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2018 NBA Free Agency: The Wizards best options to add a center this summer

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NBA: New York Knicks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The trade of Marcin Gortat may have been necessary for peace and tranquility in the locker room, but his departure leaves a hole up front the Wizards need to fill. While Gortat suffered from age-related decline the past couple seasons, it’s likely the front office will have challenges replacing his production -- at least through free agency.

Much has been made about the number of centers available in free agency this summer, but the quality isn’t impressive. Most available centers are likely to clear the low bar of being better in the middle than Ian Mahinmi. Finding someone more productive than even a diminished Gortat may be tougher.

As the Wizards go shopping in free agency, they must work around the reality that their cap situation is less than ideal. Poor decisions in the summer of 2016 left them with a bloated payroll and a $7.2 million luxury tax bill. Even with the savings they’ll realize from swapping Gortat for Austin Rivers, the team is likely to pay the luxury tax again in 2019. Their budget is limited: the taxpayer mid-level exception (about $5.3 million), and minimum salary contracts. They will not have the bi-annual exception for reasons related to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the “Apron,” and a bunch of rules that would put everyone to sleep if I tried to explain them. Please send me a tweet if you need some help sleeping.

Ideally, the Wizards’ next center would offer some combination of youth, athleticism, and production. That’s a tough combination to find -- every team wants those attributes. When they have a player like that, they usually try to keep them. As Wizards Vice President Tommy Sheppard once told me: “We’re all trying to rob the same train.”

Barring a blockbuster trade, the Wizards don’t have the resources to acquire elite restricted free agents like Nikola Jokic and Clint Capela, or even lesser RFA’s like Jusuf Nurkic. They’re also going to be priced out of the unrestricted free agent markets for DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan (a sign-and-trade for one of them is possible, but seems unlikely at this point). The market is also probably going to be too rich for someone like Derrick Favors, who would be a major upgrade on Gortat. If the Wizards decide to trade for a Gortat replacement, Favors would be a good target: he’s productive, and the acquisition cost would probably be lower than it would be for Cousins or Jordan.

The free agent centers potentially available to the Wizards are an island of misfit toys -- a mixture of older players who might have another decent year in the tank, and younger guys who might get better or get healthy. There’s no perfect fit. Every candidate has questions and risks.

Roster fillers

Let’s start with the guys the Wizards should avoid unless they strike out everywhere else. If they sign any of these free agents, it should be at the lowest possible salary, and only for a year:

  • Dwight Howard, 33, UFA -- Howard turns 33 in December, and he still rebounds, dunks, commits turnovers, misses free throws, and annoys everyone around him. He’s productive on the court, but is moving on to his sixth team next season. While what he does well would seem to be good fits with what the Wizards need, but it would be foolish to bring his personality into an already fragile locker room that just traded away a center who caused tension.
  • Greg Monroe, 28, UFA -- Thirty years ago, Monroe might have been an All-Star. He can score inside, and rebound, and his passing is surprisingly good. But, he’s slow and he can’t jump, and his awareness and anticipation are subpar, so he’s a terrible defender. These are problems for a center in any NBA era, but they’re magnified in this one. The Wizards should pass on Monroe.
  • Brook Lopez, 30, UFA -- There’s an appeal with Lopez because a couple seasons ago he abruptly started shooting (and making) lots of threes. A stretch five is intriguing, but his overall production dropped, because he stopped rebounding, and his defense was atrocious. With the Wizards, he could be okay as a pick-and-pop partner with Wall. His defense would be a problem, though. If the Wizards sign him, it should be for no more than one season.
  • Zaza Pachulia, 34, UFA -- Pachulia was the starting center in Golden State for much of the season, where he was productive and not terrible on defense. But, there’s a funny-money quality to his numbers that comes from sharing the court with two former MVPs and three other current or former All-Stars. It’s unlikely the game would be as easy for him in DC. Bringing him in for a year to be a backup might be okay, but he’d likely be a significant step down from Gortat.
  • JaVale McGee, 30, UFA -- Given McGee’s history with the Wizards, it’s unlikely they’d consider bringing him back. He’s older now, but grabs rebounds, blocks shots, and converts around the basket. He also still ranks among the league leaders in defensive goaltending, and head-scratching defensive gaffes. There’s no reason for a sequel to the JaVale McGee Experience. UPDATE: McGee signed with the Lakers for a one-year deal.
  • Aron Baynes, 31, UFA -- Baynes was decent as a backup center in Boston. He rebounds decently, but doesn’t convert well around the basket. His physical brand of defense can be effective, but is also undercut by his fouling and lack of blocked shots. As a low-priced backup, he’s an upgrade on Mahinmi, but he’s not a starter. UPDATE: Baynes signed a two-year deal with a player option to stay in Boston.
  • Jahlil Okafor, 22, UFA -- The NBA’s stylistic shift has turned more traditional centers into relics. That isn’t the issue with Okafor. He’s a big man who struggles to score efficiently inside, doesn’t pass well, doesn’t rebound, and does nothing well on defense. Among his comps are names like Andrew Nicholson, Michael Doleac, Patrick O’Bryant, and Kevin Seraphin. The Wizards should let someone else attempt the salvage operation.
  • Luke Kornet, 22, RFA -- Kornet was on a two-way contract with the Knicks last season, and New York wants to bring him back on the same deal. When he played in the NBA, he was kinda-sorta almost okay. As a developmental big, he’s fine, but the Wizards need immediate contributors. UPDATE: Kornet re-upped with the Knicks on a one-year deal.
  • Alex Len, 25, UFA -- Len just completed his best season in the NBA, and his team responded by drafting his replacement and renouncing him. Last season, his rebounding rose slightly, but most of his improvement was shot selection -- 73 percent of his field goal attempts were at-rim. His conversion rate on those at-rim attempts was slightly worse than an aging, declining Gortat. The limited offensive repertoire wouldn’t matter if he was a good defender, but he’s mediocre at that end. Like virtually everyone available, he’d be an upgrade over Mahinmi, but he’s still too much of a project with too little upside to be relied upon as a starter.

Starter material

Those were the rejects, the maybes, and the roster fillers. Here’s who the Wizards should pursue for a starting role:

  1. Nerlens Noel, 24, UFA -- After four active seasons plus a redshirt year, Noel is a work in progress. He’s long-armed and athletic, and his defensive impact can be significant. He produces when he plays, at least on defense. But, he also comes with a lot of risk. The biggest reason he might be available for the taxpayer mid-level exception is that he’s hurt a lot. Over the past two seasons, he’s missed 83 games with a litany ailments, which included knee and thumb surgeries, and knee soreness. But, he’s also the best obtainable talent. If healthy, he’s an athletic defender who could make a good pick-and-roll partner with John Wall. If injuries persist, he could be a modern-day Lorenzo Williams. His production projects to be above average over the next four seasons, and that makes his health worth the gamble. He’s one of the few free agent options with the potential to be more productive than Gortat was last season. UPDATE: Noel signed a two-year deal in Oklahoma City with a player option on the second year.
  2. Lucas Nogueira, 25, UFA -- Nogueira is a physical and effective defender who shoots a high percentage inside because his offensive game consists mostly of open dunks. For his career, Nogueira has 107 dunks on 182 made field goals. He’s a willing and effective screener (second on the Raptors last season in per minute screen assists), and an excellent finisher as the roll man. He’s not a prolific rebounder, but his defense and rim protection is very good. The risk with Nogueira is that he’s been a backup, and he might not be able to transition to a starting role. At $5.3 million, he’s worth the gamble because if he fails as a starter, he could return to being an effective reserve.
  3. Kyle O’Quinn, 28, UFA -- Signing O’Quinn would likely be the safest move at center. If possible, the Wizards should keep the deal to two or three years -- at his age, that fourth year projects to be rough. But, for the next couple years, he’s going to rebound, block shots, and convert around the basket. He sets good screens, and is a deft finisher as the roll man. His defense is decent, and while his turnovers are high for a center, his assists are too. He’d be likely to provide the Wizards with a solid 20-24 minutes per game as a starter.
  4. Amir Johnson, 31, UFA -- In previous eras, Johnson would be undersized at center, and he probably still is, even in the modern NBA. But, he rebounds and defends, converts around the basket, and even hits a three now and then. He led Philadelphia in per minutes screen assists last season, and his effort is outstanding. The Wizards could do worse than sign him to a one-year deal and use him as a stopgap starter.
  5. Salah Mejri, 32, UFA -- Mejri is kind of an older version of Nogueira. He’s less than ideal as a starter, but he’ll rebound, play defense and convert around the basket. Worst case, he’d supplant Mahinmi as a backup, though that would leave the Wizards still needing a starter. Given his age, the Wizards should sign him for one year, if possible. UPDATE: Mejri signed a one-year deal to stay in Dallas.

As free agency starts July 1, the Wizards should be in the market for two centers, a starter and a backup. The ideal combination would be the risky upside of Noel and the steady security of O’Quinn. Signing both is probably unaffordable, but Noel and Mejri or Johnson may be an achievable combo. They should also strongly consider using the stretch provision to release Mahinmi to give them a complete center reboot, and save millions in luxury tax payments in the process.

What do I expect to happen? Ernie Grunfeld will opt for the faux certainty of a veteran like Lopez, and then to try another year with Mahinmi coming off the bench. It’s a move that fans could talk themselves into liking, but wouldn’t give the Wizards the kind of boost they need as they move on from Gortat.