Over the past few seasons, the NBA has built a burgeoning crop of talented centers. At the same time talented future stars joined the league, many NBA teams moved away from giving all 48 minutes to traditional centers, so the increase in supply met a decrease in demand.
That confluence of factors created the center bumper crop, which reared its head last summer and has only grown since. In a development that would dumbfound pundits from decades ago, even talented big men on reasonable contracts could be poor uses of salary cap space for some teams.
For example, the Raptors ended up starting and finishing a few games with Serge Ibaka at center in their first-round series against the Bucks. While Toronto needs to have someone capable of logging minutes at the position, the two seasons and $32 million plus a $17.6 million player option owed to Jonas Valanciunas may be a little rich considering their prodigious luxury tax bill should both Kyle Lowry and Ibaka choose to return.
While working through potential trade destinations for Valanciunas, a substantially more shocking realization presented itself: even just counting players under team control — meaning those under contract or where the team holds match rights — very few franchises need centers.
Dallas has seemingly carried a void next to Dirk Nowitzki since Tyson Chandler’s departure but acquired Nerlens Noel from Philadelphia for Justin Anderson and two second-round picks at the trade deadline. The Mavs appear highly likely to retain his services through restricted free agency.
Atlanta (Dwight Howard) and Boston (Al Horford) signed high-profile centers during the 2016 offseason while Denver (Nikola Jokic), Portland (Jusuf Nurkic), Houston (Clint Capela) and potentially Milwaukee (Thon Maker) look to have established their pivots of the future during the 2016-17 regular season.
In fact, the franchises with the weakest collections of centers spent lavishly and recklessly at the position last summer. The Lakers and Knicks gave massive contracts to Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and Joakim Noah (four years, $72 million), but both are distinctly below average at the position both in the near and long term. To make matters worse, that sort of egregious misstep makes it significantly less likely either front office would be interested in spending even more on a potential replacement with years left on albatross contracts.
Orlando has two eight-figure centers of their own and may have trouble finding a trade partner for either Bismack Biyombo (two years, $34 million plus a $17 million player option) or Nikola Vucevic (two years, $25 million).
Chicago could upgrade on Robin Lopez but will have plenty of other avenues for their available cap space.
This new reality is fascinating enough, but it poses a truly mind-bending problem: what happens with the players already on the books and those looking for homes in free agency?
If Oklahoma City looks at their balance sheet and realizes Enes Kanter is a talented, useful player but not the best use of $17.9 million on their books next season, does anyone enthusiastically take him on? Even if someone would, there is not enough urgency for the acquiring team to give up any sort of asset when talents like Vucevic, Kosta Koufos (one year, $8.4 million plus an $8.7 million player option) and maybe even Brook Lopez (one year, $22.6 million) or Howard (two years, $47.3 million) are on the block as well with very few buyers.
Unsurprisingly, those developments have also made big men on less desirable contracts functionally unmovable without their current team surrendering assets because they provide less value and fewer franchises will have substantial cap space. That reduced number of teams with salary flexibility should drive salaries down for this summer’s non-elite free agents as well, so contracts to perceived starters like Noah and Mozgov will continue to look bad, but many front offices will be able to do much better with their free-agent dollars than 2016 deals for backup centers Dwight Powell, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic and Al Jefferson.
As was the case last summer, the front offices that do best in 2017 could be those who just wait out their impatient counterparts and those who do not have the salary flexibility to make mistakes. In 2016, the Warriors produced a surprisingly solid center rotation with Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee while both the Rockets (Nene) and Spurs (Dewayne Dedmon) added key rotation pieces with their Room Mid-Level exceptions.
Of course, not every team can sell the prospect of playing time on a title contender. Incidentally, each of those three teams will need to strike gold again with similar constraints since all of those signees will be free agents again, but they will not be players in the higher end trade market.
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In certain situations, we could see some trades that functionally swap one big man for another in an attempt to change dynamics and alleviate a strained relationship. However, the problem with negotiating and projecting those types of moves is that they require general managers who have either different evaluations of the players in question or different constraints in terms of desired contracts.
That becomes even more complicated because many of the teams with centers on their trade block do not want one in return, so it would be hard for the conversation to even occur. They arise from larger negotiations but could be hard to sell their owners and fan bases on.
Even with all those elements in place, part of the fun of this offseason will be seeing which front offices misread the situation and keep up the tradition of overpaying seven-footers. The same structural factors were in place last summer, and numerous teams still bit the bullet. The same will happen this July.