Should the Mavs lose Noel, which free agents could fill his shoes?

We’ve gone over what’s going on with the Nerlens Noel free agency and why the Dallas Mavericks seem content to stick to their guns. Teams with available cap space to offer Noel the large contract he and his agent are aiming for are few and far between. And of those teams, not many are looking for a center. It’s unclear what the Mavericks’ ultimate goal is, although there are theories about who the Mavericks are really after.

It’s entirely possible that Noel leaves after one full season with Dallas (see: Chandler, Tyson). The Mavs will be in desperate need for a starting center, and possibly a backup center, too (more on that later). If Dallas decides to renounce all cap holds and exceptions next summer, they’ll have about $34 million in cap space. So, say Noel signs his qualifying offer this year and becomes an unrestricted free agent a year from now. Who could the Mavs target next summer? Here are a few of the more interesting free agent centers in 2018.

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins will no doubt have his share of suitors as the biggest of the free agent center class in 2018. Having just escaped Sacramento for the greener swamp of New Orleans, Cousins is now playing alongside an incredible talent in Anthony Davis. The Pelicans also just signed Jrue Holiday to a long-term contract. Cousins made it known to Holiday that he wanted him back, and now Holiday has already started returning the favor, pressuring the future unrestricted free agent to sign a long-term contract of his own. New Orleans can offer Cousins a five-year deal of up to $180 million.

Prying Cousins away could depend on how the Pelicans perform this year. If they meet their playoff expectations, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Cousins chooses to leave their potential behind. If they miss the playoffs and the Davis pairing proves disastrous, then all bets are off.

Jusuf Nurkic

The good news for the Portland Trail Blazers is that their mid-season acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic powered a playoff run. The 22-year old averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds, and helped improve their defense by eight points with him on the floor. The bad news for the Blazers is that they will be one of the teams next season already over the salary cap. They started shedding salary by trading away Alan Crabbe for essentially air. However, he’ll be a restricted free agent next year, meaning the Blazers can match any offer he receives.

Although he performed well for the Blazers, it’s a question about what type of contract he’ll attract. Players with fewer than six years of experience are eligible for a max contract of 25 percent of the salary cap. Even with his gutsy return to the playoffs just 25 days after suffering a non-displaced fibular fracture in his right leg, Nurkic will most likely receive offers below the max threshold. And don’t forget that the Blazers are owned by one of the wealthiest people in the world, so paying the luxury tax may not be much of a deterrent in order to retain Nurkic.

Salah Mejri

In addition to Noel, the Mavs could also lose their backup center. Mejri has yet to prove he can become a legitimate starter in the league, although he has shown plenty of promise to become a bench player who blocks shots and mixes it up with the other team. However, he’s already one of the oldest players on the roster, making him a bit of a bad fit with Dallas’s youth movement. There are a handful of other free agent centers who fall into the “too old” category, including Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe, and NBA-champion Zaza Pachulia. Mejri will be a restricted free agent, so the Mavericks will be able to keep him if they choose to do so at a price that they can live with.

Others

The Houston Rockets have a pair of centers also set to hit the free agent market next summer. Tarik Black will become an unrestricted free agent. But when he was available earlier this summer, there was little to suggest the Mavericks were interested in him then. Perhaps he’ll show Dallas something they like next season, but at 6-foot-9, he’s more of a forward than a center. Their starting center, Clint Capela, will be a restricted free agent in 2018. The up-and-coming center has shown plenty of skill at his size, but the Rockets will probably match any offer to capitalize on their window with Chris Paul now in Houston. Capela may not even make it to free agency if he signs an extension in the next few months.

It’s worth mentioning that Joel Embiid is set to become a restricted free agent next summer, but there is little chance he will leave the Philadelphia 76ers. If the team doesn’t sign him to a monster extension before October, then they will definitely match any offer he receives. Like the process, trust that Embiid is going nowhere soon.

Follow Jeff Mapua on Twitter @JeffMapua

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