After an off-season that featured the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and many others as top free agents and a regular season that featured mid-season trades involving Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, entering into the 2011 free agency period with Nene as the top name on the unrestricted free agent market feels a little disappointing – especially since all of the talk right now is about what will happen with Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, whose contracts expire at the end of this season. Then again, to actually write about basketball again is totally awesome, so I won’t complain.
Ken Berger of CBSSports, who absolutely killed it during the lockout, reports that there are six teams interested in signing Nene as soon as free agency starts on December 9th: the Warriors, Nets, Pacers, Mavericks, Heat and Rockets. Each team would have to go through different processes to acquire Nene, like amnestying a player to create cap space (Nets, Warriors), executing a sign-and-trade (Heat, Mavericks, Rockets) or just signing them outright (Pacers).
Berger also says that the Nuggets are operating under the assumption that Nene will be testing them market, so I’m going to operate under the assumption that he won’t be returning to Denver. Nene has been playing center for the Nuggets for the past few seasons but it appears as if he could also slide over and play the power forward as well. Nene is one of the most efficient big men in basketball; he lead the league in field goal percentage last season and ranked 26th overall in PER at 20.49. At least in Denver’s fast paced system, Nene had a case for being one of the five best power forwards in basketball.
However, it’s important to note that he is 29 years old and that he is not worth max money, which is something that some teams seem to be willing to offer. Nene is a great player, but he’s not elite and if he is offered a max deal then you know exactly why we just had a lockout. Anyways, here’s how I think he fits with these six teams.
Dallas Mavericks – Sign and trade
I think that the Mavericks see Nene as a back-up plan in the event that they aren’t able to re-sign center Tyson Chandler, who actually has a pretty good argument for being the top free agent available after his performance in the post-season. Nene sliding to power forward obviously doesn’t work for Dallas because they have Dirk and the Mavericks have already had experience paying their back-up center loads of money and I’m pretty sure they won’t do that again. If Chandler doesn’t re-sign with the Mavericks (which would surprise me), the Mavericks will definitely make a strong push for Nene but I’m not in love with the fit.
I know that some will see it as getting a star to replace a star and calling it a wash but Nene is not as effective defensively and I think they’d be better off saving the money and going after a guy like Carl Landry, who would be much cheaper, to be the team’s fourth big man while using the center combo of Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi. It may sound bad but it would be better than signing Nene to a big deal and then not have him work out, especially with the new CBA. That said, I really don’t expect Chandler to leave so this should all be moot.
Houston Rockets – Sign and trade
Chuck Hayes is hard not to like. The six-foot-six center is Kobe’s height but goes toe-to-toe with the best centers the NBA has to offer on a nightly basis and he has been inexplicably good doing so. He is one of the games best defenders and most under-appreciated players. But it’s time for Houston to get another scoring threat at the center position. Yao Ming’s injuries hurt them severely and now that he has retired from the game, they need to move on. This is one of my favorite teams in the league to watch and Daryl Morey has compiled enough assets over the past few years to make Houston an ideal sign-and-trade partner for every team in the league.
Adding Nene to Houston’s frontline would give the Rockets one of the best big men scoring combos in the league with Luis Scola at power forward. With Kevin McHale as the head coach, who knows what kind of postmove combinations those two may have. The Rockets could offer Denver guys like Hasheem Thabeet, Terrence Williams, Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson and Courtney Lee. Some combination of those players should be able to get a deal done while still leaving the Rockets with a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Scola and Nene with Goran Dragic, Hayes, Jonny Flynn, Marcus Morris and whoever doesn’t get traded left on the bench. That’s not a bad team right there.
Miami Heat – Sign and trade
The Heat were an excellent defensive team last season and they scored when it mattered because of their stars – except in the Finals. I don’t think that they should freak out about not winning the title last season. They made the Finals and I think they would have won had LeBron been himself for half of the series. It’s obviously a bit saddening to look at the big men on their roster with all of them being eligible for AARP benefits but I think point guard is a more pressing issue for this team than center.
No matter how many dropped passes and missed dunks he had, Joel Anthony was an important part of their defense. They could certainly use another center to make sure Erick Dampier and Big Z never touch the floor but Nene would just complicate things. Having four scoring options on the floor at once sounds like a blessing but I don’t think it would work out that well. In addition to that, Miami doesn’t have that many attractive pieces for the Nuggets, unless they want to bring in Eddie House just so he can remind fans of J.R. Smith while he’s off in China.
New Jersey Nets – Amnesty Travis Outlaw
I’m sure the Nets will want to amnesty Travis Outlaw anyways but doing so to sign Nene would seem like a pretty good move. The Nets should be an upcoming team this season with Deron Williams spending his first full season in New Jersey. Kris Kardashian was effective last season but he seems better suited for a reserve role and a three man combo of Williams, Nene and Brook Lopez isn’t awful.
Of course, there would still be problems for the Nets: 1) They will be relying heavily on rookie shooting guard MarShon Brooks if they spend their money on Nene because Anthony Morrow, Sasha Vujacic and Stephen Graham is an awful group of wingmen, and 2) Locking up Nene would also lock up their checkbook for next season when they would have the chance of signing Chris Paul (if Williams left) or Dwight Howard, so staying put makes sense if they feel like they have a shot at those two guys.
You never know what Mikhail Prokhorov will do. He probably has enough money to live with a team that is $100 million over the salary cap. I like the fit on the floor but I’m not sure it leaves them with enough money to fix their backcourt and if they don’t sign him they’d have at least an outside shot at Dwight or CP3 next year, which would obviously be more fruitful.
Golden State Warriors – Amnesty Andris Biedrins or David Lee
I’m not sure if the Warriors have decided on their guard of the future between Stephen Curry or Monta Ellis, or if they’ve decided they can live with both. I’d hope for the latter and if that were the case, adding Nene would be a great move for the Warriors (while amnestying Biedrins). A starting five of Curry, Ellis, Dorell Wright, Lee and Nene is one of the best offensive units in the league – they have outside shooting, capable ballhandlers (which includes Nene), three mid-range threats, one very good driver, two good post-scorers, a deadly pick and roll threat and a great pick and pop player. That’s a pretty diverse group right there.
With Reggie Williams, Klay Thompson and Ekpe Udoh, the Warriors would have a nice eight man rotation with wild cards like Jeremy Lin, Louis Amundson and Acie Law giving five to 10 minutes a night. Golden State presents a very intriguing destination for Nene but as someone that is looking for a spot on a contender, he may not want to sign with a Warriors team that is a year or two away from really competing for a title. That said, he’d get to play in a similar offensive style that he played in with the Nuggets (assuming Mark Jackson doesn’t screw everything up), which is something most of the teams on this list can’t offer him.
Indiana Pacers – Free agent signing
The Pacers are the only team on this list that wouldn’t have to make a per-requistie move to acquire Nene and you have to like the addition he would make in Indiana. The Pacers showed during the playoffs that they are on the up-and-coming. Tyler Hansbrough was certainly a big part of their success against Chicago but you get the feeling that he’d be better off coming in off the bench for 20 minutes a game and unleashing his high energy style of play in that capacity. If Hansbrough were to go back to the bench, Nene would be inserted into a starting line-up of Darren Collison, Paul George, Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. That may not excite a casual fan but that is a pretty stacked line-up if you asked me.
Much like Golden State, Nene would be a good amount of balance to the offense in Indiana and would finally give the Pacers the post-up threat that they have been trying to make Hibbert into for a couple of years. Though Nene would be the power forward in this situation, I am confident in his ability to guard fours and he’d still bring the variance of pick and pop/roll with Hibbert like he would with David Lee. The thing that would make the Pacers a better fit for Nene than Golden State is that they are already a playoff team and in the less competitive Eastern Conference, he’d have a good shot at the post-season right away. The Pacers also play at a fast pace, they finished at fifth last season per HoopData, and they’d still be surrounding him with a good amount of young talent. Additionally, Danny Granger would finally have that second star on the team to help him carry the load, something I think helps complete the puzzle in Indiana.
Verdict: It is believed that Nene’s top two choices are Dallas and Miami. But with those two teams looking like longshots to sign him, I think the best option for Nene is to sign with the Pacers. They are young, packed with potential and took a large step forward last season when they made it to the playoffs and challenged the Bulls in the first round. I would list the Warriors second for some of the same reasons, only they are a bit further away, and the Rockets third.