Front-Office Insider: Ranking the top free-agent centers

Bobby Marks
The Vertical
Nerlens Noel played 51 games last season. (AP)

The Vertical Front-Office Insider Bobby Marks, a former 20-year executive with the Nets, ranks the top centers in this offseason’s free-agent class.

Previously: Point guards | Shooting guards | Small forwards | Power forwards

THE BEST

1. Pau Gasol (player option)
Age in free agency: 36

Insider info
All indications are that Gasol will exercise his $16.2 million option and remain a Spur.

If Gasol were to become a free agent, San Antonio would have been limited to signing him to a max of 120 percent of his $15.5 million salary.

2. Nerlens Noel (restricted)
Age in free agency: 23

Insider info
Acquired at the February trade deadline, Noel gives Dallas the rim protector it has missed since Tyson Chandler departed.

Noel missed his rookie season recovering from ACL surgery and averaged 64 games his first three seasons. Durability issues will be a concern in negotiations.

Noel has Bird rights and the Mavericks can match any offer sheet he signs with another team.

Noel’s $10.9 million free-agent cap hold gives the Mavericks flexibility to create cap space before he signs a long-term contract.

3. Mason Plumlee (restricted)
Age in free agency: 27

Insider info
Restricted free agency and a shortage of teams in need of a starting center should protect Denver in the short term, but the cost to obtain Plumlee from Portland (Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick) should give his representative, Mark Bartelstein, an advantage.

While Plumlee’s options are limited, don’t discount his on-court value.

Either starting or coming off the bench, Plumlee has proven that he is not a system player and can adapt to any type of system.

4. Greg Monroe (player option)
Age in free agency: 27

Insider info
The February trade that sent Miles Plumlee to Charlotte gave the Bucks luxury-tax flexibility if Monroe were to opt in to his $17.8 million contract for next season.

After an inconsistent first year in Milwaukee, Monroe has rebounded to become one of the league’s top big men off the bench.

A salary that at one time was viewed as a hindrance is now viewed as one with value.

With few teams in need of a starting center, Monroe is unlikely to receive a salary starting at $17.8 million if he were to opt out of his contract.

Greg Monroe has given the Bucks value off the bench. (AP)

5. Alex Len (restricted)
Age in free agency: 24

Insider info
Since making a big jump in production in his second year, Len’s development has stagnated.

Still, Phoenix cannot afford to let go of a former top-five pick whom they have spent four years developing.

6. Nene
Age in free agency: 34

Insider info
A value signing last summer at $2.8 million, Nene has revitalized his career in Houston.

In a reduced role compared to his previous stops in Denver and Washington, Nene has been an important veteran presence for Clint Capela while anchoring the second unit with Eric Gordon.

Finally healthy, Nene has played 67 games while playing a career-low 17.9 minutes per game.

He should see his salary double next season either with the Rockets (cap space or exception) or with a team in search of some bench support.

7. Dewayne Dedmon (player option)
Age in free agency: 27

Insider info
The Spurs’ signing of Dedmon last summer was one of the league’s best under-the-radar signings.

He has been a reliable bench player who can also start (29 games) and is an effective rebounder, averaging 13.4 per 36 minutes in 76 games. He’s also one of the best help defenders among the free-agent centers.

He has a $3 million player option in June.

8. Willie Reed (player option)
Age in free agency: 27

Insider info
Reed is another development project in Miami that had a career year.

Though he averaged 14.5 minutes per game, Reed had an impact on both ends of the court.

He is a highly effective rebounder off the bench who appeared in a career-high 71 games this season.

Reed is a good candidate for a team that has the $3.29 million biannual exception or part of the $8.4 million mid-level exception to spend.

9. Amir Johnson
Age in free agency: 30

Insider info
A starter the past four seasons, including two in Boston, Johnson’s next role could be that of a backup if he were to sign with a team other than the Celtics.

If the Celtics were to explore the free-agent market or renegotiate the contracts of Isaiah Thomas or Avery Bradley, Johnson’s $15.6 million cap hold would likely need to be released.

10. Zaza Pachulia
Age in free agency: 33

Insider info
Pachulia signed for the one-year, room mid-level exception with the Warriors last July and has non-Bird rights.

Kevin Durant’s potential free agency will leave the Warriors with limited options if they want to bring back Pachulia.

Golden State would either need to find cap space (limited), use the room mid-level or sign Pachulia to 120 percent of his $2.89 million contract.

THE REST

Other free-agent centers (ranked in order by team)

• Cristiano Felicio, Chicago (restricted)
• Roy Hibbert, Denver
• Aron Baynes, Detroit (player option)
• JaVale McGee, Golden State
• Tiago Splitter, Philadelphia
• Alan Williams, Phoenix (restricted)
• Joel Anthony, San Antonio
• Jeff Withey, Utah
• Andrew Bogut
• Anderson Varejao

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