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Consolation centers: Who's left on the market with Dwight Howard headed to Houston

Nikola PekovicNikola Pekovic is talented, but will cost big bucks as a restricted free agent. (David Sherman/Getty Images)

Dwight Howard is so outstanding a player that his free agency essentially brought the NBA world to a halt. Some unrelated signings managed to slip through the cracks in the interim, but overall the most prominent teams with cap space waited on Howard, and by extension so did the bulk of the league's free agents. General managers, players, agents and fans alike all checked their watches and Twitter feeds as Howard deliberated, knowing full well that many of the teams with max-level room wouldn't budge until Howard was officially off the market.

That stage of the offseason is now over. It was reported on Friday that Howard intends to sign with the Rockets, leaving the Mavericks, Hawks and a host of other teams to make do with less appealing options. That hunt begins with the following players -- those center options next in line with Howard now accounted for, and waiting for the right offer in a now-furious race for teams to scoop up talent as quickly as possible.

Traditional options

Andrew Bynum

Bynum is the gambling GM's consolation prize. The path of creating cap space, chasing Howard and going all-out to land him in free agency is a taxing enterprise, and one that can understandably lead to teams quickly taking their resources and efforts to the next talent in line. Bynum may well be that, though his worrisome injury history and refusal to work out for teams this summer make him a huge risk to any team desperate enough to sign him. If all were to go well with Bynum, the team that lands him could get an All-NBA caliber center at a relative discount. If fate were to turn the other way, a team could be locked into a multi-year salary with a no-show on the court, just as Bynum was in missing the entire 2012-13 season while (if only technically) with the Sixers.

That's a terrifying call to make, with stakes so high that they could define a team's workings for a 3-4 year stretch, if not longer. Teams generally can't dig themselves out of troublesome contract situations all that quickly, and if Bynum undergoes yet another knee surgery it may prove difficult to move him without sacrificing future draft picks or other assets. A 25-year-old former All-Star could be reduced to dead contractual weight with but a single pop and tear in his reconstructed joint.

Still, Bynum possesses such a rare combination of size and skill that some team will undoubtedly test its fortune by acquiring him. He isn't the defender that Howard is by any means, but has the length, hands and mobility to influence the game in a way that so few can, with a season of outstanding production (18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game with L.A. in 2011-12) to serve as precedent.

Nikola Pekovic

Pekovic is a slightly more conservative option for teams in search of a free agent center, but would demand an oversized contract offer on the basis of being a restricted free agent. Minnesota won't likely let Pekovic walk for any reasonable sum, and thus any interested team with cap space would need to stretch its resources and complicate its roster construction just for the sake of acquiring him. That might make sense for some teams, but Pekovic is also a bit light on the glass, a good-not-great scorer and merely a solid interior defender -- considerations that require a certain type of frontcourt complement. That the Wolves' Kevin Love is something of an optimal fit (save, perhaps, on the defensive end) should only make him that much more difficult to pry from Minnesota.

But if it can be done, Pekovic would be a nice get on the basis of his low-post offense and surprising pick-and-roll game, which could rather wonderfully complement the work of star-level perimeter players. Pekovic is strong enough to battle down low but mobile enough to avoid causing consistent problems in terms of spacing, and with that would give any team a useful offensive piece. That Pekovic is no slouch defensively can only help matters, though the fact that he's not quite good enough to be a defensive cornerstone makes him a difficult sell for his likely price point.

Chris Kaman

Kaman is an established name, if only for the fact that he's been around for a bit and has a track record of fairly decent box score production. Most recently: Kaman averaged 18.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per 36 minutes for the Mavericks, though that Kaman averaged a mere 20.7 minutes per game on a team without many center alternatives should be rather telling. He's a decent option for post-up scoring, but not quite efficient enough (nor a good enough passer) from the block to be trusted as a prominent component of an offense. That's a shame, because things only tend to get worse as we look to the other elements of Kaman's game; he's a decent rebounder, but a shaky defender with a terrible knack for pulling himself out of position as opponents drive to the rim. Some interior defenders lack for athleticism, some for height, and some for nuance. In Kaman's case, it's a bit of the former but mostly the latter -- he just doesn't ever seem to quite be on the same page with his teammates, and thus surrenders open looks at the rim at an alarming frequency.

Kaman can work well still as a reserve, as he's big enough to get to the rim and get consistent points against second-unit bigs. But among teams for whom Howard once seemed a realistic option, Kaman is hardly of any consolation.

Chris Andersen

It seems unlikely that Andersen would bail on Miami, but if the money is good enough he might be enticed. That could be to the benefit of any number of teams, as Andersen's highly efficient finishing could easily be ported over to any roster with an effective dribble penetrator. Things may not be quite as easy without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to work off of, but players who can get to the rim consistently can still set up Andersen as he stalks around the baseline, or set him up more frequently as the primary big in pick-and-roll scenarios.

Anderson also has a knack for impact defensive plays, though his tendency to chase them makes him a shaky defender in the post (he gives up position too readily to chase after entry passes) and an easy sell on pump fakes. When harnessed correctly, though, Andersen's energy is a huge asset, though it's unquestionably more difficult to sustain over longer stretches of playing time relative to the short bursts he played for the Heat.

Elton Brand

Brand shouldn't be playing starter's minutes due to his age and diminished offense, but stands as one of the most accomplished defenders on the market and could be had at a fairly reasonable price. Brand couldn't make up for all that went wrong with Dallas' perimeter defense last season, but still made the Mavs noticeably better as a back-line defensive team whenever he was on the court.

Brand is neither tall nor explosive enough to protect the rim through conventional means, though by taking smart angles and never wasting a step on defense, Brand is able to make the most of his long arms and take up far more space than he otherwise should. He's strong enough to battle for position on a consistent basis and has the discipline to make opponents work for their points, but likely comes with a cap on his playing time and the caveat that his offense is largely limited to utility points around the rim and spot-up jumpers. His per-minute scoring has suffered a steady downward trend for a few years running, but Brand might nevertheless make sense for teams looking to fill out their rotation of bigs with the best defenders possible.
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