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Free-agent Dwight Howard to meet with Hawks, Celtics
Wednesday June 29th, 2016

Although the 2016 free agency class is somewhat underwhelming when it comes to overall A-list talent, particularly at the point guard position, there’s no shortage of difference-making centers set to hit the market later this week.

Indeed, the wide-ranging center crop has a little bit of everything: max talent (Andre Drummond, Al Horford), decorated All-Stars in need of new homes (Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol), impact defenders (Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi), aging bucket-getters (Al Jefferson, Nene), possible dinosaurs (Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert), and arguably this summer’s single most intriguing free agent (Hassan Whiteside). NBA GMs searching for a five have choices upon choices.   

With free agency set to open at midnight ET Friday, let’s wade through this deep positional pool with the help of a few charts and graphs. All data is courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Big Picture 

This summer’s center crop has nearly 20 names of note, although a chunk of that group is made up of restricted free agents (Drummond, Festus Ezeli, Meyers Leonard). To get a lay of the land, here’s a look at 18 free agent centers charted by Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares.

The goal here is to visually assess efficiency and total impact during the 2015–16 season. Players in the upper right are high-impact and high-efficiency (generally the most desirable).

A few things jump out here. First, the polarizing Whiteside stands alone as an advanced-stats producer. Given his age (27) and performance by these major metrics, he would be the class’s most-coveted center if not for questions about his personality and circuitous professional trip to the Heat.

Second, Boban Marjanovic sticks out as an ultra-high-efficiency, low-impact player. As a 27-year-old rookie in San Antonio, the 7’3” Serbian made the most of his limited playing time. While no one would reasonably expect Marjanovic to scale his production in a starter’s role, he looks like the most deserving “flier” candidate in this class by a wide margin.     

Third, there’s not much separating Biyombo, perhaps the most-heralded breakout player of the 2016 playoffs, from guys like Mahinmi and Amir Johnson when it comes to season-long play. Biyombo should be able to step up his production in a starting role, but Mahinmi and Johnson look like good value plays for teams unwilling or unable to participate in a Biyombo auction. 

Similarly, this chart shows each player’s Real Plus-Minus on offense (x axis) and defense (y axis). Players in the upper right are positive contributors on both sides of the ball (the most desirable).

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There’s a little more clustering in this chart, but Johnson and Mahinmi again perform similarly to Biyombo when it comes to defensive impact.

Another takeaway: How few of the traditional centers are making a positive impact on offense. While physical guys like Howard and Jefferson have cultivated reputations as scoring options in the past, a developing narrative suggests the “pace and space” NBA is moving on without them. This chart shows plodders like Hibbert and Mozgov really struggling to make an offensive impact last season, with more versatile big men like Horford and Gasol faring better.

Two-way paint-controllers

The ideal two-way center pressures opposing defenses by finishing in the basket area and thwarts opposing offenses by protecting the basket area. Obviously, it’s hard to find both.

The following chart shows a player’s FG% within three feet on the X axis and his FG% defense at the rim on the Y axis. Players in the upper right are good finishers and good rim-protectors (the most desirable).

The cream generally rises to the top here: Whiteside, Horford and Howard may very well command the highest per-year salaries in this class, and they were the top three finishers last year. Whiteside, the NBA’s block leader, has the best case as last season’s top two-way paint-controller, although Marjanovic and Ezeli both did well to make an impact in limited roles.

What really stands out on this chart, however, are the players on the other side of the chart who perform poorly both as finishers and rim-protectors. Executives should proceed with caution when it comes to both Noah and Leonard, and guys like Jefferson (the worst rim-protector in the group) and Gasol (who posted a career-worst FG% inside three feet last season) are clearly showing their age/miles.

Here’s a more whimsical approach to interior impact: Ever wonder which center has the biggest block differential? In other words, which big men registers the most blocks on defense and gets his own shot block the least on offense?

The following chart shows that Whiteside was indeed the block differential king—by a lot—last season. Remarkably, he blocked shots nearly seven times more often than his own shot was blocked. Zaza Pachulia, by contrast, had his own shot blocked more than twice as often as he registered a block.

Age again seems to be an issue for the likes of Nene and Al Jefferson. Drummond sticks out here as a player who should perform better given his youth and athletic tools.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Scoring types

Many executives will enter free agency having pondered this key: “How much do we want to run our offense through a center?” Immediately, everyone will point to the 2016 Finals and note that the centers for both teams were complementary players who primarily contributed on offense in ways that didn’t involve ball dominance: play-making (Andrew Bogut), finishing (Ezeli and Tristan Thompson) and chaos (Anderson Varejao).

The following chart shows which centers get fed on the block a lot and how well they use those touches. Players in the upper right are efficient low-post scorers who are force-fed a lot while players in the upper left are efficient scorers who are used in lighter doses.

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Teams eyeing Howard and Whiteside will need to be prepared to carve out major roles on offense for their incoming acquisitions. From a personnel standpoint, teams with high-usage guards and those that prefer a spread approach might find it tricky to fit in these pieces. Detroit, meanwhile, will need to continue to utilize Drummond in pick-and-rolls and hope that he can improve his one-on-one game in the post.

Otherwise, there’s a big drop off in touches/role. Yet again, there’s not much separating Biyombo from the likes of Mahinmi, Johnson and Ezeli, which opens the door for some nice value plays.

On a final note: poor, poor Noah.

Another interesting point to consider: How many of these centers are lacking in both low-posting scoring ability and three-point shooting.

The following chart simply shows how many three-pointers each center made last year.

Note that Horford and Leonard each made more threes than the next 16 centers combined. The huge chasm here makes Cleveland look smart for snagging stretch five Channing Frye at the deadline and it should work in Leonard’s favor as a restricted free agent. Even though he’s coming off surgery and the charts above have revealed so many other demonstrated weaknesses in his game, he has a skill that is especially rare on this summer’s market.

Passing/Play-making

This is where the “Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors” aspect to this year’s center crop comes into play. Supplementing the low-post options mentioned above, there are also capable ball-handlers and versatile play-makers to consider.

The following chart shows how often centers generate assists and commit turnovers every time they touch the ball. Players in the upper right are high-assist, low-turnover players (the most desirable) while the lower left is reserved for low-assist, high-turnover players.

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Here, finally, Noah shines thanks to his ability to facilitate an offense. Horford and Gasol, unsurprisingly, fare well too.

On the flip side, this is where Whiteside’s unpredictability can come back to bite a team. Not only is he a notoriously stingy assist man, but he squanders possessions more often per touch than any other center on the market. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad,” said every scout, ever.

To drive this point home a bit further, here’s a look at how many times each of these centers passes before taking a shot.

Noah again jumps out as easily the least selfish (or most reluctant). Note also that Biyombo, Johnson and Mahinmi again are clustered in terms of their willingness to keep the ball moving without sopping up possessions. On the other side of the spectrum, Whiteside, Drummond and Jefferson are all looking to get buckets while Marreese Speights is one of the least shy hoisters in the game.

A few oddities

To wrap this up, here’s a look at how these centers come by points the easy way(s). First: Dunks.

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The usual suspects—Howard, Whiteside and Drummond—lead the way here but Horford finishes more than one might expect and Biyombo does put significant space between himself and Johnson/Mahinmi in this category.

Those concerned with age/injuries/deterioration will nod when surveying the likes of Gasol, Jefferson, Pachulia and Noah. Also, look at how rarely the floor-spacers—​Speights and Leonard—are attacking the rim. This is a particularly glaring hole for Leonard, who has the athleticism and length on paper to finish plays above the rim.

Lastly, here’s a look at which centers left the most points on the table from the stripe thanks to missed free throws.

Drummond’s lead here is truly remarkable, even acknowledging that he is an historically poor free-throw shooter and knowing that he was repeatedly hacked off the court in the playoffs. He must improve dramatically or pray that the NBA changes its intentional foul rules. Otherwise, this weakness will come to define him.

Conclusions

Here are five snap takes…

  • Despite his previous health concerns and age (30), Horford’s strong performance across the board makes him the most desirable center on this summer’s market by a wide margin. He should command a full max.
  • With Drummond likely to re-sign in Detroit, Whiteside and Howard represent the position’s second tier thanks to their overall production, paint-controlling skills and scoring ability. However, prospective suitors must be fully prepared to devote significant post touches to both. Talking either player into a reduced role is much easier said than done given last year’s starting point.
  • If Biyombo cashes in on a strong postseason for crazy money as expected, look to see who signs Mahinmi, Johnson and Ezeli—and for how much. Mahinmi, in particular, could wind up being a strong bargain.
  • Teams interested in Noah should exercise extreme caution. While he was a plus defender despite injuries last season and his passing ability is helpful, his overall negative offensive impact, his fairly weak rim protection numbers and his total lack of shooting ability make committing big money a dicey proposition. 
  • Marjanovic is worth a flier, not only to appease his cult following online but because he performed so efficiently in limited minutes last season.

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