and he's not the most intimidating defender at the rim.

    He is, however, uniquely successful. He was one of only five players to average at least 10 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one block—a distinction shared with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins. His 19.8 assist percentage also ranked fifth among centers.

    At 27 years old, Plumlee probably isn't going to change the type of player he is. But clubs who see strengths more than weaknesses can find an athletic 6'11" playmaker who races around the floor, works well in the screen game and helps maintain pace with the ability to push the ball off his own rebounds.

3. Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs

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    Age: 36

    Free-Agency Status: Player Option

    2016-17 Salary: $15,500,000

    On the surface, this looked like the season where Pau Gasol lost the most ground in his race with Father Time. His minutes average plummeted to 25.4—the first time he'd seen fewer than 31.4—and most of his other per-game marks either set or approached career lows.

    But his on-court effectiveness proved remarkably consistent. He nearly matched his career per-36-minute averages in points (17.5, average is 18.5) and assists (3.3, 3.4) and outperformed his rebounding rate (11.1, 9.8). His 50.2 field-goal percentage was his highest in six seasons, and he shattered his previous bests in three-point makes (56) and accuracy (53.8 percent).

    "I think I had a pretty efficient season, I adjusted as well as I could, I gave it my all from beginning to the end," Gasol told reporters. "I look forward to continue to grow. And now that I know more the conditions that I'm playing with and the circumstances, I can figure out better how to be effective."

    That quote gives the impression he's leaning toward opting into his $16.1 million player option for next season, which might be just as well. Offensively, he's always had a Spursian feel to him, and it'll be fun to watch Popovich pull more out of his skill set. Defensively, Gasol's limited mobility makes him exploitable in space, but San Antonio has the personnel and scheme to hide him about as well as anyone.

    If Gasol hits the open market, he'll only appeal to a small group of win-now buyers. But as the most proficient player on this list, he still commands a top-three spot.

2. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Age: 26

    Free-Agency Status: Player Option

    2016-17 Salary: $17,145,838

    Timing can be everything for NBA free agents, which may or may not be good news for Greg Monroe.

    On the plus side, his reputation is in a much better place than it would have been had he hit the open market last summer. His second season with the Milwaukee Bucks appeared far more comfortable, as he eased into an instant-offense role and stepped forward as both a defender and passer.

    His 110.1 offensive rating was a career high, while his 106.4 defensive rating was his second-lowest in four seasons. His per-36-minute averages of 18.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists produced a line only Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins posted.

    Monroe is approaching free agency at the right time, but from a macro view, he still plays an antiquated game. Teams continue moving away from his preferred back-to-the-basket style while asking their centers for rim protection and/or floor spacing, neither of which he provides. That's not to say he's without value, but if he opts out, he won't command the contract a player like him once would have.

    "The league has been trending toward big men moving outside, but you still need low-post scorers," an NBA personnel director told Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times. "He's a very good low-post scorer. He's tough to stop [from scoring] down low; he's got those crafty moves."

    Monroe's youth is also a free-agency asset, and it's not a stretch to think some see him as the market's top center. But his strengths aren't as essential to today's game as those of the top player on our board.

1. Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks

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    Age: 23

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $4,384,490

    Defensive pliability is perhaps the most coveted trait in current centers, and Nerlens Noel can be Gumby-like at that end. He has size, length (7'4" wingspan) and explosiveness, plus the hand speed of a magician and the mobility of a wing, all tools to help him become an ideal modern anchor.

    He punctuated his rookie year with top-10 rankings in both blocks and steals. He has finished all three of his seasons with top-10 standings in defensive box plus-minus: fifth in 2014-15, ninth last season, fifth this year. He's the only player to average at least two steals and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes in all three of those seasons. This year, he shaved 8.9 points off his opponents' shooting percentages within six feet.

    He'd be the potential solution to any suitor's defensive woes, only the Dallas Mavericks—who can match any offer he receives—have presumably already penciled him into their plans.

    "Noel is a natural complement to [Dirk] Nowitzki who can swing between defensive positions as difficult matchups demand," Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote. "He rebounds, he covers ground well and most every defensive metric available suggests he could be a defensive centerpiece."

    Noel carries his own red flags. He lost his would-have-been rookie campaign to an ACL tear and has only averaged 64 games since. His maturity has been questioned, and his offense may never evolve beyond lob specialist.

    But his defense is elite and should remain that way as the Association continues to evolve. That's all he needs to hold the No. 1 spot among this crop.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.