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Big Man Options for Celtics in Free Agency

Kendrick Perkins

After Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on the deadline day trade that sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to the Thunder in exchange for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, the Celtics suddenly became dangerously thin at the big man position. Now, entering an offseason full of uncertainty, that void has only expanded.

As of now, the Celtics only have one true center under contract in Jermaine O’Neal, who missed 58 games due to injury last season. Krstic signed with Russian club CSKA Moscow, and after an entertaining but frustrating injury-riddled season, Shaq decided to call it quits after a 19-year, Hall of Fame career.

So where does this leave the Celtics? After selecting power forward JaJuan Johnson and guard E’Twaun Moore in the draft, Boston will have to address the center position in free agency, where several intriguing names are set to find a home when — and if — the 2011-12 season tips off.

But who should the Celtics target? Who can they afford to target? Let’s break down the free agent options at center, and where they may (or may not) figure in to the C’s plans.

The Big Risks (Literally)

Two high-profile names on the market at the start of free agency were Yao Ming and Greg Oden. Both are true centers with unquestionable talent, but recent injuries have derailed their success on the court and cast doubt over their futures. Yao’s retirement last week has left Celtics’ fans with even fewer options to speculate over, but would the Buckeye alumnus Oden still be a viable target?

Greg Oden:

The former first-overall pick has been a colossal disappointment for the Blazers, appearing in only 82 games in four seasons due to knee trouble. Still, Oden is only 22 years of age, and has produced in his limited time on the court.

While Oden’s immense talent makes him the most appealing option for the C’s — he is young and athletic if he can stay on the court — it simply does not seem feasible for Boston to acquire the much-maligned superstar. He is a restricted free agent, and Portland has extended to him a qualifying offer for $8.8 million—a higher annual salary than he has earned so far in his career. The Celtics simply do not have the money to offer Oden a deal lucrative enough to lure him away from Portland, who has made clear that their former top pick fits into their future. It looks likely that Oden will stay in Portland, unless another team decides to take a chance and offer him a hefty, multiyear deal. That franchise will not be the Celtics.

The Cream of the Crop

There is no question that there are appealing options at the center position in this year’s free agency pool. With the dearth of talent at center in the current NBA, though, players that are strong role players garner huge contracts and become some of the league’s more overpaid players (see Brendan Haywood, 6 years/$55 million). It is likely that the same thing will occur with the best options in this year’s class, including Tyson Chandler (unrestricted), Nene (unrestricted), and Marc Gasol (restricted). These three players offer exactly what the Celtics need in a center: toughness, rebounding, and defense, but unfortunately, it will be their time to cash in, leaving the C’s out of the picture.

Realistic Targets

While the Celtics may be left out of the hunt for the big names, they can still make a splash in free agency and help fill the void at the five. Here are three players that Boston can (and should) pursue in the free agent market.

Samuel Dalembert:

Whether or not the Celtics have a real chance at Dalembert may very well hinge on

the new CBA, but regardless, this is the player the Celtics should have as their primary target in free agency. Dalembert is coming off one of the aforementioned staggering contracts for a big man (6 years/$64 million), and will surely be taking a pay cut. If the new CBA gives teams a mid-level exception, the Celtics can tempt Dalembert to take a bigger pay than he may take elsewhere (the previous mid-level exception was $5.8 million) to join a contender. It is also important to note that the signing of Dalembert would mean the end of any Dwight Howard fantasies in 2012.

So why Dalembert? At 6’11” and 250 lbs., he is a physical force inside with a career average of 8.3 rebounds per game, and he is particularly strong on the offensive glass. While any offense from the center position is a bonus, Dalembert has put up solid scoring numbers in his career, as well. Most importantly, though, is that Dalembert comes with a low risk of injury. He has only missed two games in the last five seasons, and at 30 years old, should still have a lot left in the tank.

Kwame Brown:

At first, the sight of this name on a potential signings list would make any basketball fan groan. The truth is, though, that Brown played well for Charlotte off the bench last season, averaging 7.9 ppg and 6.8 rpg. Depending on Jermaine O’Neal’s health, Brown could be a nice addition to the Celtics bench and give them some depth and size. Brown also appears to have outgrown some of his maturity issues, including multiple run-ins with the law in 2007. Brown is only 29, and with tempered expectations, could be an economical option turned pleasant surprise for the Celtics.

Jeff Foster:

The career-Pacer is a player that could fit in well with the Boston system. At 34, he’s entering the final stages of his career, but has been a hardworking rebounder for Indiana for 12 seasons, averaging 6.9 rpg for his career. He’s not going to give the Celtics much offensively, but he’s a big man with playoff experience who could be signed on the cheap side and give the Celtics quality minutes.

Like Brown and Foster, there are a number of veteran big men who have been no more than role players throughout their careers that the Celtics could pursue, including Joel Pryzbilla, Dan Gadzuric, and Jason Collins. There are also young and promising but unproven players available, such as former first round pick, 7’2” Alexis Ajinca (23) and 7”1” Kyrylo Fesenko (24).

If the Celtics cannot convince a legitimate starter to sign for less money or pull off a trade for a reliable big man, these might be their only options. It is not the most positive outlook, but perhaps Ainge can win the fans back over by finding a veteren who’s still got something left in the tank or an untapped talent just coming into his own.

Until the lockout ends, Celtics fans can only speculate.

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