Most coverage of the NBA's free-agent market gravitates toward the handful of elite players who change teams. Often, however, it's the smaller signings that end up having a major impact on the season. Last year, the Boston Celtics signed Eddie House and James Posey to relatively small one-year deals and saw both play key minutes in the NBA Finals. Basketball Prospectus goes way deeper than anyone else to rank the top 20 free agents at each position, starting today with the centers.
Let's start with the stats, all derived from my player rating system. As a refresher, the system seeks to place a player's performance in the context of a team of four average teammates. Using the estimated Offensive and Defensive Ratings for this lineup, we can come up with a winning percentage for this "team." Finally, playing time is added in to evaluate how many wins the player generates as compared to a replacement-level player.
Player Type Win% ORtg DRtg WARP
Andris Biedrins Res .623 107.6 103.8 9.0
Nenad Krstic Res .304 100.0 106.2 -1.9
Ronny Turiaf Res .536 105.3 104.2 3.6
DeSagana Diop Un .513 103.7 103.3 2.6
Kurt Thomas Un .549 104.2 102.8 4.4
Dikembe Mutombo Un .573 104.3 102.1 2.0
P.J. Brown Un .474 104.1 104.8 0.3
Brian Skinner Un .472 101.6 102.4 1.0
Alonzo Mourning Un .570 104.8 102.7 1.3
Kwame Brown Un .429 102.4 104.5 0.2
Theo Ratliff Un .485 103.0 103.4 0.6
Robert Swift Res .275 96.9 103.8 -0.3
Chris Andersen Un .371 98.7 102.5 0.0
Dwayne Jones Un .483 105.0 105.5 0.7
Paul Davis Un .377 102.7 106.4 -0.2
Ryan Hollins Res .453 104.8 106.3 0.4
David Harrison Un .365 101.1 105.2 -0.8
Chris Richard Res .365 102.6 106.7 -0.6
Patrick O'Bryant Un .475 103.6 104.4 0.1
Adonal Foyle Un .435 102.1 104.0 0.3
I've ranked the players above in a rough approximation of how I'd rate their value on the market. It makes more sense, however, to discuss them in terms of groups.
THE BUDDING STAR
In a league constantly starved for big men, a 22-year-old seven-footer who has been an above-average starter for two years would figure to be enormously valuable, but Andris Biedrins has gotten relatively little attention. A few factors are working against him. First, he's a restricted free agent--the Warriors figure to match most any offer for his services. Second, just a handful of teams, including Golden State, have cap space. Among those, Philadelphia already has a starting center in Samuel Dalembert who brings similar skills to the table, while Charlotte's Emeka Okafor and Atlanta's Josh Smith are considered more valuable big men as power forwards. I'd argue that Biedrins might have more potential than Okafor, however. Their numbers the last two seasons have been very similar, and Biedrins is three and a half years younger and has no significant injury history. If the Warriors re-sign him for less than the max, they've gotten a bargain.
THE QUESTION MARKS
Nenad Krstic and Robert Swift are in different places on the list, but are similar in that both were limited last year by ACL surgery they'd had during the 2006-07 season. Both players returned in time for training camp, then suffered setbacks and were shut down for extended periods. Their paths diverged when they returned. While Krstic played decently over the last two months of the season, Swift suffered torn cartilage in the same knee and missed the remainder of the year.
Krstic should be near full health next season. He might have been a little overvalued prior to his injury--he's always been a liability on the glass--but he and Biedrins are the only players in this crop who project as starting-caliber centers over the long term.
Chris Andersen is in this group for very different reasons. He returned to the NBA in March after a two-year suspension and played just five games. Before his suspension, Andersen was an underrated role player, but he'll be 30 in July and the Birdman might not be able to fly quite the same way he once did. He's also a relapse away from being dismissed and disqualified from the NBA again.
THE ROLE PLAYERS
Ronny Turiaf was on my list of players who were picked out by the Diamond Rating as potential breakout candidates. He gave the Lakers solid rotation minutes throughout the season, starting 21 games. The competition in the postseason revealed the limitations in Turiaf's game, but he's valuable as an energy player off the bench or spotted with the right group in the starting lineup.
DeSagana Diop has already agreed to rejoin the Mavericks after being dealt to New Jersey in February. That Dallas re-signed Diop is not a huge surprise; the money--the midlevel exception for five years--is. Diop is a solid backup big man and capable as a starter, but even in a thin market like this it's hard to believe the Mavericks had to go so high and for so many years. The history of the midlevel exception is pretty dismal in terms of value to teams. I don't see Diop changing that.
I know Kwame Brown has become a symbol for everything that's wrong with high-school early entrants, and I know the Lakers got much, much better when they replaced him with Pau Gasol, but the guy can be a useful player in the right situation. Brown's size makes him an effective defender; even last year, the Lakers defended better with Brown in the middle than with any of their other centers on the court. He's a bad offensive player, but not really any worse than Diop. For the money, I'd rather have Brown.
Brian Skinner is much older than the others (32 in May) and not old enough for the next group. Last year, he gave Phoenix the same kind of minutes he's offered throughout most of his career. He's not good enough to be an answer at a position, but he can keep backup center from being an issue and do so at a low price.
Because centers tend to hang on to more of their value as they age than other players do, it's not uncommon to see a group of centers in free agency with a year or two left in their career who remain productive. This year is a bit much, though--no fewer than five players fit that description. Reports have P.J. Brown leaning toward retirement, but I included him here anyway.
In the regular season, Kurt Thomas was far and away the most valuable player of the group, but the Spurs limited his minutes in the postseason. Still, he's got more left in the tank at 35 (36 in October) and stamina, as much as any skills he possesses, makes him the best option. Dikembe Mutombo wasn't quite as good in place of an injured Yao Ming in 2007-08 as he had been the year before, but he remains a terrific defender in short stretches. Rumors had Alonzo Mourning retiring after he tore his patella tendon, ending his season; however, he's apparently interested in another go'round. Although Theo Ratliff had his moments for Detroit in the postseason, he has been the least valuable of this group in recent regular seasons.
At 33, Adonal Foyle is on the border between this group and the role players. Either way, he remains a useful defender who is completely worthless on offense.
THE UNESTABLISHED YOUNG GUYS
Rounding up the groups are six younger centers who have yet to do much at the NBA level but still have time on their side. I've liked Dwayne Jones' game dating back to his days at St. Joe's, and he was pretty effective in 472 minutes for the Cavaliers last season, averaging 11.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 40 minutes. Paul Davis earns the second spot in large part on the strength of his good numbers at Michigan State. You may remember that an early version of John Hollinger's draft rater had Davis as the seventh-best collegian in the 2006 Draft; his Pelton Translation numbers aren't quite as strong when subjectively considering age, but he does come out as an instant contributor. Davis has yet to show much in two NBA seasons, and he saw his 2007-08 campaign cut short because of injury.
As for the rest...Ryan Hollins was the most valuable last season and earned a qualifying offer from the Bobcats. David Harrison has had his moments, but was terrible last season and hurt himself with a bizarre fight with Matt Bonner and a five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug policy. Chris Richard looks like he could be a useful offensive center; however, his size limitations on defense make him a poor fit for a frontcourt that already includes Al Jefferson, Craig Smith, Ryan Gomes and now Kevin Love. Patrick O'Bryant has the dubious distinction of being the first lottery pick not to have his third-year option picked up. In something of a surprise, his translated college numbers are actually pretty decent. O'Bryant is still just 22, so maybe there's something there.
Earl Barron, Miami - Got a chance to play last year with injuries. Didn't show much.
Primoz Brezec, Toronto - Ineffective for three teams last season, he was once a competent starter.
Michael Doleac, Minnesota - Strictly filler at this point.
Francisco Elson, Seattle - A rotation player on the NBA champs just a year ago.
Jamaal Magloire, Dallas - Living off his name by this point, Magloire is but a shell of the player he once was.
Sean Marks, Phoenix - Useful 12th-man type in the locker room.
DJ Mbenga, L.A. Lakers - Shot-blocker without a lot of upside.
Randolph Morris, New York - Signed as a free agent by the Knicks after the end of his college career at Kentucky (he had previously gone undrafted), but Isiah Thomas never played him, so who knows?
Scot Pollard, Boston - Now has his invite to the "Champions Club" on Inside the NBA.
Jake Voskuhl, Milwaukee - Will stick around on the end of benches.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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