Sports reflects society, perhaps nowhere more so than the disappearing middle-class. Take NBA big men. Back in the day, when unions were strong and having a paper route for a few years provided enough income to buy a home, team-building was pretty much the same: find someone big and tall and strong and pay them to be bigger, taller and stronger than the other teams’ bigs. Even lesser bigs — your Jim McIlvianes, your Jon Koncaks — made a good living just because they knew when it was gonna rain earlier than the rest of us.
Fast forward to 2021. How things have changed. Nowadays home ownership often means either marrying into wealth or racing backwards on a treadmill trying to keep up with the Joneses. And centers? I live close enough to Canada that you’ll sometimes get Canadian change when you buy something at a store. Sometimes it feels like a booby prize, but everyone agrees to go with it, so it works out. Centers today seem to fall into two camps: those who make good coin (Joel Embiid; Nikola Jokić; Clint Capela) and the have-nots who don’t...or at least, who don’t yet. Take this year’s finalists.
Deandre Ayton was the #1 pick in the 2018 draft. There is a good chance he’s in line for a nine-figure extension once his rookie deal expires; this year he made about $10M, next year he’ll make $12M. Phoenix can afford to pay their starting backcourt $72M this season because Ayton is underpaid compared to his production, and will be next year, too Brook Lopez signed a 4-year, $52M deal with Milwaukee two years ago, a good value for a useful player; it’s actually slightly less than what the Knicks paid his brother Robin six years ago and one reason why the Bucks can pay their Big Three $86M this year and even more every season through 2024.
The Knicks had an incredibly successful season from their centers when you measure production versus cost. Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel and Taj GIbson combined to earn just under $10M. The Knicks weren’t really built to contend in 2021; no one made as much as $20M, and besides Julius Randle no one made as much as $9M. As the organization charts a new course based on this year’s unexpected success, things are going to change. Expectations have risen. Randle is due for a newer, bigger deal sooner than later. RJ Barrett will be, too, assuming his game is coated in enough adamantium to be the rare Knick rook to survive to a second contract with the team, something we haven’t seen since this guy.
If you’re the 76ers or the Nuggets, you pay your franchise center and you thank the stars for the star you’ve been blessed with. But in a league where wings and guards are increasingly the wind beneath teams’ wings, wherefore pay big money to a big who’s not an All-NBA candidate? Capela was wonderful in Atlanta’s magical run this year. With the younger, more versatile and vastly cheaper Onyeka Okongwu waiting for his close-up, how long will Capela man the middle for a team looking to move on up to the penthouse? Okongwu is due about $20M total the next three years. Capela makes $17M next year, $18M the year after.
The Clippers pay Ivica Zubac $7.5M. The Nets owe DeAndre Jordan a smidge under $10M each of the next two seasons, not because that’s his market value but because when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving come over to play at his house there’s this really cool treehouse where girls and media aren’t allowed, plus Jordan’s mom doesn’t make them take off their shoes when they come in the house and there’s always Hot Pockets for snacks and Stove Top stuffing for dinner.
If you’re the Knicks, what’s the plan? It is one thing to love Mitchell Robinson staying out of foul trouble and leading the team in highlights when he makes barely more than $1M; make that money closer to what Capela makes and how do you feel about someone who can’t/won’t shoot if it isn’t a dunk and whose free throw shooting could be a hindrance in late-and-close playoff games? Noel was a wonderful back-up and replacement center, especially at $5M. You saw him in the playoffs against Capela. You wanna double that salary and see what round 2 looks like? Or how he’d fare against Embiid in a playoff series? Gibson’s days of prime earnings are done; he’s a third-string big at this point no matter who else is there.
You interested in Damian Lillard? Collin Sexton at $20M-$25M? Hoping Kawhi or some other fallen angel couches their fall from grace on a big pile of James Dolan’s money? Then you can’t pay Randle, RJ and a center. But if you can do what Atlanta did, and draft a big who grows into the role and permits you roster flexibility during their rookie deal, that could be the answer. Usman Garuba, last year’s EuroLeague Rising Star and ACB Best Young Player, could be the answer.
Garuba, 19, stands about 6’9” with a 7”3” wingspan. His current weight is listed around 230; it isn’t hard to imagine him reaching 245-250 in the pros, putting him in Randle/Charles Oakley territory. Traditionally that’s been the size of 4s. Traditionally you could go to college, afford it by painting houses a few summers, and move in with no student loan debt. Now is not then, and 6’9”, 250 with a 7’3” wingspan nowadays = center.
Garuba starred for Real Madrid in the Spanish league, Europe’s top competition and the same league Kristaps Porziņģis and Luka Dončić played in before being drafted. He is regarded as a dynamic, destructive defender, the rare case of a player who can literally guard any position. You want shot blocking? Check. (all clips courtesy of @HoopIntelllect)
Fluid, flexible hips that let him stick with perimeter threats? Check.
The length and quicks to recover when he’s beat and still snuff out some would-be scorer? Check.
Late in the first-round defeat vs. Atlanta, Tom Thibodeau played some stretches with Randle and Obi Toppin on the floor together. It wasn’t a look we saw a ton of this year, for various reasons, the biggest pro’ly being neither one of those dudes is a rim protector. I like Toppin and would enjoy seeing him develop here, but a player like Garuba — someone who’s not a scorer, doesn’t need the ball in his hands, and who can switch on anyone while also blocking or altering shots in the paint — could be a more complementary fit.
But there’s two ends of the court, of course. What of Garuba on the offensive end? No doubt he’s more raw on that end. Not salmonella raw, though. More like sushi or steak tartare. A little wasabi or some onions and even something raw shines with refinement. Think Pretty Woman. Does anyone need that many forks? Of course not.
Does Garuba need to have an Embiid-level offensive game? Of course not. There is a jumper. It’s not KP-level, for sure. But it’s closer to Noel or Taj range than Mitch, and that’s not a bad thing.
Garuba shows some skill passing as the roll man. Again, he may not be Draymond Green attacking 4-on-3s, but he’s at least capable of forcing the defense to contend with his threat as a finisher and a distributor. One of the most pleasant surprises in Toppin’s game this year was the vision he sometimes showed creating for others. Garuba may have some of that in him, too.
He’s raw, and big, and athletic, and sometimes that inelegant trio is enough for fans to form an opinion. But this is a player with some skill.
It’s extremely unlikely the Knicks would draft Garuba and start him at center. He did supplant Luka as the youngest starter in the history of Real Madrid, But for all their righteous history as an iconic franchise in European hoops, Madrid may as well be Mayberry compared to Manhattan. The Knicks started Barrett his first 2 years, beginning in his teens. But Garuba is not going top-3; he’s projected closer to the late lottery or mid-1st round.
Randle is essentially a jumbo wing in the body of a power forward. RJ is a wing. The Knicks have clear needs. Point guard is one. Center could be another. Point guards are far more expensive, so there is wisdom in picking up Mitch’s option next year at just under $2M and seeing how he plays post-injury — foot problems are red flags with any human that large, even one as graceful as Mr. Robinson. Even though that makes him an unrestricted free agent next year, I’m not sure the team should invest $20M or more in him on a multi-year deal. Fewer highlights and maybe slightly lesser production for significantly less money could end up as less equaling more. Usman Garuba could be the answer for a team facing so many questions this offseason.