Could JaVale McGee be the answer at center?

"Who will be the Blazers' next center?" is the hot-button topic around Blazers Edge right now, with everyone from a college player in the draft to Samuel Dalembert to Dikembe Mutombo being thrown around as options. Go look at all the Fan Posts dedicated to trying to solve the Blazers' center problem. I'm serious.

(Waiting for you to get back.)

See what I mean? It's at least 70% of them. So here's another. One possible answer could be the Nuggets' JaVale McGee. Now before I start on why the Blazers might want McGee, there are a couple logistical concerns to address.

First, the Blazers will have approximately $13.5 mil in cap space this offseason.** McGee will make $10.75 mil next year, meaning the Blazers could absorb his entire salary under existing cap room, leaving about $2.75 mil in cap space. If the Blazers did acquire McGee that would be the one big move of the offseason. Any other moves Olshey would make would be smaller, complementary moves.

**All salary numbers are courtesy Storyteller's beyond excellent website. The $13.5 mil number has become the generally accepted number at BE, and we all agree there are a number of factors that will influence the final amount of cap space. Any discussion of CBA/salary cap rules come from my best understanding of Larry Coon's "NBA Salary Cap FAQ".

Second, there are two ways the Blazers could acquire McGee. The first (and this is the assumption my first logistical point was made under), would be as a facilitator in a three-way trade with Devner. For instance, the most popular fake trade leading up to the deadline was the Lakers trading Pau Gasol to the Nuggets for Wilson Chandler and pieces. The same trade could happen in the offseason, with but with the Blazers taking on McGee's contract without sending anything back.

The other way the Blazers could get McGee would be with in a traditional trade with the Nuggets. The Nuggets need shooting, and Wes Matthews can give it to them. A straight Matthews-for-McGee swap would work under the cap, and would help preserve a large chunk of Portland's cap space this summer (after the trade the Blazers would still have about $9.5 mil in cap space). (The Nuggets, by the way, would save about $4 mil in cap room and gain a player that would go a long way towards solving their spacing issues, all for a player George Carl isn't thrilled about having to play in the first place. Matthews would bring a lot of what Andre Iguodala brings to the table, but for less than what Iguodala will be looking for this summer.) With that out of the way, let's look at why the Blazers might want McGee.

McGee is the subject of a number of Not Top Plays YouTube videos, but is probably most famous for his sky-high blocks that land in the second level. Those plays, however, came when he still played for the Wizards and was a young player. He has matured as a player, especially this year, and has shown flashes of what he can become before including a 21-point, 14-rebound, 2-block performance against the Lakers in game 5 of their playoff series last year and a 21-point, 11-rebound, 3-block, 2-steal game against the Spurs just last week.

What was most interesting about the Spurs game is not McGee's stat line. It was sequences like this (at the very start of the clip McGee is at the top of the key setting a pick; keep your eyes on him the whole time) in the 2nd quarter. Here's what you just saw McGee do:

  • Set a nice screen with proper technique - arms down, one hand over his wrist.
  • Followed the shot for a rebound attempt.
  • Ran down the floor after the defensive rebound, picking up Tim Duncan at the other end of the court (who was being marked/fronted by Kenneth Faried). (This was a colossal mismatch for the Spurs, as Kawhai Leonard simply lobbed the pass over Faried into Duncan on the right block.)
  • Now this is where the old McGee would have simply gone for a massive block into the 73rd row, either letting the Spurs run an inbounds play or gotten whistled for a foul. However, the new McGee found his man, walled up, and forced Duncan into a shot that was very well contested thanks to McGee's length.

What does all this mean? For that one play, not a lot. Wilson Chandler got the defensive rebound, and the Spurs won the game by one. But in the grand scheme of things, what we're seeing is JaVale McGee starting to "get it". He's playing more consistently at both ends of the floor, trying harder, and not making boneheaded plays like this one. (And, by the way, that's what good coaching does for a player. It's not fluke that he got better under George Carl than he did under Eddie Jordan and Flip Saunders).

Listen, I'm not saying McGee is suddenly going to blossom into an All-Star and the best center in the game. But I think he can be a game changer, Aldridge would love playing next to him, and he would shore up the Blazers' unquestioned biggest weakness: interior defense. If it means losing Matthews to get him I'm fine with that. I absolutely love what Matthews brings to the Blazers in his defense, shooting, toughness, unselfishness and leadership. But everything he brings to the table the Blazers can get elsewhere for much cheaper (Gary Harris if he declares or Jamaal Franklin from SDSU are options in the draft at 12). A legit 7-foot, rim protecting, rebounding center is much harder to find than a "3-and-D" player like Matthews.

Here's what the Blazers' roster would look like after the trade, with no other moves (this roster assumes a Matthews-for-McGee swap; a ____ indicates a roster hole Olshey and Stotts need to fill):

PG: Lillard, _____.

SG: _____, _____, Barton.

SF: Batum, Claver.

PF: Aldridge, _____, Freeland.

C: McGee, Leonard.

(And no, I don't think Barton is even a backup at this point. Yes he has a ton of potential, but this is all I can think about whenever I watch him on the court.)

What's interesting to note is that the Blazers have two very valuable assets on hand: the (likely) 12th pick in the draft, and they own JJ Hickson's Bird Rights. The Blazers were successful in pulling off a sign-and-trade last year for Raymond "VooDoo" Felton, so they should have no problem finding a taker for a legitimate starting PF who's a double-double machine. The added bonus is under a sign-and-trade the acquiring team would get to keep Hickson's Bird Rights. It's certainly not a stretch to think the Blazers sign-and-trade him to the tune of 3-years, $16-20 mil and get back at least a decent asset or two.

Assuming Hickson simply leaves in free agency as opposed to via sign-and-trade, that leaves the Blazers with three gaping holes in the roster: both guard spots and backup PF (a backup small forward would be nice as well, but the improved play of Claver in recent weeks has made it less of a need). Here are a couple easy solutions (and I think these would be smart moves regardless of a McGee trade):

More or less everyone agrees Maynor is a great backup to Lillard. The Blazers should decline his QO and go after him on the open market. A 2 or 3 year deal for $2 mil/year would be about right.

Buy low on Brandon Rush. He tore two ligaments in his knee the third game of this season but should be ready to go by training camp. At his best, he's the ultimate "3-and-D" guy. He can play both wing spots, space the floor with his shooting, is an above-average defender with great athleticism, is a good rebounder and shot blocker and can finish at the rim. His downsides are that he's a poor ball handler and doesn't move very well without the ball, though the latter would likely be improved by playing in Stotts' system. The other option here is Kyle Korver. He'd do the same things as Rush, just with better shooting and worse rebounding/one-on-one defense. Korver is essentially a poor man's JJ Redick. Whereas Redick will earn about $7-9 mil/year in his next contract, Korver will likely earn half that, and Rush will earn maybe a million per year, plus incentives. The reasons I'm advocating for Rush over Korver and Redick are simple: cost, age, and upside.

Redick has essentially maxed out his potential as a player, and he's a very good one. The problem is he is in that sweet spot of having a career year in a contract year, and the next team to acquire his services will pay a premium for them. Due to the Blazers' cap space, it makes more sense to go after someone much more cost effective. Korver would be a great option, but he's going to be 32 next year. If the Blazers gave him a two year contract it probably wouldn't matter. However, Rush is only 27, is more athletic than both Redick and Korver, and has potential the other two don't. He would be a low-risk, high reward option for the Blazers on a three or four year contract, with a team option for the last two years of it.

With those two moves, here would be an early projection of the Blazers' lineup next year:

PG: Lillard, Maynor.

SG: ____, Rush, Barton.

SF: Batum, Rush, Claver.

PF: Aldridge, ____, Freeland.

C: McGee, Leonard, Freeland.

It's not a stretch to think the Blazers would be able to find a quality starting SG and backup PF with the 12th pick in the draft and in a sign-and-trade with Hickson. The caveat to all this is Rush needs to stay healthy and the core guys (Lillard, Batum, Aldridge Leonard, McGee) all need to continue to develop as players. It's not perfect, but it would definitely move the needle in the right direction.

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