Breakdown of Free Agent Centers

Basketball Prospectus has done an excellent breakdown of the free agent center crop for this year.  Looking at this list, Hawks fans should finally come to the realization of the center position in the NBA.  First, there aren’t that many good centers in the NBA period these days.  Most of the top centers are players that Hawks fans would consider undersized for the position.  Look at the top two free agent centers on BP’s list Amare Stoudemire and David Lee.  Second, unless you are getting one of these guys at the basic minimum salary at this point, you are likely going to overpay for a marginal player.

Let’s take Shaq for instance.   Many Hawks fans on the message boards and in the blogosphere are lamenting over the fact that ASG will not spend the luxury tax to get Shaquille O’Neal to Atlanta.

The other O’Neal on the market, Shaquille, presents a more interesting conundrum. O’Neal still has the tools to be an effective post scorer and interior defender. The issue is that O’Neal really needs an offense tailored around him, and that’s difficult to do when he’s coming off the bench or splitting minutes in the middle. I’m not sure I see an obvious fit. O’Neal seems to have focused on pitching the Hawks, who are in the right situation–in need of some kind of lift to reach the next level as a team–but have Jamal Crawford to provide bench scoring and don’t really need to focus on their offense anyway. So we’ll see.

I think the biggest issues with Shaq are two fold.  First, his decline from the age of 37 to the age of 38 was marked, and there is no reason to think that he’s going to find the fountain of youth and parlay that into a strong two seasons, which is what he is wanting.  Second, while he does fit what the Hawks need in a back up center relative to having the tools to be an effective post defender, as BP states above, he is a guy that really needs an offense tailored around him.  In Atlanta that will not happen, not with the scoring threats the Hawks have potentially coming off the bench in Jamal and Jordan Crawford.  The problem with that is Shaq’s history of becoming a locker room distraction when he doesn’t get what he wants.  That is a bad mix for a team that has already had some chemistry issues in the locker room.  As I have stated many times, I am glad the Hawks have decided to not pursue Shaq.  They would have overpayed for a declining player that is a potential locker room cancer.

Another player some Hawks fans have had on their wish list at center is Brad Miller.

Until I compiled these rankings, I hadn’t really realized quite how much Miller slipped last season. Miller’s rebound percentage was a career low, while his True Shooting Percentage dropped from 56.6 percent to 53.0 percent. Miller had shown few signs of aging before last season, so he might be able to bounce back next year. Still, teams pursuing him should be careful, especially with the length of their offers.

Miller’s decline may not have been as sharp as Shaq’s decline, but a lot of that is because Miller wasn’t as good as Shaq prior to this season.  Once again though, this is a player that has declined in each of the past two years.  Yes, he’s a big body and loves to flop around when it comes to defense, but what was once his strong suit – his jump shooting ability – now has declined to the point that he is close to being a liability on the court.  Much like Shaq, I don’t think Brad Miller would be a terrible signing at the league minimum, but anything over that will be overpaying.

If the Hawks were going to spend the MLE on a big man, then they should have gone after Jermaine O’neal.

Without having his birthdate handy, you’d have a hard time proving Jermaine O’Neal is not yet 32 years old. Not only has O’Neal been around for 14 seasons because he entered the league so young (only Andrew Bynumplayed in the NBA at a younger age), he’s also declined substantially from his prime years, which is why he belongs with the far older players in this group. That said, O’Neal still has something left in the tank. His True Shooting Percentage last season was a career high, and he helped anchor one of the league’s better defenses in Miami. On a two-year contract with limited risk, O’Neal was an excellent pickup for the Celtics.

Much like the other players on the list, Jermaine is a declining player.  However, he was still able to contribute to his team last season and should still have a couple of decent seasons in his legs before he falls off the map the way Shaq and Brad Miller have.  Unfortunately, Jermaine likely never was considered especially after Michael Gearon stated that he would not pay the luxury tax to get a Jermaine O’neal or a Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

 “If somebody came to us tomorrow and said you can have LeBron for max money and it puts you in the luxury tax, I’d do it in a a heartbeat,” Gearon said. “But am I going to do that for [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas ? Am I going to do it for Jermaine O’Neal? I don’t think so.”

Is anyone else on this list that has not signed yet really an improvement over what the Hawks had last season?  Kwame Brown at 28 years of age had the worst season of his career and has cemented himself as a third big man in a rotation.  Based on this list, I would be more willing to take a flier on an NBDL prospect with a minimum contract than to pay the MLE for any of these guys.  Of course, this makes the fact that the Hawks dealt the 31st pick even more inexplicable.  The Hawks could have gotten a big man that could have been their third center for cheap with that pick, whether it was Hassan Whiteside, Solomon Alabi, Dexter Pittman, or Jarvis Varnado. 

Trading for a big man would be another option, but even there, the league has so few good big men that to get a good one, you are going to pay through the nose.  It’s simply not worth it at this point.  The best approach the Hawks can take with getting a center is to go with the flow of the NBA and continue with the undersized center in Al Horford and draft guys to develop behind him as larger reserves.  If the Hawks were to use the MLE, they would be much better off to use it on a perimeter defender that can guard opposing small fowards and shooting guards.

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