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Searching For An Upgrade At Center - Part 1

Robin Lopez is a fan favorite but his limitations were exposed during the Memphis series. Could the Blazers find an upgrade this offseason? Willy Raedy evaluates Greg Monroe and Brook Lopez in the first of a four-part series.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

From an analytical perspective, this summer is tough to tackle. It's shaping up to be an all or nothing scenario for the Trail Blazers. If LaMarcus Aldridge leaves, it opens up so many possibilities that it's impossible to discuss beyond generalities or big picture strategies. The same could be said of trading Nicolas Batum. The number of potential partners and players Portland could consider is mind boggling. If LaMarcus stays, then the team lacks the financial flexibility to make significant changes.

Transactions around the fringe, like considering how the team should use their exceptions, are worthy discussions. Chris Lucia and Brandon Goldner have gotten us off to a great start asking what 3 and D players and backup point guards might be available. But beyond that, we've documented why it will be difficult to add to the core this summer. By cutting most of the bench, assuming Arron Afflalo opts out, and renouncing either Robin Lopez or Wesley Matthews, the Blazers can create somewhere around $10-11 million in cap space. What can you buy with $11 million?

An absurd question in any other context, it's actually a difficult one in the NBA. Not many players would be an upgrade over the current roster at that price point. Remember, "upgrade" not only means the new player is better than the one he replaced but better by enough of a margin to outweigh the loss of depth.

But difficult questions are the ones that make for good analysis and this discussion has enough context to be manageable. Let's narrow it even further by limiting it to the center position.

With $11 million dollars, are there any centers Portland could go after that would upgrade the roster?

I've identified eight centers that could be had for about that amount and are good enough to warrant discussion. I then broke those down into four pairs with similar tradeoffs. Today, let's start with Greg Monroe and Brook Lopez, the "Offensively Minded Centers".

Greg Monroe had a strong season after the Pistons cut Josh Smith. He's young and will likely command a long-term contract in the low to mid teens per year. Brook Lopez has a player option for close to $17 million but his injury history may lead him to pursue more guaranteed years. His injury history will also deflate his salary just like it did for Andrew Bogut. I don't have to tell Blazers fans why bad feet on a big man is such a scary proposition.

Watch Brook Lopez play for five minutes and his offensive skills are obvious. It only takes one up and under layup with precise footwork to know this guy is a magician on the block. Brook almost equaled Aldridge's efficiency scoring 0.94 PPP (points per possession) in the post. He even prefers the right block, making him a great fit alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. With those two on the floor, opponents couldn't play any undersized bigs and Portland would challenge Memphis for the best post-up duo in the game.

What surprised me about Brook is how skilled he is away from the block. People don't talk about his jump shot much but it's one of the best in the game. During the regular season, he shot 43.8% from the midrange. That's better than LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, or Marc Gasol. This skill is invaluable because teams would have a much harder time doubling Aldridge. Robin Lopez shot 36.4% in the midrange last year and teams regularly left him open at the foul line to front LaMarcus on the block.

Those plays would stop with Brook on the floor. Aldridge would return the favor giving both of them more space in the post than they've ever had.

Bropez also has a dangerous dribble drive. He can make those midrange jumpers if needed but he can also attack from the high post. It's not uncommon to see him take two dribbles, spin, and then bank in a tough reverse layup.

This theoretical combination of two bigs that can shoot, drive, or post from anywhere inside the arc would be tough for any opposing team to handle.

Greg Monroe is also a post up threat but the comparison stops there. He likes the right block as well but isn't particularly efficient. His jumper is completely broken. Only 7% of his shots came from outside of 10 feet and he made less than a third of them. That's fewer shots and a worse percentage than Robin. Aldridge might get doubled more often with Monroe as his partner -- a frightening prospect. Monroe's not the same off the bounce threat as Brook but he can attack the rim on occasion. The main new wrinkle he would bring to the offense is his passing. Monroe is a superb passer for a big man and he often distributed from the elbows for Detroit. His poor jumper allows defenders to sag off and take away the juiciest passing angles but this would still be a valuable asset to the team. All in all, his offensive potential for Portland is somewhat mixed.

This potential falls off a cliff once you consider the pick and roll. Robin was one of the better finishers the league last year scoring 1.17 PPP as the rollman. Monroe isn't as big as Rolo and he can't charge down the lane and dunk the ball with the same aggressiveness. Since he also can't pick and pop his options are severely limited. He only managed to score 0.93 PPP out of the pick and roll last year. The Blazers already have one of the best post up big men in the game who doesn't score efficiently in the pick and roll. LaMarcus averaged an even worse 0.83 PPP as the roll man this year. They're not going to want to give Monroe some of Aldridge's post ups so it would be tough to utilize Monroe's skills as a starter. In fact, his struggles shooting and rolling might make him a worse complement to Aldridge than Robin. I wouldn't be surprised if the offense got worse with Monroe rather than getting better.

The same worry does not apply to Brook Lopez. His pick and roll game is intriguing to say the least. His efficiency isn't quite as high as his brother's (1.08 vs. 1.17 PPP) but his usage in the pick and roll is much higher. Lopez is Brooklyn's main option when he's healthy and he gets most of his offense out of the pick and roll. He's got great touch and a better floater than most guards. He can catch, spin, and then finish consistently. When Robin doesn't have a clear lane to the hoop he just doesn't shoot, inflating his efficiency. When Brook's path is blocked, he has an array of moves to manufacture a good look. Brook would be a much bigger threat than Robin rolling to the hoop and he would be a perfect complement to Aldridge on the offensive end. The Blazers would have five players that can all shoot, drive, and pass, as well as a deadly combination of post play with spacing.

As the "Offensively Minded Centers" category suggests, the defensive end is a different story for both players. I will say Lopez was much better than I thought, especially in the playoffs. His mobility is about equal with Robin, maybe a little better. He picked up lots of pick and rolls higher on the floor and corralled the speedy Jeff Teague well. His numbers defending the pick and roll are actually better than Rolo's and his rebounding numbers are solid. He looks like someone who does his job well and competently defends his position.

The same could be said of Greg Monroe, although with a little less confidence. He isn't the flaming disaster I was expecting and Detroit had him hedge screens against the Blazers this season.

Even with his slow feet, Monroe was able to stay on balance and recover against the Blazers. I'm nervous about his ability to do this against some of the more athletic teams. He's not very disruptive in these situations, which is one of the main goals of a hard hedge. Beyond the pick and roll, Monroe is solid defending the post and rebounds his position as well. This combination leaves a similar impression. He does his job but not a whole lot more.

The problem is the Blazers need their center to do a whole lot on defense. Robin Lopez is constantly making up for the mistakes of his teammates and ranks at the top of any rim protection statistic. My favorites are the metrics published by Nylon Calculus. They combine the field goal percentage a defender allows near the rim along with how frequently they contest those shots. This combination allows them to calculate how many points the defender saves each game by protecting the rim. Robin ranked 11th with 1.12 points saved per game. Brook ranked 23rd (0.48 points saved/game) and Monroe came in at 86th (-1.06).

We have to cut Monroe a little slack because power forwards rate systematically and significantly lower in this metric. Since he played so many of his minutes at power forward, we would expect those numbers to be lower. But still...86th? Even if we cut him slack for his position, he hasn't demonstrated the ability to protect the rim. Given how much the Blazers rely on Robin, I don't think they want to be the team that finds out if he's up for the challenge. Plus, nothing about Monroe's body type, athleticism, or aggression on the defensive end suggests he would be good in that role. Starting him at center next to Aldridge would be a foolhardy gamble.

The prognosis is more mixed with Brook. No, he's not the rim protector his brother is but he's also not atrocious. His reputation as a poor rebounder isn't justified and he bests Robin in a couple important categories. I suspect the defense would get worse but not by all that much. Considering how well he would complement Aldridge on the offensive end, the Blazers would likely be a better team with Brook on the floor instead of Robin.

That "on the floor" part is the real problem though. His injury concerns are serious and the Blazers can't afford any more bad luck. If Aldridge re-signs, the team won't have any meaningful flexibility moving forward. If they signed Brook and he got injured, they would have an enormous hole in their roster and nothing to fill it with. That too is a foolhardy gamble.

As Portland fans might expect, trading defense for offense at the center position doesn't make much sense. Portland would be better served keeping Robin Lopez than going after either Brook Lopez or Greg Monroe. That's two strikes but we still have six more players left to review.

Next up in Part 2 of this four-segment series: Roy Hibbert and Omer Asik, the "Defense, Defense, and Only Defense" pair.