The Hawks say they are looking to free agency instead of the draft for frontcourt help. At this point it’s not clear if that need supersedes their desire for a starting-caliber point guard (in case the Jeff Teague thing doesn’t yield immediate fruits) or wing player (in case J.J. bolts in free agency). This is especially the case since the returning frontcourt (Al, Josh, and Zaza) might be a stronger group than the returning backcourt (Bibby, Jamal, Marvin and Teague).
But since the draft doesn’t look like it will yield a big man who can contribute now at pick No. 24, and Jason Collins and Randolph Morris both are free agents, the Hawks will need a center one way or the other. Let’s assume they won’t go the vet-minimum route this time and will actually use their mid-level exception to seek a starting-caliber center (neither assumption is safe, but let’s just say both are plausible). What kind of center could the Hawks expect to acquire in free agency this summer?
First, let me say that trying to predict the market for free agents this summer is tricky. With so many teams potentially having so much cap space (and presumably a desire to spend the money) so-so players might find a strong market for their services. Add in the fact that the focus here is free-agent centers in a league where “quality big man” is usually near the top of the list of wants for most teams in the league, and it makes things even more unpredictable.
(To illustrate that point, see this quote from Magic GM Otis Smith explaining why he used the full mid-level exception last year to re-sign Marcin Gortat, a backup center of modest accomplishment: “Like I said before, we’re in a league that probably only has 10 centers. We just happen to have two. It’s a luxury.”)
But we can look at what happened with free agent centers in years past to get some kind of feel for what the market might dictate. Then I’ll look at some of the free-agent centers for a clue as to what the Hawks might reasonably find available for the mid-level exception.
In 2008, centers Emeka Okafor and Andrew Bogut got the big money, with each signing five-year deals averaging $12 million . Bogut signed an extension before the final year of his rookie contract. The Bobcats signed Okafor to the deal after it had extended a one-year qualifying offer for $7.1 million and after DeSagna Diop turned down their contract starting at the mid-level.
Diop signed a comparable deal with Dallas, so he is the kind of center the full mid-level got you in 2008. But the market was different back then. There were only four or five teams with enough salary-cap space to add players with significant salaries, compared with eight or nine that could do so this summer. So if a salary starting at $5.6 million got you Diop back then, a salary starting at $5.73 million (Larry Coon’s estimate for the mid-level in 2010-11) may not get you even that much now.
Last summer the Cavs signed Anderson Varejao to a deal worth a bit more than the mid-level with five years guaranteed. The Magic matched the offer sheet Gortat signed with Dallas for the full mid-level. And Boston added Rasheed Wallace using their full mid-level exception (yeah, I know, ‘Sheed ain’t exactly a banger in the post but he’s savvy enough to play center as he showed against Dwight Howard). Once again the market was different in 2009, with not so many teams with significant cap space, but it’s a starting point.
That gives us a list of free-agent, mid-level centers (or in Varejao’s case, near it) over the last two years that includes Diop, Varejao, Gortat and Wallace. Looking at how they compared statistically in 2009-10, it seems the Celtics overpayed for ‘Sheed, but then again what they really paid for is what he’s doing now in the playoffs.
So with those four players as the baseline, which 2010 NBA free-agent centers compare as far as their production while also taking their age into account? After crunching the numbers and considering the market, my (subjective) list includes Brendan Haywood, Shaquille O’Neal, Joel Przybilla, Brad Miller and Darko Milicic. Now, like I said, perhaps interest from with salary-cap space drives up the price of these players, or maybe teams they aren’t even worth the full mid-level at this point, but I’m putting them out there for comparison and discussion (hey, it’s June 1 and things are quiet).
The best (realistic) option among the group might be Haywood, who made $6 million this season. He will be 31 in November, which makes him about three years older than Varejao was when he got his deal from Cleveland. So even if he finds his market value inflated he may not be able to attract more than the mid-level, particularly if he wants three years or more.
Haywood and Varejao have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Haywood has a comparable player efficiency rating, rebounding percentage, true shooting percentage and is a better shot-blocker. Varejao is a more effective passer and gets more steals.
Haywood is better than Diop, who turns 29 next January (though he should have plenty of tread left with an average of 14.3 minutes in 536 games). Przybilla (who has a $7.4 million player option for 2009-10) turns 31 before next season; he had a good year in 2008-09 but wasn’t productive during an injury-marred season in 2009-10.
Miller, 34, fell off this season. Shaq actually had a pretty efficient year but age, injury and motivation are concerns so his days of big money are over. Darko ($7.5 million) is still only 24-years old if you can believe that but he’s still mostly about size and potential and isn’t really a willing defender or rebounder.
Haywood, by the way, said he wants to re-sign with the Mavericks. Apparently, watching old and injured Erick Dampier start over him didn’t sour him on his experience in Dallas. The Mavs, who hold Haywood’s Bird Rights, apparently are high on him. Coach Rick Carlisle to NBA.com:
“It’s very important to get Haywood re-signed. I really liked what he did for us. He’s a guy that had an impact on both ends. At 30 years old, he’s relatively young for a center. Centers tend to play for a very long time…Brendan is very athletic. He’s got a good feel for the game. He’s got a good knowledge of the game.”
Some other potential free-agent centers who likely won’t get the full mid-level if they hit the market: Channing Frye ($2.08 million player option for 2010-11), Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Nenad Krstic ($5.4 million player option for 2010-11), Chris Wilcox ($3 million player option for 2010-11), Ben Wallace, and Theo Ratliff.
A full list of free agents by position is available at Hoopsworld.com.
– All appears calm on the coaching search front with ASG’s Michael Gearon Jr. away on business until next week. Mark Jackson interviewed over the weekend but he still looks to be a long shot due to his lack of coaching experience.