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Centers the Portland Trail Blazers Might Pursue in Free Agency

Portland is abuzz about Dwight Howard and Al Horford. If the Blazers can't snag either, what's their next move?

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With free agency fast approaching, we posed a question to a couple of doughty Blazer's Edge staff members:

The Portland Trail Blazers are looking to shore up their front court this summer. If both Al Horford and Dwight Howard are unavailable, who would you most like to see in a Blazers uniform?

Take a look at their replies and see if you agree. I'll be back at the end of the post.


Brandon Goldner, self-proclaimed vaguely human life form

Even without either Al Horford or Dwight Howard, the Blazers have a few other options at center.

Ian Mahinmi - 6'11" - 29 years old

Mahinmi had the best year of his career for the Indiana Pacers last year statistically speaking: playing over 20 minutes a game for the first time, his per-36 numbers around his best for any season playing at least double digit minutes per game. He has decent quickness and fluidity in the post, can step out and hit a jumper if need be (though 3/4 of his shots come inside 10 feet), and has good enough hands to finish in the pick-and-roll. He also played through a sore back for portions of last season, including during the Pacers' first-round 7-game loss to the Toronto Raptors in which Mahinmi scored a career-high 22 points.

His defense isn't eye-popping, but former Pacers coach Frank Vogel had some nice words about his effort defensively:

"He's an exceptional defender. He can guard the post. He's one of the best leverage post defenders in the game. He's can hold guys off, obviously protect the rim in drops and in helps, but also with great speed to get back out to all these teams that are playing with five 3-point shooters out there. It's a must to have a guy like Ian if you're going to be a good defensive team."

Whether the Blazers can stomach taking a flyer on a largely-unknown center who's nearly 30 years old is anyone's guess. Given the competitiveness of the free agent market, and the influx of cash that NBA teams find themselves holding given the rising salary cap, Mahinmi might be a reasonable option if given a reasonable contract: say in the $13-$15 million range... and yes, calling $15m a "reasonable" contract is still weird. Get used to it.

Eric Griffith, Analyst Extraordinaire:

Let's keep in mind that $15 million will only be 14 percent of the cap next July. Call me crazy, but snagging a quality starting center at that price range sounds like a great deal - proportionately similar to the contract that Robin Lopez had with the Blazers.

Mahinmi also showed himself to be highly competent on defense this season for the Pacers, if not necessarily "eye-popping." Former Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel ran out a starting frontcourt of Myles Turner, Paul George, and Mahinmi for the second half of the season. In that lineup, Mahinmi's length and athleticism made him a good match with George and Turner, helping the Pacers to disrupt offenses by switching nearly at-will at the forward and center positions.

In February, Pacers star George acknowledged how important the two long and athletic shot-blockers (Mahinmi and Turner) were for the Indiana defense:

"Defensively, we get stops and rebounds," George said. "That was a big factor the first half of the season, not being able to get rebounds. We were faster, but they were bigger...

"Having two shot-blockers out there is something I've never been part of. Roy (Hibbert) wasn't really a shot-blocker, he was more of a rim protector. And (David West) was just a tough guy. That's been the best thing, having shot-blockers."

Mahinmi's skillset would seem to be a good match for Portland. At 29, he's slightly older than the players Blazers GM Neil Olshey has pursued thus far, but he has also played relatively few NBA minutes and may have several effective seasons left in his career.

He also has this going for him - he's very available. Some analysts have speculated that the Pacers will not re-sign Mahinmi, and he has not drawn nearly the attention that Biyombo, Whiteside, Howard, or other candidates have.

Bismack Biyombo - 6'9" - 23 years old

BG: Biyombo is probably getting a "playoff bounce" in his next contract, which is to say he played well enough in the postseason to raise some eyebrows... and, likely, his salary next year. He's an "undersized" center who meshes well with teams that play smaller and faster, but don't let his height fool you: he has a ridiculous 7'6" wingspan that's more than enough to snare rebounds and block opponents out of their shoes.

If you're looking for Biyombo to score on anything besides dunks, putback, and bunnies, you'll be disappointed. But if you want a smallball center who can defend the rim and grab boards, well... see below.

His age is both a blessing and a curse for teams chasing him in free agency: he's still got upside and room for development, and by the end his contract he'll still be in his prime. But for all of those reasons, a dude who's never averaged more than 5 points and 8 boards per game is probably going to be getting a few crazy offers, maybe even some for the max. Hitching your wagon to a no-offense player is tough, but given his ability to create extra possessions and protect the rim, some team will make the plunge.

EG: Biyombo's less-than-even-rudimentary offense might be a problem for the Blazers. Terry Stotts has always relied on his centers to bring something to the table on offense, even if they're not go-to options. It's true that Ed Davis has made a living with the Blazers as a garbage man on offense by cleaning up broken plays and other miss opportunities, but he's also exclusively a reserve. It remains to be seen how the Blazers offense would respond to playing a player as scoring deficient as Biyombo for 35 minutes per game.

To make matters worse, Biyombo has started to hint that he will go out of his way to sign with the Raptors next season. Do the Blazers have time to wait for him to make a decision? He's certainly a tantalizing prospect, but fit and practicalities of the free agent calendar may make Biyombo an unlikely candidate to join the Blazers.

HASSAN WHITESIDE -- 7'0", 27 years old

EG: Whiteside has gotten plenty of attention for his defensive prowess, but it's important to acknowledge that his game is not without flaws. Whiteside struggles mightly with footwork when asked to handle guards in the pick and roll. This regularly leaves him out of position and leads to easy baskets for opposing perimeter players. The Blazers took advantage of this weakness when they faced the Heat in April:

Would that be a fatal flaw for Whiteside in Portland? It's certainly not an ideal scenario - whichever center the Blazers sign is going to have to cover for the McLillard weaknesses on defense on the perimeter. The Blazers could revert to their Lopez-era defense and have Whiteside drop back off the guards a bit, but that flies in the face of "switch everything" defenses that are en vogue right now to combat offenses like the Warriors. And this ignores the fact that he has been criticized for having stats that fail to create a true impact for a full game.

Whiteside would certainly be a great addition for the Blazers, but for a maximum contract he is not the sure thing homerun that the team probably hopes for.

Roy Hibbert -- 7'2" 29 years old

EG: Olshey likes Hibbert and he could be available on the cheap this season. Could he be revitalized in Portland after a disappointing run in Los Angeles?

David Deckard, Restorer of Sanity

:::sound of phonograph needle scratching across vinyl record:::

Seriously? You guys went there?

Olshey liked Hibbert. Big difference. Granted the Trail Blazers have a history of chasing players through multiple moves, but Roy Hibbert circa 2011 was wholly different than the current model. Between 2009 and 2012 Hibbert shot 50%, 46%, and 50% from the field. He's been hovering around 44% for the past three seasons...a huge difference. His efficiency is poor, his rebounding is in the dumpster, and the guy is 7'2" tall with a huge frame. Those characteristics do not mix, except disastrously. The Blazers have changed over the past 5 years as well. They no longer need a halfcourt plodder eating space and scoring at the rim. They have laser-streaking, high-jumping lean centers covering all angles on the floor and scoring at the rim. Need I mention that the league has changed as well? There will always been room for great, big, skilled 7-footers. Hibbert only qualifies for 2.5 of those 4 descriptors. In a league predicated on ziz, zap, and three-pointers, that's not enough. If the Blazers get anywhere near Hibbert it better be for a DEEEEEEP discount. Like "50% off a single item, no-restrictions coupon" discount.

Of course, this all but guarantees that the Blazers will sign Hibbert to an $18 million deal. But I still want Whiteside so we can wear a groove in this...

What say you, Blazer's Edge readers? I imagine Whiteside is the clear favorite for you too. I'm not sure the Blazers will get him but I bet they'll try. They probably have a legitimate shot at the other guys Brandon and Eric mentioned. Which, if any, would you want? Weigh in below and watch for the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast this afternoon. Dan Marang and I will discuss this, the draft, and more during the show.

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge