We know the Clippers will be looking for a new backup big man in free agency, but it’s also likely that they’ll explore depth center targets as the free agency window goes on. Most of the team’s attention will be paid to a potential MLE center to replace Montrezl Harrell, but let’s not forget that the Clippers could also seek to add a new third-string center to replace 35-year-old Joakim Noah, who barely played for the team in the bubble and whose contract isn’t guaranteed for next season.
Depending on who the Clippers get with their MLE, the team’s negotiations to keep free agents Marcus Morris, JaMychal Green, and Patrick Patterson, and how highly the team thinks of sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele, and any potential trades, it’s very possible that the Clippers could pursue two centers this off-season, one at the MLE and another at the league minimum. There are also a number of less likely scenarios where the Clippers make a significant trade that shakes up their depth elsewhere on the roster, forcing the team to make a strategic choice to use their MLE to either fill a hole at guard or on the wing. In that case, the center market’s superior depth and the relatively smaller importance of the position (especially with JaMychal Green as a good option in small lineups) means that the Clippers would be wise to utilize resources elsewhere and do their best at the minimum when it comes to finding a new backup for Ivica Zubac.
If that happens, it’s possible that some of the players we talked about yesterday could be in play. While the big names won’t be, it’s possible that veterans like Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard, in particular, could find themselves willing to take cheap deals to fill a role on a contending team. Failing that, the Clippers can look to the players listed here. Some are more reliable one-year backups with stable floors, while others are unproven but higher-upside players. Choosing between the two likely depends on whether or not the Clippers are looking for a primary backup or a third-string option.
As I’ve done throughout this series, I broke the centers we’ll be looking at today into categories based on archetype rather than a strict ranking. Players below are listed with their predicted starting salary from ESPN’s Bobby Marks and a statistical projection of their three-year value from Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM Player Projection on WinsAdded.com (for very old veterans I might do a one-year projection). If I disagree with these assessments, I might make note of it.
As I mentioned above, we can almost think of the players in today’s “depth” category as largely splitting into two categories: high-floor backups and unproven high-upside prospects. As you might imagine, the “project bigs” group is full of the latter.
Harry Giles – Projected starting salary: $4-6M; 3-year value: $19.5M
Bruno Caboclo – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $10M
Ante Žižić – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $18.1M
Caleb Swanigan – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $0
Skal Labissière (restricted) – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $7.8M
Jahlil Okafor – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $13.5M
Giles is far and away the most intriguing option here at just 22 years old, but despite getting some chances and showing promise for Sacramento last year, he wasn’t quite good enough and isn’t quite reliable enough for a good team. If the barometer for a second-string center for the Clippers is “you trust him playing 12 minutes a night in the playoffs,” Giles (and everyone else in this group) ultimately fails that test. With his upside, he could get an above-minimum deal and rotation deal on a worse team.
The others are probably more realistic as they’re likely only looking at minimum deals for depth/development roles next season. Caboclo (25) is particularly intriguing as he’s played SF, PF, and C at times in his short NBA career. If he can harness his 36.9% from deep in 2019 (in a small 130-attempt sample in 34 games) long-term, he could be a really intriguing and versatile depth piece. Žižić (23) is a traditional center who has posted good per-minute numbers in inconsistent opportunities with Cleveland, particularly being marginalized by the presence of Tristan Thompson and Andre Drummond last year. To really get a feel for his ability, I’d have to watch more film than I have.
Swanigan (23), as well as Okafor (24), aren’t very intriguing to me. Perhaps both landed in the wrong era. Swanigan is a more traditional power forward who doesn’t have the shooting ability to play the 4 in the modern NBA, but also lacks the size to make things work at center. Okafor, on the other hand, is a classical interior scorer whose lack of offensive versatility and defensive ability makes him unappealing. We just need to see more from Labissière, who is eligible for restricted free agency with the Atlanta Hawks but didn’t appear in a game for them after the trade deadline and seems unlikely to be worth his $3.5M qualifying offer.
Restricted Depth Centers
Again, we’re looking at third-string project types here, with the caveat that these guys appear more likely to remain under their prior team’s control. They’d have to have their qualifying offers rescinded to become unrestricted and start looking for a new team.
Chris Boucher (restricted) – Projected starting salary: $4-6M; 3-year value: $21.4M
Cheick Diallo (team option) – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $8.8M
Thon Maker (restricted) – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $14M
Tacko Fall (restricted) – Projected starting salary: unsigned; 3-year value: N/A
Boucher is the outlier here, as he played well in a depth role for Toronto last season and may even be in line for a promotion if Marc Gasol and/or Serge Ibaka depart in free agency. The Raptors are keeping his $2M qualifying offer, and the above-minimum multi-year deal that would be required to make them balk at matching isn’t coming from LAC.
Diallo and Maker are both projects that their respective lottery teams seem interested in keeping, though Diallo is technically on a team option instead of being restricted. Fall, on the other hand, is coming off of a two-way deal with the Boston Celtics and they would have to extend a regular minimum-salary deal as his qualifying offer to make him restricted. That’s incredibly unlikely, but it’s also incredibly unlikely that any other team would chase him for a spot on their 15-man roster either. He’s really a target for a potential two-way deal, with the Celtics having difficult choices to make as they balance maintaining a contending rotation, developing the young players on their roster, and incorporating their four draft picks this year.
Reserve Stretch 5
The three-point revolution has already been decisively won in the NBA, and it’s especially hard to find value free agents at the forward and center positions who can both make threes and be at least adequate overall.
Mike Muscala (team option) – Projected starting salary: $2-4M; 3-year value: $8M
Muscala, who was a Clipper for a day in 2019 in between being traded from Philadelphia in the Tobias Harris deal and being sent to the Lakers in the Ivica Zubac deal, is the only one here. He shot 37.8% from three last year and 36.8% on his career, which is legit, but he’s just not that good of a basketball player overall. You can do worse as a third-stringer but you can do a lot better as a second-stringer.
If the Clippers end up looking for a minimum-salary backup center after using their MLE elsewhere, we’ll start having a lot of conversations in this group. Similarly, if they look to replace Joakim Noah on the depth chart and prioritize a stable injury replacement over a project, these guys are going to be a lot more capable of holding the fort for extended stretches than the unproven players we’ve talked about so far. That said, there’s a reason we’re talking about these guys today, and not yesterday. It’s a flawed and unexciting group, and we’re looking for the “solid” moreso than the “good.”
Noah Vonleh – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $13.8M
Mason Plumlee – Projected starting salary: $6-8M; 3-year value: $15.6M
Enes Kanter – Projected starting salary: $4-6M; 3-year value: $27.2M
Willy Hernangomez – Projected starting salary: $2-4M; 3-year value: $17.8M
Bismack Biyombo – Projected starting salary: $4-6M; 3-year value: $13.1M
John Henson – Projected starting salary: $4-6M; 3-year value: $20.5M
Willie Cauley-Stein (player option) – Projected starting salary: $2-4M; 3-year value: $30.9M
Kyle O’Quinn – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $6.2M
Several of these guys really push the limits of “solid.” Plumlee was a disaster for the Nuggets in the playoffs, but was that because of his play or simply because he’s always the guy who comes in when Nikola Jokic, Denver’s main offensive weapon, goes out? Kanter was largely a non-factor for Boston in the playoffs because of his defensive struggles. You’d be happy if John Henson replicated his 2018 season as Milwaukee’s backup–but he hasn’t been consistently healthy for the two years since. Noah Vonleh has been a full-time backup for multiple seasons, and even started a bunch of games and hit some threes for the New York Knicks in 2019, but he couldn’t earn consistent minutes in Minnesota or Denver last year and likely falls short of the “solid” benchmark as a second-unit anchor.
Biyombo has never actually been good, and he’s definitely been overpaid, but he’s been at least a capable presence on the benches of (mostly bad) teams for 9 years, averaging 20.2 minutes in 636 appearances. At 6’8″, you might like to have an insurance third-string 7-footer if he’s your primary backup, though he’s been a good rebounder and finisher at the rim. Hernangomez’s numbers look a bit similar, though he’s had less experience and has more legit size. He played scarcely for Charlotte last year, which might be a bit of a red flag, but if nothing else he’s always been a good per-minute rebounder, something that likely helps his advanced numbers, and there might just be a flash of potential floor spacing there–he shot 38.5% from three in 2018-19, though it was on just 39 attempts in 58 appearances.
Kyle O’Quinn has been a career backup, averaging 14 minutes per game in 472 appearances over the last 8 seasons. He’s gotten the fewest games of his career the last two years with the Indiana Pacers and then Philadelphia 76ers, but it’s hard to tell if that has to do with a decline on his part, the league’s move away from his mid-range-heavy style, or the reality of the depth charts ahead of him: Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner in Indiana, and Joel Embiid and Al Horford in Philly. Still, he’s always rebounded well, his mid-range proficiency makes it a fine shot when he’s only taking 1-2 per game, and the advanced metrics have a positive view of him. My preferred choice, however, would be Willie Cauley-Stein, the athletic former Sacramento King. He’s the discount version of guys like Nerlens Noel and JaVale McGee, with just enough unrealized potential for you to think he could improve over his prior campaigns.
On balance, I’m not counting on the team being able to rely on any of these guys for serious playoff minutes, but they should provide varying degrees of adequacy in the regular season before settling into situational/emergency roles in the playoffs as the team plays small with JaMychal Green more often.
The Old Men
There’s some risk here, as each of these players have been better days, but they could present some combination of stability on the second unit and leadership in the locker room.
Robin Lopez (player option) – Projected starting salary: $4-6M; 1-year value: $1.4M
Tyson Chandler – Projected starting salary: minimum; 1-year value: $0
Ian Mahinmi – Projected starting salary: minimum; 3-year value: $7.7M
Lopez had an underwhelming year with Milwaukee last season, and he’s practically a lock to pick up his $5M player option. The Bucks, however, would have an easy time parting with that expiring deal as salary filler in any potential trade, so he could hit free agency after a buyout if he’s dealt. Chandler, for his part, is probably fully washed. It’s fair to ask if he barely played for Houston last season because they refused to use a center, or if his decline was part of the reason why they played fully small down the stretch of the year. Either way, the eye test hasn’t been kind to him and at 38 years old, the likelihood of any kind of bounce back is extremely low.
Mahinmi is the more interesting case of the three. While he presents a downside that other players in this article don’t at 34 years old, his irrelevance in recent years has had more to do with Washington massively overpaying him than him being not good enough to play in the NBA anymore. In reality, he’s graded out as a minimum-salary guy in recent years, but injuries and availability have to be a concern as he’s missed major time in three of the last four seasons.
This category, of course, is also where Joakim Noah belongs. In terms of age, recent production, and his scary 2019 injury, one would hope that the Clippers would be able to find a better third-string center for next season. But, if Noah has used his short time with the team to become a valuable voice in the locker room, and if his continued rehabilitation has allowed him to show signs of progress and impress the staff in off-season training, it’s possible he could remain.
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