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Which free agent center best fits Sacramento’s needs?

An in-depth look at Vlade Divac’s options this summer.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When Vlade Divac was asked to discuss the potential of Marvin Bagley shortly after drafting him last June, the General Manager of the Sacramento Kings waxed eloquently about the second overall pick’s incredible versatility on the offensive side of the floor, even going so far as to discuss the potential of playing Bagley at small forward in the future. Despite the relative impossibility of that belief, there has been one clear message issued from the Kings since day one: they do not believe Marvin Bagley is a center in today’s NBA.

That opinion has been a driving factor behind Sacramento’s approach to free agency, as every reliable outlet has reported their interest in signing a quality big man this summer. Nikola Vucevic has been linked to the Kings by Sam Amick and Jason Jones, while local sources close to the team have been inelegantly whispering the name of DeAndre Jordan for the past several weeks. From an outsider’s perspective, Dewayne Dedmon, Brook Lopez, and Nerlens Noel have all been mentioned as possible targets for the front office, and Willie Cauley-Stein still resides as the former starter and current restricted free agent for Sacramento. Putting together a list of 10 or 15 names, from All-Stars to unknowns, is both a relatively easy and overwhelming task. Breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of those big men, and how those cohere with the rest of the roster, helps to create a hierarchy of high-level contributors down to bad fits on the depth chart.

Rim Protection

Sacramento’s rim protection was an unmitigated disaster last year, and addressing that gaping hole should be near the top of the priority list for the Kings. Their interior protection was led by a seven-foot athletic monster who quite literally refused to raise his hands on defense, along with two first-year bigs who were more eager than skilled, and an offensive-minded Nemanja Bjelica. That combination of ineffectiveness and inexperience invited opposing players to throw a party in the paint, as they raised their average field goal percentage by 2.8% within six feet of the rim, the second-worst mark in the league, only trailing the 19-53 Cleveland Cavaliers. Similar examples of a severe lack of rim protection can be found in Sacramento’s lack of shot-blocking, 3.15 per-75 possessions, and their opponents’ accuracy at the hoop, 63.9%. Both of those categories ranked 26th among NBA teams.

Finding a true interior cornerstone presents a much more challenging endeavor than simply studying shots blocked per game. It’s far too easy for a selfish contributor to rotate out of position and take a swing at an opponent’s field goal attempt in the hopes of making a highlight reel, rather than staying home, playing solid team defense, and securing the rebound after an opponent’s miss. Combining a player’s shot-blocks on a per-possession basis with their defensive field goal percentage at the rim (the increase or decrease of an opponent’s field goal percentage) presents a much clearer image of style points versus actual impact.

Brook Lopez, Nerlens Noel, and Richaun Holmes all standout as excellent foundational defenders, while Robin Lopez, Khem Birch, Dewayne Dedmon, and Nikola Vucevic all trend toward the league average. Unsurprisingly, Willie Cauley-Stein’s league-worst defensive field goal percentage of 3% dropped him to the bottom of the rankings. Sacramento’s rim protection is guaranteed to improve simply by letting Willie find his way to another team, but replacing his lack of production with an average or elite-level defender would provide an incredible boost to the team’s defensive acumen.

Defensive Rebounding

Outside of shot-blocking, defensive rebounding was arguably the largest hole in Vlade Divac’s roster construction during the 2018 season. The Kings struggled to lasso opponents’ misses on a nightly basis, and that inability to complete defensive possessions led to Sacramento placing in the bottom-five in every rebounding category:

Rebounding Struggles

Metric Result League Rank
Metric Result League Rank
Defensive Reb% 71.30% 25th
Total Reb% 48.70% 24th
Opp 2nd Chance Points 14.4 26th
Opp Points in the Paint 51.2 25th
Opp Offensive Rebounds Per Game 11.2 25th
Opp Rebounds Per Game 48 30th

More than anything, management must find consistent rebounding in free agency. Willie Cauley-Stein’s career-high defensive rebounding percentage of 21.3% was actually slightly better than league average last year, but his tendency to wholly disappear on the glass every third or fourth night cost the Kings dearly down the stretch. Perhaps no better example of that habit can be found than in a pair of games in late March of this past season. When facing the Denver Nuggets on the 21st, Willie dominated the boards, snagging a career-best 18 rebounds, 15 of which were on the defensive end of the floor. Two nights later, Willie registered 0 rebounds against the Phoenix Suns, his second such performance of the 2018-2019 campaign, and 1 of 16 games in which he secured five or fewer rebounds. Sacramento was victorious in just 5 of those 16 contests, while they won 9 of the 11 games in which Cauley-Stein grabbed 13 or more boards.

Those inconsistencies have been well documented and justifiably criticized, but Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles were both rather weak on the glass as well. The second overall selection recorded a defensive rebounding percentage of just 18%, placing in the 32nd percentile, and also grabbed five or fewer boards in 12 games in which he played at least 20 minutes. Giles struggled when facing beefier and savvier centers, as his defensive rebounding percentage of 17.1% ranked in the 25th percentile and was the lowest of any Sacramento big man. The Sticky Bandits should improve their rebounding impact as they increase their experience and spend serious time in the weight room, but shoring up one of the roster’s biggest weaknesses must take precedence in July. Among the available free agents, five players stand out as excellent rebounders:

Rebounding Ranks

Player DREB% Percentile
Player DREB% Percentile
Jordan 31.50% 100th
Davis 30.70% 95th
Vucevic 28.60% 90th
Kanter 24.50% 76th
Dedmon 22.90% 67th
WCS 21.30% 58th
Chandler 21.30% 58th
Noel 17.60% 31st
Holmes 17.30% 30th
Birch 16.60% 23rd
B. Lopez 13.50% 11th
R. Lopez 8.50% 0th

Jordan and Vucevic should both be granted a sponsorship by Windex, while Noel, Holmes, Birch, and the Lopez brothers won’t do much to help the rebounding problems in Sacramento, and are more akin to the clearanced-out Great Value knockoff that leaves massive streaks on your sliding glass doors. Looking beyond personal accolades, several contributors can also be lauded for their effect on their team’s overall performance on the boards:

Vucevic once again placed toward the front of the pack, alongside Ed Davis and a somewhat surprising Brook Lopez. Conversely, Holmes, Birch, and Noel actively hurt their teams on the defensive glass.

Floor Spacing

Sacramento’s ability to knock down three-pointers from almost any position was a critical element in their offensive attack under Dave Joerger, and replicating that versatility will be key in their postseason charge next year. In the post-trade deadline era, the Kings featured three starters who knocked down at least 40% of their attempts from deep, while De’Aaron Fox sunk 37% of his own. That constant threat from the perimeter forced defenses to spread to the corners, granting Fox enough room to operate in the paint.

Exchanging Nemanja Bjelica’s top-notch shooting for a traditional center and Marvin Bagley’s unproven jump-shot may very well muck up Sacramento’s spacing next season. Marvin did show some potential as a floor stretcher to close his rookie campaign, as he knocked in 40% of his long-balls after the trade deadline, but that sample size is unreliably small at just 45 attempts in 22 games. And even if Bagley manages to work his way up to league-average three-point shooting in his sophomore season, he won’t demand the same gravity as that of a proven shooter. The Kings must also consider their star forwards skill set, as he’s best used as an interior scorer and offensive rebounder, not as a three-point threat. If Bagley’s marksmanship doesn’t take a significant leap, De’Aaron Fox may find no open space in the key next season.

Of the 12 possible centers, only three have displayed the ability to push their shot beyond the arc. Brook Lopez has transformed his game from low-post scorer to three-point sniper, Nikola Vucevic introduced the long-ball to his game two years ago, and Dewayne Dedmon is the most accurate, but least frequent shooter of the trio:

Floor Spacers

Player 3PM 3PA 3P%
Player 3PM 3PA 3P%
B. Lopez 187 512 36.50%
Vucevic 84 231 36.40%
Dedmon 83 217 38.20%

While three-point shooting has evolved into the premiere method in which modern big men can space the floor, a center who can pick-and-pop in the midrange also provides a valuable service to his teammates. Most teams have trended away from the 10 to 18 foot jump shot, as it has proven to be one of the most inefficient shots in basketball, but one free agent candidate trumps all others in the midrange. Nikola Vucevic attempted almost the same number of midrange jumpers as every other free agent center combined last season:

As one moves closer to the basket, shot variation matters less and less, but an important distinction still lies between a big man who can only dunk the ball and a player who can flip in a hook shot from a half-dozen feet if he’s left open:

Rim Running

Alongside proper floor spacing, the support of a vertical threat in the pick-and-roll is a key component in De’Aaron Fox’s offensive attack. If there’s one part of Willie Cauley-Stein’s tenure that has been vital to the Kings, it has been his ability to sky above the hoop and throw down a hammer if left open in the paint, as evidenced by his 175 dunks last year, the sixth-most of any player. And yet, despite those impressive numbers, Willie was only average as a roll man last season, logging 1.15 points per possession. About half of the potential free agents project as better partners for De’Aaron Fox, while the other segment would be considered a downgrade.

Effective Rim Running

Player Frequency Points per Possesion eFG% Shooting Foul Frequency Percentile
Player Frequency Points per Possesion eFG% Shooting Foul Frequency Percentile
Jordan 22.5% 1.35 73.5% 21.8% 93.5%
Dedmon 21.3% 1.28 66.4% 10.8% 83.3%
Holmes 32.9% 1.26 60.9% 14.9% 81.9%
Birch 28.4% 1.25 61.7% 20.0% 81.4%
B. Lopez 14.1% 1.25 60.6% 14.6% 80.6%
Chandler 12.3% 1.21 72.7% 31.6% 75.5%
Cauley-Stein 27.4% 1.15 59.5% 12.1% 62.5%
Vucevic 20.5% 1.13 58.5% 6.9% 61.1%
Kanter 16.5% 1.11 57.2% 14.0% 57.4%
R. Lopez 28.7% 1.05 52.6% 9.1% 45.8%
Davis 22.6% 1.01 61.4% 14.1% 38.0%
Noel 26.3% 0.95 53.8% 8.4% 29.3%

Jordan’s reputation as an elite rim runner is well-earned, while Dedmon, Holmes, Birch, and Brook Lopez also feature as excellent options in the screen-and-roll. Meanwhile, Noel, Davis, and Robin Lopez are hard to envision as effective options in Sacramento’s most commonly used half-court strategy.

Complete Impact

Every free agent brings his own style, strengths, and weaknesses to the team, but the Kings must prioritize the players who most closely align with the four areas of need for Sacramento. Here’s where each candidate stands:

A very basic system was used to assign points to each player: five for elite, four for above-average, three for average, two for below average, and one for poor. While Dewayne Dedmon and Nikola Vucevic project as the best fits, the pair of players represents wholly different levels of contribution and cost. If the Kings are seeking an All-Star level player who will feature prominently in their offensive system, Vucevic rises to the top of the field. Dedmon, on the other hand, is a relatively inexpensive role player who complements the young core, but will rarely get a bucket on his own. His low salary and low usage will allow Harry Giles to seamlessly join the starting lineup when he’s ready, but Dedmon won’t provide nearly the same boost in overall talent.

Brook Lopez has evolved his game from interior scorer to three-point threat and rim protector, and the Milwaukee Bucks leveraged those skills in their journey to the Eastern Conference Finals. Brook’s lack of individual rebounding prowess would place an immense amount of pressure on the shoulders of Marvin Bagley and Harrison Barnes, but if the Kings can lure Splash Mountain out of the northeast with a short-term, high-dollar offer, they should absolutely take the plunge.

DeAndre Jordan is the most traditional big-name center available, and he plays as fans wish Willie Cauley-Stein would, with a high focus on glass cleaning and offering a large target in the pick-and-roll. The former centerpiece of the Lob City crew doesn’t run in transition particularly well, cant’ space the floor, and his contract could be cost prohibitive for Sacramento, so the Kings will need to tread cautiously in any pursuit of Jordan.

Richaun Holmes skirts the line of high-value signing and non-starting caliber, but he’s a mult-position defender who can switch to the perimeter and still recover to guard the rim, a skill most of the available big men are lacking. Unfortunately, Holmes is an extremely poor rebounder and his inability to knock down jumpers could severely limit Sacramento’s versatility in the half-court. Richaun would provide solid depth for the core, but he may struggle to find playing time ahead of Bagley, Giles, and the all-important shooting of Nemanja Bjelica.

The remaining candidates simply don’t offer a diverse enough skill set for a team looking to snag the eighth seed next season. A few of the players may offer value as supporting cast members and end of bench options, but management’s focus should stray away from that level of player until the higher level contributors are off of the board.

Individual skills

The other aspect in studying potential acquisitions is their fit with a still-developing Marvin Bagley. As impressive as the second overall pick was in his introductory season, expected areas of weakness still showed themselves. It comes as no surprise that Bagley’s struggles aligned with several trouble spots for Sacramento:

Rookie Blemishes

Metric Result Percentile
Metric Result Percentile
Defensive FG% -3.1% 22nd
Defensive Reb% 32% 32nd
Three-point Shooting 31.3% 26th
Rim Running 1.04 PPP 44th

Even the most balanced player can’t completely fill every hole for the Kings, nor should he be expected to. Bagley is a talented enough player to shore up some of his own deficiencies this summer, and management must leverage their knowledge of his development to pare down the list of priorities.

If a beefier version of Bagley is expected next season, and the coaching staff plans to use his athleticism as a vertical threat in the half-court, players like DeAndre Jordan, Enes Kanter, and Ed Davis may be redundant additions. Conversely, if the Kings envision Marvin as a floor spacer and rim protector, contributors in the vein of Brook Lopez and Dewayne Dedmon may lose most of their value.

Heading into July, the Sacramento Kings must determine which attributes of the available centers best fulfill their needs. A costly option like Nikola Vucevic may offer the most complete skill set, but the front office must weigh that potential talent upgrade against his max contract status, age, and low likelihood of moving to the bench when Harry Giles is ready to shine. Low-dollar players can also be brought on board to supplement Sacramento’s core; however, the Kings fell well short of the playoffs last season and internal growth may not be enough of a catalyst to push them into the eighth seed. Contributors like Dewayne Dedmon and Brook Lopez may offer the best balance of production, cost, and lineup flexibility for a team determined to make the postseason while keeping their young nucleus intact.