The major question facing Nene last year was how he would adjust to a new role as backup center, after years of playing power forward next to Marcin Gortat. Nene has been vocal in the past about preferring to play power forward, but as the league got smaller and faster, it became clear that Nene’s future in the NBA was going to be at center.
Feelings among fans seemed largely optimistic. With his combination of size, strength, and skill it seemed obvious that Nene should be able to get whatever he wanted against most of the league’s backups, and the numbers bore that out this season:
By most measures, Nene made the transition to backup center as well as could be hoped. His assist percentage and effective field goal percentage went up, while his turnover percentage went down. He developed nice chemistry with backup point guard Ramon Sessions, who was the player Nene both passed to the most and received passes from the most. Sessions shot 55.4 percent on passes from Nene.
Nene had a strong year in Real Plus Minus (RPM; a plus-minus metric that adjusts for opponent, teammates, and several other factors developed for ESPN). Among centers, he was fifteenth in the league in overall RPM and eighth in defensive RPM. Nene isn't a particularly good rim protector, but he uses his size and basketball IQ to prevent opposing players from ever getting comfortable. He averaged 2.4 steals per 100 possessions, sixth-best in the league among centers.
Nene's transition from starting power forward was a huge success. As expected, he was too big and too skilled for most backups to handle, and his playmaking was a good fit next to Sessions' score-first game. His usage increased, but his efficiency went up too. In retrospect, Nene's new role was one of the few changes the Wizards made last year that actually went well, amidst the pace-and-no-space disaster.
Should the Wizards bring Nene back?
Despite being one of the best backup centers in the league, there is one number that will give the Wizards (and any other potential free agent suitors) a pause: 57, the number of games Nene played in this year, ten less than the 2014-2015 regular season.
Since the 2011-2012 season (the year he was traded to Washington) he has missed an average of 23.4 games per year. In Nene’s thirteen years in the league he has played all 82 games just once, and 70+ games just five times.
Though he still has an explosive first step for a big man, Nene is 33 years old and will likely start to decline quite a bit over the next few years.
Even under the exploding cap, it’s hard to see any team paying him to be a starter or even primary back-up center. Having Nene on the team as a third center would be a luxury, but one the Wizards are unlikely to be able to afford if their 2016 free agency is remotely successful.
Not only that, but the Wizards will need to renounce his enormous 19,500,000 cap hold if they are going to sign a max or near-max player this off season, so they will not be able to use bird rights to sign him over the cap. The Big Brazilian has likely played his last game in Monumental red.