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2019 NBA Free Agency: Ranking Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Nikola Vucevic and other big targets to fill New Orleans Pelicans void at center

David Griffin’s front office is expected to add help next to Zion Williamson in the paint. Here’s our list of preferred candidates!

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With approximately $32 Million available currently in cap space, the expiring deal of E’Twaun Moore and a treasure trove of various future draft picks, the Pelicans enter free agency with possibly the most versatility of any team in the league. Their approach will show how David Griffin plans to further build around the current core. Will a few more wins be in store for next season or will the road selected emphasize development above all else? Regardless of direction, the team will almost certainly be addressing the glaring hole in the roster at the center position.

There are a bevy of available bigs to chase this summer with each offering their own appeal, but stylistically there are two distinct qualities to look for in pairing with Zion Williamson: ability to space the floor and stretch the defense, and defensive anchor who can protect the rim and/or switch between positions. Unfortunately, the current market seems to be split between these two attributes among the available players, so how Griffin and company value those two needs should be evident with whom they sign.

Our collective brain trust at The Bird Writes got together and sorted through the available potential free agent options to identify who we feel would be the most desirable for the Pelicans to pursue. This considers various factors beyond the player in a vacuum. Feasibility, expected contract, age and of course direct fit next to Zion were all variables mentioned within our discussions.

The Outsiders

Nerlens Noel

Old friend Nerlens Noel had an ok bounce back season for the Oklahoma City Thunder and should be in line for a pay raise. Even still, he hasn’t caught our attention enough to be considered a top target.

Bobby Portis

Some would argue against signing Portis in deference to our love for Nikola Mirotic, others would prioritize his general inconsistency on the court as a reason to stay away.

10. Kyle O’Quinn - 6’10 250 lbs - 45 games - 3.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.6 BPG

O’Quinn has always been a Per 36 and Per 100 Possession stat darling. He’s effective within his workload, yet hasn’t been able to capture a larger role. Buried on the Pacers last season behind the trio of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Thad Young, many would assume O’Quinn would be looking to both cash in on his rebounding and floor spacing skill set somewhere he can earn bigger minutes. Amidst Zion, Jaxson Hayes, Jahlil Okafor and Christian Wood, it’s uncertain how large of a game minute dent he might actually make.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

9. Taj Gibson - 6’9 232 lbs - 70 games - 10.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 0.6 BPG

Gibson is long in the tooth but a consistent competitor. He’s played no less than 62 games his entire career and still clocked in 24 minutes a game for Minnesota last season. He is by no means a floor stretching big, taking only 13% of his shots outside of 16 ft., and relies heavily on others to get him the ball in scoring position with 68% of his FG coming off assist. Defense and leadership should be his primary value though, and he would give the Pels a serviceable rotation big to help further Zion and Hayes instincts.

8. Willie Cauley-Stein - 7’0 240 lbs - 81 games - 11.9 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 0.8 BPG

A tricky fit to say the least, Cauley-Stein is still a work in progress. The potential has always existed for him to be a dynamic game breaking defensive center, but his work ethic and consistency haven’t measured up. Fantastic footwork, impressive steal numbers and average shot blocking are negated by an offensive game which is woefully lacking in polish while overestimating his own capabilities. Cauley-Stein is the likely case if Jaxson Hayes goes wrong which may be enough to avoid him altogether.

Yet, it’s not unheard of for players to reshape themselves through a change of scenery. New Orleans is the kind of town the enigmatic WCS might mesh, and Alvin Gentry is the kind of coach who may be able to connect with him to push his trajectory more towards Tyson Chandler than JaVale McGee. He may be the biggest boom/bust option available, which may make him less than desirable for the culture conscious Griffin.

7. Nikola Vucevic - 7’0 260 lbs - 80 games - 20.8 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 36.4% on 2.9 attempts

Vucevic made his first All-Star appearance last season with fantastic numbers across the board, carrying the Orlando Magic to the playoffs and helping knock off the eventual champion Raptors in game 1. However Vucci Mane is a high usage big who gets a TON of his looks around the bucket. Of 1,270 FGA last season, Vuc took 915 inside of 14 feet from the basket, or 67% of his total FGA. In other words, Vucevic could very well suffocate the operating space Zion most excels in.

Vuc did expand his game last season connecting on 36% of his 3PA while taking nearly three a game, but given the Pels already crowded lineup of non shooters, it may be problematic to add a high usage 5-man who’s best suited around the cup.

6. Kevon Looney - 6’9 220 lbs - 80 games - 6.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.7 BPG

Looney’s per 36 minutes should make Pels fans salivate, especially considering his experience in the Golden State system next to Draymond Green. Those numbers of 12.2 PPG, 10.1 RPG along with 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks would be the exact kind of impact you’d want next to Zion Williamson long term. He’s tough as exemplified by his willingness to play through a broken collarbone during the NBA Finals and made enough long range twos (50% on 42 attempts) to inspire hope that his shot could eventually get to where it needs to be.

However, a dismal 62% free throw percentage more than complicates matters. Looney excelled in an offensive system featuring three of the greatest shooters to ever touch a basketball. The transition from Steph, Klay and KD into Lonzo, Jrue and Ingram could stifle his offensive opportunities while clogging the driving lanes.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

5. Ed Davis - 6’10 225 lbs - 81 games - 5.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 0.4 BPG

Kevin Barrios just did three shots of Patron reading Ed Davis name in print; it’s his ritual and he’s right to get excited. Davis is a workhorse who plays within himself and makes all the right plays on a nightly basis. He’s been generally durable and is athletic enough to competently switch amongst defenders while recovering to the rim. He’s an excellent finisher around the rim and does not travel far beyond that area, shooting 64% on shots under 5 feet from the basket while taking an absurd 93% of his attempts within that range as well.

Part of why Davis is so appealing is the potential to add him to the roster along with another piece. He’s a veteran, far enough along in his career to not necessarily be a top target for most teams and would provide good consistent minutes at the 4 and 5 spots within the mix while allowing Griffin to chase shooters with the excess cash he has available.

4. Nikola Mirotic - 6’10 250 lbs - 46 games - 15.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 36.5 3P% on 6.9 attempts

Threekola marks the start of the real stretch bigs on this list, and should the beardless wonder return to New Orleans he would again be embraced as a fan favorite all over again. Mirotic would assume a similar role as before providing space and a big body to weather more rugged defenders on the block. Yet the necessity to defend bruising centers won’t be as essential now that he’d be teamed up with the 280-pound Goliath that is Zion.

Mirotic remains streaky, is an easy target in pick-and-rolls and has a worrisome injury history, but he would provide the kind of shooting threat that’s essential in the modern NBA.

3. Al Horford - 6’10 245 lbs - 68 games - 13.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 36.0 3PT% on 3.0 attempts

The consummate professional just finished a tumultuous campaign with the Boston Celtics. He’s 32 and entering his post-prime but should be a top choice to add to the Pelicans were he amenable. Sporting a tidy 36% three point percentage, defensive versatility, excellent playmaking and veteran leadership Horford ticks nearly every box you’d want to add to the roster. What he lacks in flashy numbers he makes up for in acumen and advanced stats which continue to adore him even heading into his twilight.

Yet rumors abound that Horford has a 4 year $115M+ offer somewhere in the wings. Whether this is smoke to scare off suitors, drum up interest or actually true is unknown and concerning. If any contender is planning to offer this kind of cash to Horford the Pelicans need to abort mission. However a 3 year descending max contract as conceived by our own Preston Ellis would place New Orleans in a very interesting position to utilize all his skills along with his contract should a star trade become available.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

2. Brook Lopez - 7’0 270 lbs - 81 games - 12.5 PPG, 2.2 BPG, 36.5 3P% on 6.3 attempts

Last year’s breakout Stretch 5 Lopez was a nightly highlight reel of step back threes and catch and shoots from the corner as he fully bought into the role of Splash Mountain for the league’s best regular season team. Just as importantly Lopez was elite when defending shots at the rim. The Stanford product allowed only 44.9% on contested shots, better than such elite names as Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert. He finished the season 4th in Blocks Per Game and his newly acquired three point torch would make him a fantastic lineup addition for New Orleans functioning in the Niko Mirotic role.

Primary concerns preventing a Lopez signing include his necessity to Milwaukee and their interest in re-signing him along with cost should other teams jump in the fray.

1. Dewayne Dedmon - 7’0 245 lbs - 64 games - 10.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 38 3P% on 3.4 attempts

The somewhat surprising favorite of the group, as well as our own David Grubb, Dedmon could be a candidate to get overpaid in a big way as his services seem to be in high demand on every roster. The stretch 5 does just about everything well while functioning as an exceptional outside threat. Dedmon drilled 38% of his three point attempts last season on 3.4 attempts per game. He also provides the rebounding of Mirotic and some of the shot blocking of Lopez. Perhaps the best option if he’s interested and affordable by being the perfect blend of the two.

Negatives for Dewayne link primarily to durability and potential outsized cost if the front office perceives his value to have a ceiling. Looking into the next few seasons including extensions and trade targets is imperative to maximize assets that aren’t looked at as building blocks. Cap Space being one of those factors makes overpaying Dedmon a potential liability.