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Going Big with the MLE

Today's big ruckus is about Magic center Marcin Gortat, who will likely depart Dwight Howard's shadow this summer for greener pa$tures. Everybody knows the Knicks need frontcourt help, and the Post has the scoop on the possibility of Donnie Walsh using his mid-level exception on Gortat.

The Knicks had no interior defensive presence, and that's Gortat's strength. He also blocks shots and rebounds. (The Knicks were last in blocked shots the past two years).

The Polish big man originally was drafted by coach Mike D'Antoni's Suns in the second round of 2005, but they traded his rights. Gortat probably will not be re-signed because he plays a smallish role as Dwight Howard's backup and the Magic can't pay him accordingly.

Gortat said the Knicks could be an ideal spot. Gortat (four points, three rebounds) played 15 minutes last night as Magic coach Stan Van Gundy often used a twin-tower alignment to combat the Lakers' size.

Magic general manager Otis Smith can match any offer, but said he knows it will be a financial challenge to retain Gortat.

"He's got the best job in America, playing behind my best player, playing 8 to 10 minutes," Smith said. "He goes out and does his job and probably has the best work ethic of anyone in the locker room. Can he start for another team? Yeah he can.

I'm often skeptical of stories that declare New York's intentions without quoting any Knick personnel, but I'm pretty sure Donnie Walsh would be tampering if he said anything about Gortat right now. Weird, too, for Otis Smith (and Gortat, if you read the article) to be discussing this stuff in the middle of a Finals run. That is, unless these words are taken from a past interview, which they very well might be. I digress.

Gortat's a solid big man and pretty much fits the bill as far as the hole in the paint is concerned. He blocks shots, grabs boards, and doesn't try to overextend himself on offense. He's also a 7-foot bald Polish man, which has a charm all its own (and should lead to some excellent Poland-related Knicks trivia, you feel me?). Should he command the full MLE (upwards of $5 million), though? Is there anyone else out there who might better suit D'Antoni and the Knicks? Tommy Dee, for one, has some questions and an alternative in mind:

The Knicks are desperate for a center.  If Donnie Walsh believes that Gortat is the answer, then I will trust him.  But Gortat, 25, played just over 12 minutes per game this season.  In the playoffs, those numbers jumped slightly.  Without a real track record, is he worth that kind of money?

I would love to see Walsh go after RFA Ryan Hollins, who I think can be a good shot-blocker and come at 1/2 the price of Gortat.  But if Gortat is the guy, I cannot complain too much.  He has the ability to block shots.  But can he play 30-35 minutes a night?  If Donnie thinks so, then I am on board.  Bring him here.  If not, then spend the money in better places.

Hollins was immensely entertaining as a Bobcat, and gained some legitimacy as a Maverick this Spring. He's also got some serious defensive chops, though he's more of a springy, vicious shot-blocker than a sturdy, astute guy like Gortat. I would tag Gortat as most likely to contribute immediately, while Hollins probably has a higher "ceiling", for whatever that's worth. Now, what else is there in the way of relatively cheap free agent centers? Let's have a look.

Chris Andersen- Birdman found himself back in good graces with relatively focused play this season. Andersen defended and finished with all of the gusto, but less of the insanity as previous years. That said, Denver will probably re-sign him as soon as possible, and he may very well command more than the mid-level. Hard to say.

Stromile Swift- Swift can probably be had on the cheap, and can block shots pretty well, but has failed to make it work on a number of teams.

Theo Ratliff- He'd probably work, but that's sooooo boring.

Francisco Elson- Any black Dutch guy named "Francisco" has my attention. He's also a decent shot-blocker and seems like he has very good manners. That goes a long way.

Hakim Warrick- Warrick's not really a center, but he blocks shots and can definitely run the floor.

Steven Hunter- It seems like everybody who's ever had anything to do with DePaul ends up on the Knicks, so this would be the next logical move. Hunter's also quite tall.

Joel Anthony- He does block shots, but...I don't know, just look.

Jerome James- You know you miss him.

The upshot is that Gortat is one of many big men looking to get paid this summer. Assuming that Hasheem Thabeet is out of reach in the upcoming draft, don't be surprised to see Donnie Walsh go big with his mid-level exception. What remains to be seen is who fits both the defensive needs and the D'Antoni system, and the cost of such a player.

Who you got? Did I forget anybody? Is my understanding of NBA free agency somehow completely flawed? Let me know in the comments.

For your perusal: A list of free agents, salaries, and a cat that plays piano.