Assessing the Lakers’ best unrestricted free agent options at center

The NBA is nearing its final playoff series for 2016, with the Cleveland Cavaliers set to play either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, everyone else is in offseason mode, preparing for what may come this summer.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been in that mode since mid-April, after they watched Kobe Bryant record one of the greatest career finales in sports history. Since that magical night, the Lakers have replaced Byron Scott with Luke Walton, hired his lead assistant coach in Brian Shaw, and landed the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Things have been perfect for the Lakers since Bryant closed the curtain on his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career, and there is plenty of reason for optimism in Los Angeles again. With all signs pointing to the Lakers ending up with Brandon Ingram on June 23, the team would seemingly find a much-needed solution at small forward for many years to come.

What about the center position? General manager Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the front office could look to draft another center in the second round if they choose Ingram in the first, or they could look to utilize a massive amount of salary cap space in July, when free agency officially begins.

According to Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders, the Lakers could have as much as $64.1 million in cap space this summer. That’s enough money to offer two max contracts, even with the salary cap taking a substantial leap to a projected $90 million this summer.

With all of that money available to them, which free agent centers could the Lakers target this summer? Let’s take a look at the top unrestricted options.

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Hassan Whiteside

This is probably the most attainable, big-name center on the market for the Lakers this summer. The Miami Heat have some major decisions to be made this summer with Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Whiteside on the free agent market. Whiteside will command max money this summer (For him, it would be slightly under 25 percent of the salary cap total), and he’ll likely receive it, or at least something very close to it. Miami does not have Whiteside’s full bird rights, so if they re-sign him, that money would have to fit into their salary cap space.

Typically for max players, their respective teams can not only offer an additional year, but they can also go over the cap to re-sign them. That is not the case with Whiteside this summer. He’s basically fair game from a numbers standpoint.

The Lakers have been atrocious defensively the past two seasons, and that is the end of the floor that Whiteside leaves his imprint on the game. According to Nylon Calculus, Whiteside had the second-highest rim contest percentage this season at 41.2 percent. Against all those contests, opponents shot 46.9 percent at the rim against Whiteside this year. While that is about six percentage points away from league-leading Rudy Gobert, it is certainly an upgrade over anyone the Lakers had last season, seeing as Hibbert led the team in that category at 50.9 field goal percentage allowed at the rim.

The Lakers actually had Whiteside in for a workout a few years ago when he was available as a free agent and elected not to sign him. Would he consider going back to Los Angeles after that? Only time will tell, but there’s no question that the Lakers could use his defensive prowess in the paint to help anchor their defense.

Al Horford

Horford is another player that will undoubtedly receive max money this offseason, but unlike Whiteside, the Atlanta Hawks big man can receive up to 30 percent of the salary cap next season, which could net him about $30 million per season. Horford turns 30 years old next month, so starting a four-year max deal at that age is not ideal, especially if the soon-to-be 27-year-old Whiteside is actually attainable. Nevertheless, that is what it would take to land Horford this summer.

Los Angeles needs to add veterans to not only help mentor their young core, but to help bolster the number in the win column. Horford is a terrific offensive fit with the Lakers because of his high basketball IQ and ability to stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting. That would open up a ton of space for the young guys to operate in new head coach Luke Walton’s system.

Horford could be seeking a change in scenery, given the Hawks appearing to fizzle out a bit this season. But would he want to join a rebuilding Lakers team at this stage of his career? I suppose anything is possible, but it’s very unlikely.

Bismack Biyombo

Did any player in the postseason boost their value as much as Biyombo did with the Toronto Raptors? His fearless rim contests, rebounding, and of course, the finger wags made Biyombo a fan-favorite around the league, stepping up in a big way with Jonas Valanciunas missing time due to an injury.

Being just 23 years old, Biyombo is in a fantastic position to capitalize on his performance and the salary cap spike. ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that he intends to do so, commanding at least $15 million per year. Biyombo is only listed at 6-foot-9, but he plays much bigger, especially on the defensive end. Like Whiteside, Biyombo could greatly relieve some defensive pressure around the basket for Los Angeles, although the former possesses much more ideal size at the position.

Biyombo’s rim protection numbers are not quite as proficient as Whiteside’s, but they are fairly close in the aforementioned categories. The age and presumable cost difference could be enough for some to prefer the Raptors big man over Whiteside, despite the latter probably providing more production right away. Biyombo would provide another good fit for the Lakers defensively, but as of right now, it appears that Whiteside would make a greater impact from day one if they are able to sign him.

Joakim Noah

This option is tricky. Not long ago, Noah was heralded as one of the top big men in the NBA. A steep decline over the past couple of seasons has drastically changed that notion, due in large part to injuries. Last year, he missed 15 games. This season saw him exit early on, playing in just 29 games, coming off the bench for 27 of them.

Offensively, Noah was wildly inconsistent this year with Fred Hoiberg replacing Tom Thibodeau at the helm, shooting a pathetic 38.3 percent. Defensively, his numbers have also taken a dive from what he once was. Reports have indicated that Noah will not re-sign with Chicago this summer, which raises the question of just exactly how much he is worth in free agency, especially since he turned 31 this year.

While it was rough sledding this year for Noah, he is an outstanding fit for what Walton wants the Lakers to run offensively. Although not a great midrange shooter, Noah is certainly capable of knocking down a 15-footer, which would provide L.A. with some floor spacing. His best offensive attribute, though, would be his vision and passing, which would be perfect for Walton’s system. Even in limited minutes this season (21.9 average), Noah still tallied just a shade under four assists per game.

Noah is widely known as a vocal leader, and his veteran presence could be very valuable to the youth of the Lakers. If the price is right, Noah could still prove to be a steal in free agency, at least for the next couple of seasons. But if the Lakers go that route, they better make sure they have three centers on the roster, because Noah’s durability concerns are certainly justified.

Ian Mahinmi

Mahinmi is a bit of a under-the-radar target at age 29, but could ideally provide a defensive presence in the middle for the Lakers without breaking the bank. He accumulated a rim contest percentage of 32.6 this year for the Indiana Pacers. He allowed a 49.8 percent conversion rate at the rim, which is a number that I would like to see be a at least a few points lower, but having a big man that contests a third of the shots at the rim would be an upgrade for the Los Angeles.

Nene

Nene is another option that could provide some floor spacing with his ability to step away from the basket and knock down shots. With the Lakers, he would undoubtedly be a stopgap option, given the fact that he will turn 34 later this year. Nene could provide a veteran presence for the Lakers, but he could be in the same boat as Horford. At this stage of his career, would he consider joining a team in the midst of a rebuild?

It appears likely that Nene will leave the Washington Wizards behind and head elsewhere this summer after seeing his role and playing time diminish over the past few seasons. He is a solid fit for what the Lakers would need out of the center position with this group, but poses some of the same durability concerns that Noah does. Nene could be a nice veteran addition if he is willing to sign, but with what Los Angeles would need from him, they would need some insurance behind him, just in case.

Timofey Mozgov

Mozgov could be a low risk, high reward option in free agency because the price tag will be extremely favorable this summer. He has been buried on Cleveland’s bench this season, becoming almost forgotten about. The last time Mozgov seemed to get consistent playing time was last year’s playoffs, where he was still productive. But this year, his skill set has not really fit in with the small-ball attack of the Cavaliers, spreading the floor and creating tremendous offensive spacing.

Mozgov could come at a low price this summer, and could serve the Lakers well as a defensive center. He certainly is not the best option available, but given his diminishing market value, Mozgov could be a great value signing.

Dwight Howard

Just kidding.

All stats courtesy of Nylon Calculus

All contract and salary cap information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.

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3 comments

  1. […] Noah has been a starter for most of his 9 seasons in the NBA, but he was sidelined most of the last year due to a season-ending shoulder injury. Maybe because of his shoulder injury, Noah would be willing to take a reserve for the Lakers if the Lakers end signing a top free agent center. I think Noah would be extremely effective for the Lakers off the bench with his high energy and competitive play.  Our own Gary Kester wrote more about Noah as one of his top free agents at the center position. […]

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