NBA Free Agency Preview: Could Sixers Upgrade From Amir Johnson at Backup Center?

With the NBA's free agency period beginning on July 1, the star-hungry Sixers are expected to chase LeBron James and Paul George. If James and George sign elsewhere though, the Sixers, who will start with around $26 million in cap space, will likely only be in the market for one-year deals, similar to last year, in order to preserve cap space for next summer (see story). With that said, they don't project to be players in the restricted free agency market.

Whether the Sixers sign a star or not they'll still have other needs on the roster, so what other unrestricted free agents could they target? We begin our free agency preview by looking at potential backups centers.

Centers

Under contract: Joel Embiid, Richaun Holmes

Pending free agents: Amir Johnson

Position overview
Amir Johnson was probably the most underrated Sixer last season.

While his traditional counting stats didn't jump off the page, he provided a stable defensive presence (101.3 defensive rating) as Joel Embiid's backup and the Sixers were actually a plus overall (2.3 net rating) with Johnson on the court.

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But even as solid a defensive player Johnson was during the regular season, he logged just 17 total minutes in the first three games of the Celtics playoff series before being dropped from the rotation. Johnson didn't have the quickness to hang in space defensively and he isn't a factor to begin with on the other end. His lack of athleticism doesn't allow him to be a pick-and-roll weapon and he's not a threat to shoot from the outside.

After spending the season in and out of the rotation, the Richaun Holmes era in Philly could be nearing an end. Three years in, the story remains the same with Holmes: every exciting dunk comes with a defensive breakdown on the other end. While the Sixers exercised his fourth-year option earlier this month, his contract doesn't become guaranteed until Jan. 10, 2019, and he isn't a lock to make the team.

It sounds like Jonah Bolden is coming over next season, but it's doubtful the Sixers enter camp with a rookie and Holmes as the only centers behind Embiid. I wouldn't completely rule out Johnson returning because it might cost as low as the minimum to retain him, but the Sixers could upgrade with a backup that is more mobile and/or a weapon offensively while still providing some stability on defense.

Potential free agent targets

Brook Lopez
Lopez is one of the more interesting names here. He's coming off three-year, $63 million deal and has been a starter for his entire career. But it's going to be tough for him to find a landing spot where he'll be a starter making even half of his previous annual-average salary. Of the couple handful of teams that have significant cap space, only the Mavericks need a starting center and are more likely to chase bigger names (like DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins). Lopez could opt to sign a one-year deal to be a backup on a contender and try to get a bigger, multi-year deal next summer.

In a lower-usage role compared to his Nets days, Lopez averaged 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 23.4 minutes per game with the Lakers last season. As a pick-and-pop threat and floor spacer, he would be a great fit offensively with Sixers. The seven-foot center attempted just 31 threes in his first eight NBA seasons but jacked up 712 over the past two years, hitting on a 34.5 percent clip. Lopez can go down low and operate out of the post as well. But while he's improved throughout his career to become passable around the rim, he's the worst overall defender of these options. So there'd be some concerns as to how long he could stay on the floor deep in the postseason.

Aron Baynes
Baynes started 67 games for Boston last season, averaging 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds in 18.3 minutes. After making just three triples during the regular season, he shot 7 for 16 from beyond the arc in the Celtics' second-round win over the Sixers and 11 of 23 overall in the playoffs. It's a small sample size of course, but if he can add that corner-three to his game he's a much more intriguing player, as he isn't a very talented scorer.

Where Baynes earns his bread is with his interior defense, using his 6-10, 260-pound frame to bang with post players on the block. Baynes joining the Sixers after Embiid tweeted this during the Eastern Conference Finals would be hilarious.

Ed Davis
Not a household name but Davis, a former lottery pick by the Raptors in 2010, has turned himself into one of the better backup centers in the NBA. In 18.9 minutes per game off Portland's bench last season, Davis averaged 5.3 points and an impressive 7.4 rebounds. He does all his scoring in the paint off rolls to the basket and putting back offensive rebounds. Defensively, Davis has the length to bother shots at the rim and athleticism to defend in space. Compared to Johnson, Davis is more mobile and a better rebounder.

Kyle O'Quinn
Another under-the-radar player to keep an eye on. O'Quinn declined his $4.2 million player option with New York to become a free agent. In his sixth NBA season, he averaged 7.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18 minutes per game off the Knicks' bench. Like Baynes, O'Quinn's strength is his interior defense.

Nerlens Noel
Only half-serious here. It's not good when the highlight of your season is getting caught eating a hot dog during halftime of a game you were benched in and then having to explain yourself to the media, but that was truly the only thing worth remembering from Noel's fourth NBA season. Last July, Noel turned down a reported four-year, $70 million deal (confirmed by his former agent) from the Mavs and ultimately signed his qualifying offer ($4.1 million) to set himself up for unrestricted free agency this summer.

But Noel did nothing to improve his stock, appearing in just 30 games while racking up DNP-CDs. And to top it off, he was suspended for five games toward the end of the season for his third positive test for marijuana. At age 24, Noel's defensive ability and upside are still worth gambling on, but a reunion in Philly would be shocking considering how the first go-round ended. But never say never, right?

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