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Statsketball: The Center of Free Agency

Continuing with the series started two weeks ago, I look at the statistical profile of the top centers in this free agency season.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is coming closer and closer, and it's important to have an idea of what will be on the market for the Mavericks when the time comes. In the last edition of Statsketball, I mentioned how the Mavericks' positions of need will be the Small Forward, Center, and a defensively oriented Reserve Guard.

Last edition we went over the Small Forwards who will be available this offseason -- arguably the most important position that needs to be filled -and so this week we're looking at available Centers.

This is an interesting position to look at, too, because it's ostensibly the one that's most in need (the Mavericks played Samuel freaking Dalembert for 30 minutes a game this season for God's sake), but in reality, that just may not be the case. Sammy D just wan't really that bad, for all his warts, Brandan Wright is just about as good of a backup center as there is, and DeJuan Blair also put in really quality minutes in his reserve time.

The truth of the matter is that none of the Mavericks' centers were really and truly good (except Wright, but it appears to be true that he can't extend his role well beyond his current bench one), but the Center rotation was itself pretty solid. It needs an upgrade, no one is debating that, but it might actually be possible for the Mavs to keep getting better without really upgrading this position, which feels like a weird thing to say.

Still, there isn't a starting caliber Center for the Mavs to rely on, and netting one -- even one who's not necessarily a defender, just someone who can play like he belongs in a starting rotation -- would be a huge boon for Dallas.

With that in mind, we'll look at the profile of the most valuable centers for Dallas on this free agent market. It's important to keep in mind, as I mentioned last time, that I'm looking exclusively at the unrestricted free agents on the market, since we don't know what's going to happen with opt outs or restricted free agents.

Also important to keep in mind that, per the update published this week, the Mavericks can expect to have about $21,185,072 in cap room, with the potential of up to $30,000,000 if Dallas works hard enough at it. I'd also like to take a second to apologize for a typo in the article: the amounts listed next to each free agent is not their cap hold for next season, it's how much they free up by becoming free agents.

Marcin Gortat

Gortat is very good at all the things that the Mavericks need him to be good at on offense

Gortat is a very good offensive center, we've known that for a long time. After all, if Dallas goes after him this summer, it would not be the first time that Dallas expressed interest in Gortat. He's a very smart pick and roll scorer, and a big body who knows how and when to crush a guy with a screen and when to slip into the lane and attack.

Per synergy sports, Gortat is the 85th most efficient offensive player in the NBA overall, and the picture gets even better for the Mavericks when you look at what he excels at specifically.

Gortat scores 104 points per 100 possessions on rolls to the rim (well above average), 121 points per 100 possessions on cuts to the rim (an astounding mark), 124 points per 100 possessions on offensive rebounds (harder than it would seem, and good for 21st in the league on almost 10% of Gortat's total attempts), and a borderline shocking 135 points per 100 possessions in transition, good for 23rd in the whole league.

Remember, the ideal Mavericks big man, offensively, is someone who is a constant threat to get inside from any point on the floor: that ability will be exacerbated with the spacing that Dirk provides, and a Mavs center can get to the rim at will off the ball, that frees up space for shooters, and Dirk, in turn. It's a circle of spacing. It's why Brandan Wright and Dirk have formed a doomsday combo on offense in the time they've shared on the court together.

Gortat isn't quite as efficient as Wright is in those capacities, but he has other strengths that make him more valuable and more playable. First and foremost, Gortat is a big, big man, and size is a skill in the NBA. Unlike Wright, he doesn't slip every screen, and unlike Wright, he's big enough to bully smaller guys for space and free up space for other teammates with smarter picks.

The Polish Hammer has a similar effect to Wright on the offense of a team: by spacing the floor with smart cuts, picks, and rolls, Washington scored almost 5 points per 100 possessions more efficiently with him on the floor than with him off.

The one drawback to Gortat's offense is that he's not much of a post-up threat, despite his size. The majority of his offensive possessions, unfortunately, are post-ups, despite only scoring 79 points per 100 possessions on them. Now, first, post-ups are inherently inefficient -- like isolations -- and so that mark isn't quite as bad as it looks. It's in the top half in efficiency. But that's not exactly a glowing recommendation.

On the other hand, in Dallas' offense he'll see far fewer post-up touches, and having experience and proficiency on the block will be a nice touch of variety for the Mavericks. Plus, he's a fairly good passer out of the post.

The most encouraging part of all of this, too, is that he can only get better in an already hyper-efficient Mavericks offense, with lots of floor spacers, Dirk Nowitzki, and Rick Carlisle.

We all fawn over Brandan Wright and his effect on the Mavericks' offense, but Marcin Gortat offers a lot of the same offensive potential without much of the drawbacks to Wright's offense. He's more versatile, stronger, and opens up the Mavs' floor even more. Gortat is less athletic than Wright, but he's bigger, smarter, and knows how to move just as well.

Really, Gortat is such a good fit for Dallas' offense it's scary.

Gortat might seem worse than we think he is on defense, but he'd actually be a big upgrade

Marcin Gortat's reputation says he's not a great defender. In some ways, the numbers corroborate that. The bright side, however, is he's not as bad as the numbers initially suggest, and he's definitely still better than Samuel Dalembert, even if Sammy D is billed as a good defender.

Per Synergy Sports, Gortat was in the top 100 in most posts allowed per 100 possessions (not a good place to be), as he allowed 90 points per 100 possessions when he was the primary defender on a possession, a mark that is only 252nd in the league. Gortat allowed a shocking 112 points per 100 possessions in isolations -- one of the least efficient plays in basketball - which ranks 300th in the league, and he's taken in isolation on 13% of all plays.

Here's the bright side, though, and it's an important one to note: Gortat was a respectable post defender, and a fairly good pick and roll defender. Gortat limited opponents to only 82 points per 100 possessions in the post, a decent but unremarkable score, good for 109th in the league.

Defending the big man in the pick and roll, however, he allowed 100 points per 100 possessions, a good mark on the hardest play to defend in basketball, making him at 97th in the league on those kinds of plays.

Those are the plays that will be most crucial for a big man, and Gortat's marks are better than or comparable to Dallas' last "defensive center" Samuel "Pizza Hands" Dalembert (who, in fairness, was quite serviceable for most of the year).

Gortat was a much better post-up defender than Pizza Hands, who allowed a much higher 91 points per 100 possessions on the block. Dalembert's mark of 98 points per 100 possessions in the pick and roll is better than Gortat's, but no extravagantly so. Dalembert was also much better in isolations, but they accounted for few of his plays, and Dalembert's overall defensive ranking (91 points per 100 possessions) is noticeably worse than The Hammer's over a very large sample size, which shouldn't be disregarded.

The thing is, both players are rated poorly, but they both have similar strengths: they're both bad in one-on-one situations, but they're big and can be in the right place in the right time, and that's important.

Washington allowed 7.7 points per 100 possessions more with Gortat off the floor than on it last year, a massive shift, and the biggest defensive impact of any player on the team who played significant minutes. Dalembert was like that this year, too. Their numbers are so bad because they're not great at taking a player when singled out, but they both play exceptional help defense.

The biggest concern for me would be this: Synergy only has 2 recorded plays where Gortat defended the ball handler on the pick and roll, since Washington had so many athletic guards capable of keeping up with their man on screens. Unfortunately, that's something he'll be asked to do much more frequently on the Dallas team with Calderon and Ellis that's so fond of switching.

Pau Gasol

Gasol's not the same player that he used to be, but he's still good

Pau Gasol could possibly be the steal of this year's free agency class. You hear the same things repeated over and over when he gets brought up: he's injury prone, he's been bad, he's washed up, he's not the same guy anymore.

Think about this though: last season Gasol racked up 17.4 points per game, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game, while managing a solid 52.2% true shooting percentage (almost exactly average) on a bad team that required him to use up 26% of their possessions at his age with his body.

Gasol's overall points per 100 possessions mark is poor, per Synergy, but I'd argue that that's attributable to the bad plays the Lakers had him running (D'Antoni had such a poor understanding of how to utilize Pau's strengths it's appalling).

For a center, Pau ran an incredible amount of isolation plays (not post-ups or face-ups), on which he scored predictably miserably. D'Antoni ran spot ups for him regularly, something Gasol has struggled with since Bynum became a big part of the Lakers' offense. He also fared poorly in transition, where Nick Young would be mostly running the show.

In the places where we've long known that Pau shines, though, there's a lot of promise: Pau scored 83 points per 100 possessions in the post last season, despite the very anti-post work scheme the Lakers ran, good for the top 1/4 of the league in post-ups.

He was the 35th best pick and roll player in the NBA, too, per Synergy, scoring a whopping 111 points per 100 possessions on such plays, and netting a ton of assists in them as well. Unfortunately, those plays didn't even constitute 20% of his offense last year.

If the Mavericks went after Gasol, he wouldn't be asked to carry such a load, and his offense would be far more motion-passing-post oriented than any other such option, which would all allow for a huge increase in percentage and effectiveness. The numbers seem to indicate that he still has the right tools, if you look for them in the right places.

Here's the biggest concern, though: his individual numbers are encouraging, or at least are a question mark worth considering, but the Lakers got worse offensively last year when they were playing with him on the court rather than with him off. That's not un-grounded in what we already know, either: he used a ton of post-ups, an inefficient possession, and had difficulty scoring in other places when the team that had few other options demanded it of him.

So the big question with Gasol is whether or not his drag on the overall offense is attributable to the Lakers themselves, and whether he'll flounder on a team with other offensive options.

Gasol laughs at your assertion that he can't defend...kinda

Per Synergy, Pau Gasol is the 48th best defender in the entire NBA. This is not a joke, this is not a drill.

In isolation, Gasol allowed an un-freaking-believable 53 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league. In the post, he allowed 83 points per 100 possessions, 109th in the league. When defending the big man in the pick and roll, he allowed 66 points per 100 possessions, eighth in the league.

Per Synergy, all this rumbling that says that Gasol is a bad defender is downright crap. He's a great defender.

But that's not entirely true either.

Synergy only takes data on defensive plays with a player when the play directly involves that player in some fashion.

The problem, in this case, is that Pau is not defending when he should be a lot, and Synergy can't take this into account.

The really scary number with Pau is that the Lakers allowed 4.8 points per 100 possessions more with him on the floor than with him off it. They were way worse defensively when he was playing, and that's not entirely an accident.

Basically, when Pau needs to be the third, fourth, or fifth man to rotate over to the paint or a shooter to cover the pick and roll, he misses the rotation remarkably often. and the result is that the Lakers struggle when he's the leading big man shoring up a defense, as he would be asked to do in Dallas.

The fact that Gasol is apparently an incredible defender when he's directly involved in the play should absolutely not be ignored, though, and the fact of that raises a lot of questions.

Could Rick Carlisle bring out more from him on defense than prior coaches have, if Pau has such good on-ball instincts? Could Carlisle devise a scheme in which Pau is on-ball more often than not? Is Pau just one of those players who is irrecoverable but looks really good?

Pau Gasol leads the league in "amount of love per 48 minutes."

Seriously, if you just met the guy, he'd probably surreptitiously drop an "I love you," at the end of the conversation just to see how you respond. Pau Gasol is the most loving-est player in the NBA. Ask him what he thinks about any player, and he'll tell you they're an inspiration to the game. John Lucas III? Incredible. Kwame Brown? Great gift to basketball. Pau Gasol is an equal opportunity ball of happiness.

Just look at his tweets:

I am having a great Friday, Pau!

He loves this game, guys!

Like, seriously, how can you not love the guy? I'd want him on the team just so we can get snippets like, "oh, I LOVE getting to play with my fellow countryman, Jose Calderon. We've been best friends forever. Look at the friendship bracelet I made him!"

I'm tired of having to fight to get quotes in the interviews. Give me someone who's all smiles any day!

And it may seem like I'm mocking him: I really am not. I LOVE this about Pau. I think that kind of enthusiasm is amazing. Basketball is arbitrary anyway -- no use freaking out about a game all the time. Pau gets that. It's wonderful to see someone who's so optimistic all the time and just generally happy. We could all use more of that.

Final Notes

  • In some ways, Emeka Okafor could actually be the best possible guy for the job. He's been an elite, if underrated, big man defender when healthy (a big if, with him), who headed a top five defense two seasons ago when healthy for most of the season. He's also a brilliant rebounder, whose presence improves the rebounding of the entire team, and he's a functional scorer. In essence, this makes him what Dallas wanted out of Sammy Dalembert, but better on both ends of the court. Because of his injury, he could be on a discount, too. Unfortunately, his latest injury that kept him out for a whole appeared to be very serious, and it's unclear at his age whether he'll even be a shell of who he has been, especially considering his already injury-prone past. He'd be a major risk, even if it could have a nice payoff.
  • The best market for netting a center this offseason may actually be the trade market, not free agency. Rumors have already been flying about the Knicks putting Tyson Chandler on the market this season -- who has said repeatedly how much he loved Dallas -- and the Bucks have been rumored to be putting Larry Sanders on the market as well. Unfortunately, other than Wright, Larkin and maybe Sammy D's partially guaranteed contract, the Mavericks don't have many appealing assets to send anyone's way. Jose Calderon gets thrown around, but -- and I'm sorry to burst everyone's bubble -- that is not an attractive contract for anyone. OKC getting the Mavs' pick this season means that Dallas will finally be able to trade a pick, though, and that could be the tipping point in a trade with few assets, especially with a rebuilding team like the Knicks or Bucks.