If you’ve been keeping up with the Blazers this offseason, you probably know more than well enough that Portland is seeking a veteran, defensive center this offseason. They started J.J. Hickson at the position last year, and the team has decided to move on from him.
While Hickson produced well, averaging a double-double, one area he didn’t offer much in was interior defense. His partner in the paint, star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, was average at best in that area, and that wasn’t good enough as Portland regularly gave up easy points in the paint. To replace Hickson, they will be searching for someone who can lock down the paint and serve as a defensive anchor.
The Blazers have been rumored to want to trade their lottery pick for that defensive center, and they have expressed interest in Suns center Marcin Gortat. But, let’s try a different option: free agency. With their bench in need of a rehaul, preserving cap space for fixing it would be ideal. Many of the defensive centers available through trade have a hefty price tag (such as Marcin Gortat at $7.3 million), and it’d come at the cost of whoever they could have taken with the tenth pick and their cap-friendly rookie contract.
Instead, the Blazers can venture into free agency for their veteran defensive center. Want to know who fits that role to a T? Samuel Dalembert, formerly of the Milwaukee Bucks.
A 6’11″, 250 lbs center, Dalembert has always been considered to be a solid shot-blocker and defender in the NBA, particularly during his prime days in the league. Offensively, he can chip in his share of points through finishing easy opportunities near the basket. Now 32, however, he struggled to get off of the bench in Milwaukee last season.
Interestingly, Dalembert averaged 14.7 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Those are outlandish numbers, to say the least, and intriguingly enough, they aren’t that far off of his per 36s throughout his career.
Alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, Dalembert seems like a natural fit in that they would cover each other’s weaknesses to compliment each other. As a shot-blocking center, Dalembert can be the strong defensive presence that Aldridge isn’t. Offensively being a player who scores primarily on easy buckets in the paint, Dalembert can live off of Aldridge and the concentrated defensive attention he demands as one of the league’s top scoring big men.
Even though he struggled to find rotation minutes at center behind Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh, Dalembert did have his moments during the regular season, proving that he still had something in the tank. There was a stretch of three games where Sanders, the starting center, wasn’t able to play due to a bruised back, and he was replaced in the starting lineup by Dalembert. During those three games, Dalembert averaged 19.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks, including one outburst for a career-high 35 points.
It would be asking a lot of Dalembert to contribute quite that much, and even his per-36s are a bit of a reach. At this stage in his career, he’s a borderline starting center at best. Dalembert is 32, and he hasn’t played a 30+ minute per game role since the 2007-08 season. Given his tendency to foul and his age now compared to then, it’s highly unlikely that Portland would be able to ride Dalembert for any more than around 25 minutes per game.
That said, Dalembert does fill a big need, and comes cheap. Though trusting him in this stage of his career isn’t easy to do, it’s plausible to say that he could be had at $4 million per season, nearly half of what Gortat would’ve cost the Blazers.
Provided center Meyers Leonard, last year’s 11th pick, can continue to develop from the 17.5 minute per game role he played last season, Dalembert won’t need to be counted on for a huge workload. Also, the money saved from having Dalembert instead of Gortat can be used to sign another quality big man who can come off of the bench and play minutes at either power forward or center, giving the Blazers another option to go to if Leonard isn’t capable. Brandan Wright, who played for Dallas last year, comes to mind as an example of such a player.
Signing Dalembert to a short term contract comes with little risk and more cap flexibility than other options. If Dalembert’s per-minute stats even remotely resemble the type of production he can offer Portland on a consistent basis, Portland would be well-advised to do so.
With the draft tomorrow and the free agency period less than a week away, it’ll be interesting to see what the Blazers do to replace J.J. Hickson. Mark your calendars, people: June 27th and July 1st.