Rim protectors: 5 Centers who could be patrolling the middle for the Celtics next season

"Rim protection"

When Danny Ainge was asked what the single biggest off-season need is for the Celtics -- it took him only a few seconds to say the two words above.

After a season filled with Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Kris Humphries patrolling the paint, it's clear that the Celtics need a paint protecting big man badly. While Humphries has done an adequate job, the other three are just not designed to be the last line of defense for an NBA team. That's not on them, it's just not a skill that they have, nor one that will be developed.

So the Cs want a center..but where will they turn to get one?

Checking out the free agency list, there are some good options out there, but none of them really fit the Celtics rebuild. Pau Gasol is still very good, but he's expensive and will be 34. Greg Monroe will be a restricted free agent, but it's going to be really hard for the Celtics to clear the necessary cap space for him, plus, he doesn't really fit the description of "rim protector". He's a great offensive player, but not the guy you want patrolling the middle. After that there's a whole bunch of meh: Chris Kaman, Greg Oden, Birdman Andersen, Greg Stiemsma, Jermaine O'Neal (lol), Andrew Bynum (double lol). A bunch of players with major injury concerns much better served as back-ups, and definitely not the type of guys you'd expect the Celtics to target (possible exception in Oden, but he has yet to crack the 200 total minutes played mark this season with Miami. Still monster question marks surrounding him).

So with the free agent market dry, the Celtics will likely target players through the draft and trades. And with that in mind, I figured it would be fun to list the five guys I find most likely to be playing center for the Celtics next season.

Joel Embiid

How they'd acquire him: With their first 1st rounder, and only if they land in the top-four (likely top-three)

Embiid is easily the top center available in the draft, finally declaring today. He's a physical specimen, standing 7'0" with a 7'5" wingspan which he used to average 2.6 blocks-per-game for Kansas last season while only averaging 23 minutes per contest. Embiid was gaining major steam in February, with many draft projections sliding him up to #1 overall. However, injuries to both his knee and back (a bigger concern) will undoubtedly make some teams nervous. Health is always the biggest concern for bigs, and it's not a good sign that we're seeing back issues pop up for Embiid at the age of 19. The other issue with Embiid is his propensity to foul, as he averaged 5.3 fouls-per-36 minutes in his one season at KU.

But despite the concerns, there is no doubt that drafting Embiid is the best case scenario for Boston in the middle. He's young, amazingly talented, and will be cheap for the next four seasons. He also developed an offensive game predicated on an explosive first step, something that just about nobody saw coming before the season.

Noah Vonleh

How they'd acquire him: With their first rounder, likely if it falls in the 5-8 range

Yes, Vonleh is only 6'10", but he also has a 7'4" wingspan and does not turn 19 until the summer, meaning he could still grow a bit (he has gone from 6'7" to 6'10" in the last two years). At the moment it's unclear whether Vonleh will be a power forward or center at the next level, but in the new era of smaller more athletic NBA bigs, his size will certainly not hold him back from playing either. He's already 242 pounds and should continue to fill out even more, and he's a powerful athlete and great rebounder.

Vonleh averaged 11.3 points, 9 boards and 1.4 blocks per game in his one season at Indiana. He can shoot a bit (he shot 49% from three, albeit only launching one attempt per game) and as I mentioned above, he's an elite rebounder, grabbing over 11 per-36 minutes during his one season in Bloomington.

None of us really know exactly how Ainge's draft board fills out, but Vonleh could realistically go anywhere from 5th to 10th in the draft, right around where the Celtics are projected to pick if the lottery Gods do not smile upon them.

Willie Cauley-Stein

How they'd acquire him: with their second 1st round pick, or by trading up a few picks to get him in the late lottery

Cauley-Stein reminds me a lot of DeAndre Jordan. Their college stats are similar: Jordan: 7.9 PPG, 6 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 20 MPG (as a Freshman); Cauley-Stein: 6.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 23 MPG (as a Sophomore). They're both 7-footers with a wingspan of 7'2"/7'3". And both of them will be entering the NBA as immensely raw projects, especially on the offensive end.

But as we saw with Jordan, not every big man project ends up like Fab Melo. Jordan has been starting for the Clippers for four seasons, and is about to win his first rebounding title, flourishing this year at the age of 25.

It's unclear if Cauley-Stein will be on the board for the Celtics at #18, as he's projected to go off the board a little before that. But his sprained ankle that kept him out of UK's last three tournament games prevented scouts from getting a last good look at him, and you never know who's going to fall a few spots on draft night.

Omer Asik

How they'd acquire him: trade with Houston

And now we move on to the trade targets, and don't be surprised if we hear Asik's name linked to the Celtics again this summer. Remember, Asik to the Cs had legitimate traction earlier this year, but fell apart when the teams couldn't agree on which first rounder to include from Boston.

Since the deal fell through, Asik has gotten healthy and proven that he's very much a starting quality center while filling in for Dwight Howard recently. Asik has averaged 11.7 PPG, 16.5 RPG and 1.3 BPG over the last six games while starting at center, showing that when he gets the playing time he produces like few current centers can.

But trading for Asik is difficult for a few reasons. First, there's his contract. Asik is owed $15 million next season in the last year of that "poison pill" deal he signed with Houston in 2012. His cap hit is only $8.3 million, but any team that deals for Asik is going to need to have an owner willing to pay Asik $15M out of pocket. It seems likely that whatever team deals for Asik would want him to sign an extension, something like 3-years, $25-30 million, which would make the overall deal more palatable. But if Asik is unwilling to do so, he's not very likely to be moved, unless the Rockets are willing to dump him without getting back much in return.

And that brings us to the second issue: compensation. It's one thing to pay Asik $15 million for one season, it's quite another to trade a first round pick for him, and then pay him that $15 mill. If Houston really wants to free up that cash, they're most likely going to need to relent on their desire for a first. And Daryl Morey has never been one to relent on his demands. So Asik is unlikely, but expect to hear his name a lot.

Larry Sanders

How they'd acquire him: trade with Milwaukee

Has any player, ever, signed a contract that the team regretted BEFORE he played his first game under the new deal? If not, Sanders may be the first.

The Bucks signed their big man to a 4-year, $44 million extension that begins in 2014-15, only to see him:

- Get in a bar fight, breaking his hand and causing him to miss two months

- Regress across the board statistically

- Fracture his orbital bone, causing him to miss the last ten weeks of the season

- Get suspended for the first five games of 2014-15 after failing a drug test for smoking weed, and then release a statement that said, basically: I love weed (he actually said it very eloquently and took responsibility for failing the test. But he did not sound like a guy who will stay away from it in the future).

So why would the Celtics be interested in Sanders? Well, he was a dominant defensive presence in 2012-13, blocking 2.8 shots per game (3.7 per-36 minutes) and holding opposing teams to 38% shooting from the paint while he was on the court (second in the NBA to Roy Hibbert). That is a ridiculous number that showcases Sanders' ability to alter shots that he wasn't able to block.

He's also only 25-years-old and after such a disastrous season, the rebuilding Bucks may be willing to take less in a deal just to clear themselves of the headache and salary.

The Celtics have plenty of expiring/non-gauranteed contracts (over $20 million), so they would be able to offer the cap relief. And if that's not enough they could also offer the Clippers 2015 1st rounder, the least valuable of the nine firsts the Celtics own through 2018.

If the Celtics do end up drafting a wing player like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, Sanders could help fill the hole in the middle and give the Celtics a really intriguing team of athletes to run with Rajon Rondo.

Overpaying for Sanders would be a mistake, but he's worth a phone call or two to Bucks' GM John Hammond to see what the asking price is.

Ok, those are my five names to keep an eye on. What are yours?

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