1. Erick Dampier, Golden StateFew players in NBA history have sparked the kind of disagreement between rating systems that Dampier did last season. By linear-weights measures, Dampier was one of the league's best centers, and I have him rated as one of three NBA centers more than 10 wins better than replacement level (WARP) last season, the others being Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal.
The alternative viewpoint is provided by plus-minus ratings. Dampier rated as having only a slight positive impact on the Warriors last season; they were but 1.1 points per 100 possessions better with him.
How to balance these two separate views? That's a question myself and many others have spent much time pondering, and the answer I've come up with is, "I'm not sure." Generally, I would say that I tend to favor individual statistics in this kind of divide, but I'm open to the possibility that Dampier is piling up his stats while hurting his team; his adjusted plus-minus was even worse two years ago.
Dampier is just an interesting guy all around statistically. He also managed this season to defy John Hollinger's "Fluke Rule". At 28, Dampier, by that thinking, should have been expected to regress after making strides from 2001-02 to 2002-03. Instead, he took his game to a new level, which leaves me reasonably optimistic that he's just figured things out.
Where Dampier is almost certain to regress if he signs elsewhere is in terms of rebounding. Last year, Dampier went from pulling down 14.6% of available rebounds to 20.8%, which ranked him behind only Danny Fortson amongst NBA regulars. As Bob Chaikin has pointed out repeatedly, a lot of that credit should go to Clifford Robinson, who is arguably the NBA's worst rebounder for his position, giving Dampier a lot more board opportunities. On the other side of Robinson's trade to Golden State, Ben Wallace went down from 23.2% of available rebounds to 19.1%. That's probably something less than a coincidence.
A lot of people have argued that Dampier is a dangerous free agent because he only played well in his contract year, but I don't buy that argument (with the rebounding caveat). Dampier was a solid starter in 2002-03 as well, a fact that was somewhat hidden because Adonal Foyle was having a career year of his own, limiting Dampier to 25 minutes per game. Project Dampier's 2002-03 numbers to the same minutes as 2003-04, and you get 11.0 points and 8.8 boards per game -- not as good as his actual 2003-04 performance, but also not bad either, especially given how little depth there is at the center position in the NBA.
I would be careful of giving Dampier too long of a contract or too much money, but he's pretty clearly the center available on the market who could make the most impact in 2004-05 (not counting O'Neal in a trade), and could help a lot of teams.
2. Mehmet Okur, DetroitOkur never really hit it off with Larry Brown, and while he opened the season as the Pistons' starter in the middle, he ended up averaging 22.3 minutes per game, only a slight increase on the action he saw as a rookie. In the playoffs, Okur's role was really marginalized, and he averaged less than 10 minutes per game in the NBA Finals.
While the Pistons reportedly offered Okur $40 million over six years and have the right of first refusal on him, the general consensus is he'll get a solid offer elsewhere and the Pistons will decline to match, unable to do so without waving goodbye to Rasheed Wallace. With Darko Milicic waiting in the wings and the chance to continue to compete for championships, it's hard to argue against that line of action, and Okur would clearly be better off elsewhere. That elsewhere appears now to be Utah, as the Jazz has reportedly signed Okur to a six-year, $50 million offer sheet. It's not a great bargain, but Okur significantly improves Utah in the middle.
Okur is more comfortable on the perimeter, the major source of friction with Brown, but he still shot 46.3% from the field last year and was more than efficient enough. If he can continue improving like he did last year, going from shooting 42.6% to 46.3%, Okur can become a very good offensive player. He's a good rebounder and solid at the defensive end despite not blocking a lot of shots, so it's a nice overall package. Okur doesn't seem that likely to develop into an All-Star level player -- though Vlade Divac and Bill Laimbeer are both amongst his most comparable players by my similarity system -- but should be a solid starter for many years to come.
3. Stromile Swift, MemphisHollinger rated Swift as his second-best free-agent bargain because of his per-48 minute averages -- 22.8 points and 11.9 rebounds last season. Well, those don't leap off the page, but Swift's numbers are solid all around. Pretty good scorer, pretty good rebounder, great shot-blocker.
(Brief aside: We finally get a look at Hollinger, at least most of his head, and I've got to say he looks more likely to be in a neo-punk band from Britain than writing about the NBA.)
Still, I've been a little more hesitant than Hollinger to tout Swift. Sometimes, there's a good reason guys with good per-minute stats don't play more than they do, and in Swift's case it's because of his incredibly low basketball IQ. Swift's game can essentially be distilled to two things -- trying to block a shot into the 20th row on defense and trying to throw down a monster dunk on offense. As a result, while Swift's own ratings are good, his opponents' ratings were much too high.
Swift was the second pick of the draft, and he's only 24 (25 early next season), so the potential is there for him to put it all together and become a quality starter. At 6-9, 230, Swift is better suited for power forward, but you can get away with him at center, and he might be more valuable there because of positional scarcity.
Despite Swift's age and rep, he's actually a much safer bet than most of the free-agent centers on the market, as he's been essentially the same player the last three years.
4. Marcus Camby, DenverReplacement-level theory was designed for guys like Marcus Camby. Prior to miraculously playing in 72 games last year, Camby had only missed less than 19 games in a season once (the lockout season, meaning his 72 games played were a career high). When he has played in recent years, Camby has been quite effective.
Camby is one of the best rebounders in the NBA and also an effective shot-blocker, although his blocked shots probably overstate his defensive ability because he's undersized in the post at a listed 6-11, 225. After a slow start to the season, he improved his shooting percentage to 47.7%, good enough that he ranked sixth amongst centers in terms of WARP. His three-year trend in that statistic, however, goes 2.2, 2.1, 8.1, so Camby can't be expected to be nearly as valuable.
The Nuggets quickly ensured that Camby would stay around, reportedly agreeing with him on a deal for five or six years worth upwards of $50 million. Depending on how the deal is structured -- and there are apparently a fair number of incentives -- this is easily one of the riskiest deals of the summer. At 30, it seems unlikely that Camby will become any less prone to injury, and age will take its toll by the end of the contract. Even ignoring that, I'm dubious a healthy Camby is worth that kind of money; I had him rated as worth less than $8 million last year, when everything went about as well as it can go for him.
5. Brian Skinner, MilwaukeeSkinner was one of my free-agent bargains last year, and ended up making just $1.5 million to start 54 games and average 28 minutes a night. Skinner wasn't quite as good as I hoped, since his field-goal percentage dipped from 55.0% to 49.7%, but he was still a quality player.
At age 28, Skinner's 2003-04 performance is pretty close to his floor for next season. If he can get his field-goal percentage up to 51% or so, he'll be a valuable starting center. There's little question that he'll boost his salary this summer as teams realize the mistake they made a year ago.
6. Vlade Divac, SacramentoAs he nears the end of the line, Divac is tough to rank. He's probably got another year left in him as a starter -- though he probably won't actually start if he stays in Sacramento and Chris Webber both isn't traded and stays health -- but, at 36, a contract of more than two to three years would be folly.
Divac's rebounding average really fell off last season, to the point where he's something of a liability on the glass. He can also have difficulty at times against younger, quicker centers. Still, Divac remains an effective offensive weapon whose passing ability from the post is virtually unparalleled.
It's difficult to see Divac finding a better situation than Sacramento. Despite starting his career with the Kings' biggest rivals, Divac has developed a strong link with the Kings, and when fans look back on his career, I think they'll remember him in Sacramento. The Kings will probably be willing to overpay a little to keep Divac around for his leadership ability.
7. Greg Ostertag, UtahAt last, Ostertag has concluded the six-year contract extension he signed with the Jazz after his rookie contract. A disappointment at various times during the deal, Ostertag seems to have found his niche in Utah over the last two years, starting 125 games in that stretch after going three years without starting regularly. Now, the Jazz has said that keeping Ostertag as a free agent is a priority.
As evidence of how well Ostertag is now fitting his skills in with his teammates, he had one of the league's best "Roland Ratings" in 2002-03, and a solidly positive rating last year. Ostertag still isn't much of an offensive threat, though he shoots a high percentage from the field, but he's a very good rebounder and defender. That's a nice combination to have coming off the bench or, in the right situation, starting. Along the latter lines, the Phoenix Suns are reportedly interested, and if Ostertag does leave Utah, Phoenix would seem to be a nice fit.
8. Mark Blount, BostonIn the time I've truly been analyzing the NBA, Mark Blount is the biggest "buyer beware" player I've come across. It was easy to show statistically that Michael Olowokandi had simply never been very good before becoming a free agent; the reason I'd hang up on Blount's agent is much more subtle. A year ago, I probably wouldn't have picked up on it.
You see, 2003-04 Mark Blount was easily worth the mid-level exception. In fact, as a low-possessions, high-efficiency center who picked up some rebounds and some blocked shots (actually, not nearly so many as I thought, now that I look at the numbers), he was nearly my ideal center.
In his column at ESPN.com, Peter May writes, "His agent, the ever crafty Mark Bartlestein, has likened Blount's continuing improvement to another one of his clients, Kings' center Brad Miller. Their stories are not dissimilar." May illustrates this "continuing improvement" by showing how Blount's per-game averages have gone up the last three years (he also mistakenly uses Blount's playoffs rebounding average, which is better than what he did in the regular season).
If you're reading this column, however, you know better. Blount's rebound percentage did go up slightly, from 12.4 to 14.0 (and 11.2 the year before), so he has made some strides there. But Blount's not nearly a good enough rebounder to play for that alone, and he's blocking less shots now than he did when he broke into the league.
What's quite obvious if you look at it closely is that the vast majority of Blount's improvement can be tied to a single-factor -- his two-point shooting. To steal and adjust a line I read recently in Baseball Prospectus, field-goal percentage is the potion that changes Blount from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.
In 2000-01, Blount shot 50% and started some games for the Celtics. The next two years, he shot 42.1% and 43.2% and couldn't get off the bench. Last year, Blount shot 56.6% and was one of the league's better centers. So if I'm a team considering signing Blount, I have to ask myself, what is he going to shoot next year? And while I certainly can't give you an accurate answer to that, I think I can safely say that the expectation is far, far below 56.6%.
My research has found that players who substantially improve their two-point percentage typically regress the following season, and quite a bit. My study with Eddy Curry dealt only with guys who had shot at least league average in year X-1, so the prognosis for Blount is even worse, since he was way below league average. I would guess that Blount will be hard-pressed to shoot much better than 50% from the field next year.
That leaves Blount as a fringe starter at best, better suited as a reserve and worth maybe a couple of million per season. In all likelihood, Blount will get more than twice that. Someone will offer him the entirety of their median exception, Blount will accept, and they'll probably live to regret it. Don't say you didn't hear it here first.
9. Adonal Foyle, Golden State
Mark Blount, a year later. Foyle wishes he would have gone to free agency a year ago, after shooting 53.6% from the field. Last year, plagued by injuries, Foyle dropped to 45.4% from the field, which is more in line with his career performance.
(I wrote that paragraph on Friday. Two days later, Foyle has reportedly agreed with the Warriors on a deal that will pay him up to $40 million over five or six years. So scratch what I said about him wanting to go to free agency a year ago. He wouldn't have done any better than that reported deal, which is one of the worst free-agent contracts in recent memory, even worse than the Camby deal.)
When he's healthy, Foyle is one of the league's best defensive players. He blocks shots as well as anyone, and the Warriors were 6.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Foyle in 2002-03 despite having a good starter in Dampier. I feel compelled to write off last year's defensive effort to injuries. Foyle had left knee surgery early on, and didn't look healthy when I last saw him play in the middle of the season.
Like Blount, Foyle is not a great rebounder. He's also been one of the league's worst offensive players over the course of his career. When he did get his field-goal percentage up to 53.6%, however, I had him rated as worth nearly five wins above replacement level despite splitting time with Dampier in the middle. I wouldn't count on a return to that form, but Foyle is not a bad bench option. (The Warriors now appear to be looking at Foyle as their starter for some time to come, which is a mistake.)
Foyle is also quite intelligent and plugged in off the court. His Web site, AdonalFoyle.com, is worth a look.
10. Zendon Hamilton, PhiladelphiaOver his four-year NBA career, Hamilton has played a grand total of 1,351 minutes, or less than Slava Medvedenko played last season. Sometimes life isn't fair.
When he has gotten an opportunity, Hamilton has done nothing but produce. He shot 53.7% from the field last season in Philadelphia, he's shot nearly as many free throws as field goals during his career, and he's pulled down better than 14 rebounds per 48 minutes, including 18.2% of all available rebounds last season. Hamilton's individual defense, wasn't good, but it also wasn't so bad that it should have kept him off the court.
Hamilton turned 29 after last season, so he's too old to have much hope of being anything more than a rotation player, but the cost is also minimal. He should be available at the minimum, and he could provide better production than players being paid five times that if given the opportunity.
11. Jason Collier, AtlantaLast year, Collier only made honorable mention in my list of free agent centers, and he wasn't particularly high on that portion of the list either. After the Minnesota Timberwolves cut him in training camp, Collier spent most of his season in the NBDL before the Atlanta Hawks gave him a shot after gutting their roster with trades. Collier was a key part of the Hawks squad that was actually respectable, going 10-18 after the trades -- slightly better than they did beforehand with Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff on the roster. Collier was a key guy in that run, averaging 11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game while shooting 47.9% from the field.
Collier has always been a pretty good shooter for a big man, but the problem with this plan -- unless you're Mehmet Okur -- is that nobody's good enough on 15-20 footers to be an efficient scorer if that's all they shoot (aka The Peja Drobnjak Theory). Last year, Collier played inside enough -- 44% of his shots were "inside", according to 82games.com -- to be an efficient scorer.
Collier still had his weaknesses. He wasn't much of a rebounder for a center -- and never has been -- and struggled on defense. Last year, however, he made good on the offensive potential that made him the 15th pick of the 2000 Draft. At less than a million, he's a solid pickup to see if he can keep it going.
12. Ben Handlogten, N/AOkay, he was a 30-year-old playing in the NBA for the first time, and a total non-prospect I'd never heard of a year ago. Still, the numbers Handlogten put up with Utah before tearing his ACL (and being traded to Phoenix to make salaries work and subsequently cut by the Suns) simply can't be ignored. Handlogten shot 53.2% from the field and pulled down 19.8% of all available rebounds, putting him in the upper echelon of all centers.
The caveat to Handlogten's statistics is the small sample size, 172 minutes, most of them garbage time. But sometimes what seems like garbage time really isn't. On Dec. 7, Handlogten and other Utah reserves checked into a game at the L.A. Lakers trailing 74-60, and led a comeback to briefly take the lead before falling 94-92. Handlogten had eight points and eight rebounds in 12 minutes.
Maybe Handlogten just had a lucky 172 minutes. That possibility certainly can't be ruled out. But I'd prefer to give him a chance as compared to someone I know can't play. The Jazz has said Handlogten will be invited back to training camp this year.
Handlogten's story -- he was born with a bilateral cleft palate -- is pretty amazing and worth reading.
13. Kevin Willis, San AntonioThis ranking is an attempt to average Willis' value across the NBA. For the majority of teams, a 42-year-old third-string center has basically no value. For a few contending teams like his own San Antonio Spurs, however, Willis is useful to have around for a few spot minutes, which he's still more than capable of playing even at his age.
14. Steven Hunter, OrlandoHunter wore out his welcome with the Magic last year, and Orlando apparently has little or no interest in a return engagement after declining the optional fourth year on his rookie contract. Hunter is like a poor man's Swift, as his game is also highly skewed to dunks (which accounted for nearly a third of his shot attempts last season) and blocking the ball into the fourth row. Hunter averaged better than four blocks per 48 minutes last season, but allowed opposing centers a ridiculous 18.0 PER and was a negative influence overall.
Hunter, who only played two years at DePaul, won't turn 23 until training camp, but he's shown little to no improvement during his NBA career thus far, and none would really seem to be in the offing, leaving him as a third-stringer in all likelihood.
15. Jake Tsakalidis, MemphisAfter acquiring him early in training camp to complete their quest for a physical center to play alongside Pau Gasol, the Grizzlies scarcely used Tsakalidis last year. He played 533 minutes, most of them concentrated in a couple of stretches, and just three minutes in the playoffs.
Tsakalidis improved his shooting percentage from 45.2% to 50.4%, but that really boiled down to six shots all season -- one every six games or so. Tsakalidis still has the great size that made him so intriguing in the draft four years ago, but he hasn't really done much with it. His 13.6% rebound percentage is poor for a center, and his defensive numbers -- 21.5 opponent PER, Grizzlies 4.3 points per 100 possessions worse are almost so bad as to be unprintable.
Like Hunter, Tsakalidis is still pretty young, but he hasn't improved and shows few signs of doing so.
16. Jarron Collins, UtahBecause he's started 106 games and averaged more than 20 minutes during his three-year NBA career (despite missing the final four months or so of 2002-03 with a torn ACL), Collins has a reputation as a second-round pick made good, but second-round pick given PT would be more accurate.
Collins is a pretty decent offensive player despite playing a minimal role; he shot 49.8% last season and he and his twin brother have always had a remarkable knack for getting to the free-throw line (262 FTA, 295 FGA last year). Everywhere else, however, Collins comes up short. At 11.3% of available rebounds, he'd be good for a small forward, but is horrid for a center. Defensively, Collins rates about as poorly as a player can based on traditional statistics; he's barely totaled 100 blocks and steals in a career that spans over 3,500 minutes. Collins' man defense statistics were much better, but he still rated as a negative influence on the Utah d.
17. Oliver Miller, MinnesotaEverybody had a good chuckle when the Timberwolves signed Miller to be their backup center while Michael Olowokandi was on the injured list, but he acquitted himself okay the rest of the season, shooting 53.0% from the field. With tremendous touch down low that made him so promising before his weight wrecked his career, Miller could probably shoot 53% from the field in his sleep, and he's an average rebounder. For a few minutes every here and there, he's a passable solution, though his attitude might not make him worth keeping around if he's not playing.
18. Loren Woods, MiamiIn his third NBA season, Woods finally cracked 40% from the field and did it in style, shooting 45.8%. Woods is a solid rebounder, but, despite his 7-2 size, is still too skinny to defend much of anyone. His 19.1 opponent PER was worse even than the 315-pound Miller's effort.
19. Mikki Moore, UtahA solid third center, Moore's a career 52.2% shooter who can put the ball in the basket down low. At just 7-0, 225, however, Moore lacks the size to bang with the NBA's bigger big men. His rebound percentage, 13.1%, is low for a center. Defensively, Moore's statistics were pretty good, so maybe his frame doesn't hurt him as much as I would figure.
20. Michael Doleac, DenverThe Peja Drobnjak Theory in action. Doleac is well-regarded for his ability to score from the perimeter, but his 43.5% shooting last year was his best mark in four years -- and still produced a dismal 47.1% true shooting percentage. Doleac's a bright, hard-working guy, so he's probably preferable as a third stringer to guys like Miller and Woods, but projecting him as a rotation player is pure folly. He picked it up on the boards last year too, but still was shy of 15% of available rebounds, and he's a bad defensive player. There's just nothing in his statistics to suggest that Doleac is an NBA regular.
Everyone ElseMengke Bateer - Big body, but has gotten just 86 minutes of NBA action over the past two years and was dumped by both Toronto and Orlando last season, never a good sign.
Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje - Good shot-blocker, but lacks the rest of a game to play in the NBA and has played even less in the last two years (31 minutes).
Paul Grant - Made first NBA appearance in five years with Utah, shooting okay but failing to rebound or stick.
Amal McCaskill - Played 636 undistinguished minutes in Philadelphia (where Hamilton was clearly better); mediocre rebounder who's shot 37.7% in his NBA career.
Jelani McCoy - Once had promise as Swift-type, but now 26 and what he is -- high percentage shooter because of dunks who blocks shots but isn't good on defense and is adequate on the boards. Oh, and attitude questions.
Mamadou N'diaye - Has actually played pretty well when he's gotten chances in Toronto and Atlanta and was a somewhat difficult omission from the top 20. Definitely worth a camp invite.
Cherokee Parks - Has played pretty well in two recent stints with the Clippers, but done nothing anywhere else in four years.
Olden Polynice - Still not entirely clear how he made the Clippers roster.
Mark Pope - Good practice fodder, but overmatched athletically in games.
Joel Przybilla - Good shot-blocker who picked up a ton of boards in limited minutes last year, but maybe the least-skilled offensive player in the NBA in recent years. (Whoops, I forgot about DeSagana Diop.)
Zeljko Rebraca - One of Hollinger's honorable mention bargains and an old favorite of mine, but he's 32, has a history of heart trouble and back problems, and did nothing last year, so maybe it's time to give this one up.
Sean Rooks - 35 years old and suffering badly from the Peja Drobnjak Theory.
Jabari Smith - Has some athletic skills, but, if it hasn't happened by age 27, it probably isn't going to happen.
Bruno Sundov - Keeps getting chances because he's 7-2, but has yet to do anything at the NBA level.
Slavko Vranes - 7-5 size is intriguing, but he's years away from contributing, if ever.
Scott Williams - More Peja Drobnjak theory, though he shot pretty well last year, and his veteran leadership can be valuable in the right situation.
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