Over the past few days, I have been examining under-the-radar options for the Lakers to pursue in free agency. On Monday, we took a look at some intriguing backup guard targets, and Tuesday featured wings who could potentially be starters.
Today, we wrap things up by searching for centers, but the qualifications this time around are a bit different due to the Lakers’ needs. With D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson (likely) in place, the Lakers don’t need a starting-quality guard, and with Brandon Ingram the favorite to come on board via the second-overall pick, they can get by with a stop-gap wing.
The center position, however, is a completely different story. The Roy Hibbert experiment wasn’t successful, and while Tarik Black appears likely to return next season, he is unquestionably a back up at this stage.
As such, the Lakers need to to find a starting-caliber center, but otherwise the parameters of our search remains the same: I’m operating under the assumption that GM Mitch Kupchak wasn’t able to land any of the premier free agents, which isn’t far-fetched given the number of teams ready and willing to throw money at a shallow pool of players.
With that in mind, I’m looking for players that the Lakers can realistically bring in that won’t break the bank, but given that the Lakers need to find a starter they will have to spend a bit more than they would on a guard or a wing.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, here are the top five unrestricted free agent centers, in no particular order.
After spending seven years as a reserve with three different franchises, Mahinmi finally got his opportunity to start last season. With Roy Hibbert in Los Angeles (Larry Bird is still giggling about that one), Mahinmi stepped up and performed admirably, producing per-36 minute averages of 13.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks.
Opponents shot just 55.6 percent at the rim with Mahinmi defending, which is solid (for reference, Roy Hibbert allowed 60.4 percent). Most of Mahinmi’s offense comes at the rim, though he does have a decent mid-range jumper that can at least keep defenses honest.
All in all, Mahinmi has proven to be a serviceable big man that can hold his own in the paint. The downside, unfortunately, is that he turns 30 shortly after the beginning of the 2016-2017 season, and being that he falls into the good-not-great category it’s unlikely that the Lakers will want to commit to him long-term. Still, if the price and years are right, Los Angeles could certainly do worse.
It was just over a year ago when it appeared that Mozgov was the missing piece for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who sent two first-round picks to Denver in order to acquire the big Russian. He provided rim protection and rebounding, standing out in the 2014-2015 NBA Playoffs.
This year, however, he can barely get off the bench. With Cleveland dedicated to using Klutch Sports (LeBron’s agency) client Tristan Thompson at center, Mozgov has been phased out. The Cavs’ loss could be the Lakers’ gain, as the 7’1”, 275-pound behemoth would be a solid fit. He brings toughness in the paint, can set massive screens, and even has a little bit of range to step out and hit the jumper.
His size does unfortunately limit his agility, and Mozgov’s struggles to switch on the pick and roll were damning enough for Cleveland to banish him from the bench. Still, for a player of his dimensions he can be surprisingly athletic. For the Lakers, the biggest issue is that, like Mahinmi, Mozgov is about to turn 30, making it unlikely that he would be a long-term piece. He could provide an interesting option for coach Luke Walton, but he’s not someone the team should overpay to land.
Chicago’s Noah was once considered to be one of the best centers in basketball, with his unconventional style leading to two All-Star appearances and a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014. He is a solid shot blocker with career-averages of 1.4 per game but is also agile enough to switch on pick and rolls and get into passing lanes.
Noah also plays with a ton of energy, and would instantly become the young Lakers’ emotional leader on the court. His jumper is awkward in a nightmarish way, but he helps make up for his lack of range by being an incredibly gifted passer. In 2014 he averaged 5.4 assists per game, which is absolutely ridiculous for a center. Walton’s offense, which will require plenty of ball movement, should have no problems taking advantage of Noah’s dishing skills.
So what’s the catch? Injuries. Noah struggles to stay healthy and appeared in just 29 games last season. The fact that he is 31 years old doesn’t help his cause, either. However, after spending his entire 9-year career in Chicago, it appears that he may be looking for a change, and if the Lakers can get him on a short-term deal it could be an opportunity for him to prove that all he needs is a change of scenery to get back on track. That scenario didn’t work with Hibbert last season, but Noah may still be worth a serious look.
No, seriously, Howard’s skill set fits just about everything the Lakers are looking for, but it’s unlikely that he would consider returning to Los Angeles, nor would the Lakers want to bring him back. He will want a lot of money, and surrounding Howard with young players who aren’t expected to win-now won’t do much to keep him motivated, either.
Let’s just move on. This didn’t happen.
The Dallas Mavericks rebounded from DeAndre Jordan’s emoji-filled betrayal last summer by trading a second rounder to Milwaukee for Zaza Pachulia, who went on to have an excellent season alongside Dirk Nowitzki. While Pachulia doesn’t wow anyone with his athleticism, he does the dirty work in the paint and gets the job done.
Pachulia averaged a solid 12.9 boards per-36 minutes last season and even chipped in 1.1 steals, which is fantastic for a center. He has also shown some skill as a passer, though he is nowhere near Noah’s level in this area.
Unfortunately, there are two big problems: his age and his rim protection. Pachulia is the oldest player on this list at 32 and has a lot of mileage on him thanks to a 13-year NBA career. While the Lakers will certainly need veteran guidance, at some point Zaza’s production is going to start slipping, and you don’t want to be the team holding the bill when that happens. He also averaged just .4 blocks per-36 minutes last season, which is the worst in the league for starting centers. He uses positioning and strength to help make up for his lack of shot blocking, but it’s still not a good thing. Pachulia’s veteran savvy could make him a nice addition, but the Lakers will have to very seriously consider the downside that comes with him.
Just one calendar year after having his $4 million option declined by the Charlotte Hornets, Bismack Biyombo is sure to be one of the most sought-after free-agent centers on the market. In spite of being a reserve behind Jonas Valanciunas for most of the year in Toronto, Biyombo has generated so much buzz that it’s tough to even include him on a list of under-the-radar free agents.
Making his improbable rise even stranger, Biyombo averaged just nine points per-36 minutes for Toronto last season. So why is he so highly regarded? Rim protection and rebounding, as well as a timely explosion during the playoffs, when everyone was watching.
While he isn’t a scorer, Biyombo averaged a massive 13 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per-36 minutes last season. He can’t pass the ball, he doesn’t get steals, and he can’t shoot free throws, but when it comes to intimidating shooters at the rim, Biyombo is one of the best.
Opponents shot just 53.4 percent from within 5 feet of the rim against Biyombo, which is right in line with top rim protectors like Hassan Whiteside, Andrew Bogut, and Rudy Gobert. Add in that Biyombo is just 23 years old (some dispute this), and his appeal is clear. The Lakers need to shore up their defense, and Biyombo could go a long way in this endeavor, but they will have to be ready to offer a long-term, big-money deal in order to get him to Flee The North.