Last summer, when the Clippers signed Cole Aldrich for the league minimum, the move wasn't criticized so much as it was ignored: nobody cared about what stiff white guy the Clips would plop on the bench for a year and then release. It didn't quite turn out that way. Aldrich broke into the Clippers' rotation in December, excelling off of the bench and posting averages of 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 assists per game in just 13 minutes (that's about 15/13/3/2/2 per36). Now, he may very well have played himself out of the Clippers' price range--they'd love for him to pick up his player option and return for just over $1.2 million next season, but he's likely to demand at least $5 million annually, and could draw offers of up to $8 million annually.
So, what do the Clippers do? Doc Rivers would love to bring Cole back, but even if he's willing to accept the Mid-Level Exception, is it wise for a team with gaping roster holes to use their best free agency resources to retain a player who has no positional versatility and backs up a max-salary center? Depending on how the market shapes up for Cole and other players, it's a possibility. If Aldrich will take a discount to return and LAC doesn't have quality options, it might be the best course of action. But If Aldrich leaves, or quality players are available, they'll need to use the mid-level to either shore up the small forward position or replace Cole as a backup big.
If the Clippers find themselves searching for a mid-level big man, here are five targets:
- Jon Leuer: The former Wisconsin Badger had the best season of his career this past year for the Suns, scoring 8.5 points and grabbing 5.6 rebounds in just under 19 minutes a game. He also showed for the first time consistency from deep, hitting 38% and more than one per 36. This suggests a capability of spacing the floor, even though his normal play style is more interior-based. He took most of his shots at the rim or from three last season, which is great for efficiency. According to basketball-reference, he played nearly an even split of PF and C last season, and his versatility hopefully would allow him to play with both Griffin and Jordan. The concerns definitely have to be his interior defense, which remains a question mark. I've seen good comments on his energy and hustle defensively, but I'm not overly familiar with his abilities first-hand. Phoenix has Leuer's bird rights, but they'll likely prioritize fellow free agent Mirza Teletovic and could end up with a forward early in the draft.
- Jordan Hill: The 28-year old has carved out his place in the league after early struggles--he's a solid backup big man at both positions. Last year he played 20 minutes a game and collected averages of 15.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. He struggles with his efficiency, attempting far too many mid-range jumpers for his 34% clip. He's a more experienced and reliable option than Leuer, but he doesn't have the offensive upside. Jordan signed on as a one-year mercenary for the Pacers last summer, leaving them without his bird rights this summer.
- Kris Humphries: His season just ended as Hawk, but the former Kardashian will get another shot in the NBA. He peaked in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, averaging a double-double as a full-time starter in each year. Since then, he's bounced around but kept his per 36 numbers consistently at or near double-double in each of his short-term landing spots. He's played PF for a vast majority of his career, so he might be a questionable fit in lineups where he has to play next to Blake, but he's a known commodity. Kris was a mid-season addition for the Hawks, so they won't have his bird rights this summer.
- Thomas Robinson: Ed Davis was a high draft pick who put up good per-minute scoring and rebounding numbers, but didn't look comfortable on either end of the court before really finding his game in recent years and thriving as a key piece for Portland this year. Any team courting Robinson this summer will hope that the former 5th overall pick can do the same. He's played for 5 teams in his 4 seasons, including some dysfunctional franchises like Sacramento, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. In the right setting he might blossom, and the per-36 averages of 12.7 points and 12.7 rebounds for his career are definitely encouraging. T-Rob has an early termination clause in his contract, which he'll almost definitely exercise to test free agency in a booming market rather than settling for just over a million next season.
- Jason Smith: Yeah, he decked Blake Griffin that one time, but Smith is quietly one of the best mid-range shooters in the game. He shot an amazing 47% on long twos this year on a big quantity of attempts. Unfortunately, it's a pretty inefficient shot no matter what clip you're hitting, and he's never been able to extend his range to the NBA three. Rebounding is also a definite concern, as Smith pulls down just 7.3 per 36 in his career. He'd probably be a great fit next to DeAndre Jordan, but it would definitely be risky to use him at C alongside a combo forward like Jeff Green. Like Hill, Smith was a one-year mercenary last season, leaving him on the market without any team possessing his bird rights.
- Honorable mention: Jason Thompson, Darrell Arthur
Overall I find Leuer to be the most intriguing name on this list, but it comes down to a stylistic choice for Doc Rivers regarding fit. Is the second-unit big man going to play as the sole big in second-unit lineups? If so, he'll need to go with someone like Robinson or Hill who does more damage inside (or use the MLE to retain Cole Aldrich). If Doc would rather have someone who he can slot in alongside Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan in a 3-big rotation, he can go with someone like Humphries, Leuer, or Smith. Given the market, I suspect it'll be hard to land a player who can do both reliably unless a veteran like Pau Gasol decides to take a steep pay cut to join the Clippers. My preference would be to add Leuer and simply rotate the three big men so that DeAndre can anchor the second unit, or sign a true center for the minimum to play alongside Leuer if the lineup needs more size.