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January 25, 2011
The Underrated Free Agent
Nene

by Kevin Pelton

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You've got to hand it to Nenê. Even his free agency is underrated. Because of the looming specter of the Carmelo Anthony trade saga, nobody had really bothered to notice that the Denver Nuggets' center also has the ability to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent this summer. CBSSports.com's Ken Berger changed that over the weekend, reporting that Nenê has a list of three teams he'd like to be traded to or sign with as a free agent.

Whether Nenê can end up with one of his preferred teams remains to be seen. Berger reported that one of the teams Nenê would like to play for is the Miami Heat, which has neither cap space nor the assets needed to make a deal with Denver. ESPN.com's Marc Stein added a second team, the Dallas Mavericks. Given that Tyson Chandler has solidified the middle in Dallas and Brendan Haywood is guaranteed some $35 million over the next four years, the Mavericks would probably prefer to upgrade elsewhere, possibly even with Anthony.

The third team on Nenê's list remains a mystery, but this much is clear: Plenty of teams will have the Nuggets' center on their own wish lists should he become available. Along with Memphis' Marc Gasol, Nenê would be one of two quality free agents on the market this summer. While Gasol is younger, the ability of the Grizzlies to match any offers to Gasol might steer some suitors toward Nenê.

When Nenê first signed his current contract in the summer of 2006, the consensus outside the Denver front office was that the early termination option being exercised was the last of the Nuggets' concerns. Nenê had yet to post a PER better than 15.6 and had just lost a crucial year of development time to a torn ACL suffered on opening night. Denver's faith in Nenê was rewarded when he came back strong from a bout with testicular cancer and effectively replaced Marcus Camby in the team's starting lineup.

Over the last three seasons, a healthy Nenê has established himself as one of the league's most efficient scorers. His accurate shooting--60.4 percent from the field in 2008-09, 58.7 percent in 2009-10 and a league-high 64.0 percent this season--is usually the province only of distant offensive options who rarely shoot outside the paint (Chandler, for one). Nenê's usage rate is below average, yes, but he has the ability to score one-on-one in the post and hit from beyond the immediate vicinity of the basket, making his high-percentage shooting all the more remarkable. In fact, only two players in the past three decades--Artis Gilmore and Darryl Dawkins--have managed to shoot at least 64 percent from the field with a usage rate of 18 percent of their teams' plays or higher.

In the wake of last week's analysis of Anthony's effect on his teammates, it is fair to wonder whether what role the Nuggets' go-to guy has played in Nenê's efficient scoring. Indeed, Nenê was one of the players who was consistently more effective alongside Anthony in the past. A lesser offensive team acquiring Nenê cannot necessarily count on him shooting 60 percent from the field if forced to create rather than finish. Still, Nenê's performance when Anthony was out of the lineup last month is encouraging in this regard. He shot 66.7 percent (22-of-33) in the four games he played that Anthony missed. Beyond that, Nenê is having his best season despite seeing his percentage of assisted baskets drop, per Hoopdata.com.

Because of his high-percentage shooting, Nenê deserves to be considered one of the league's best offensive centers. And while he is not as stout at the defensive end of the floor, where his limited vertical hampers his shot blocking and rebounding, it is difficult to find more than five or six centers (depending on how you classify Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol) more valuable than Nenê. The list of clearly superior pure centers numbers three players, all of them in the Eastern Conference: Dwight Howard, Al Horford and Joakim Noah.

So what teams might need one of the league's best centers just exiting his prime? Royce Young of CBSSports' Facts and Rumors blog has a good list that starts with the Houston Rockets. Forced to confront the real prospect of life without Yao Ming, Houston could immediately upgrade in the middle with Nenê. The Rockets are flush with both expiring contracts and assets and could potentially get under the cap to make a run at Nenê as a free agent. The biggest impediment to such a deal might be Houston's reported interest in dealing for Anthony. Since Nenê is more likely to stick around, however, he would figure to be a more attractive pickup.

Oklahoma City might be the most interesting potential destination for Nenê. The Thunder has two big question marks going forward, both of which could be solved by dealing for Nenê. One is the long-term answer at center and the other is the future of Jeff Green, a restricted free agent at season's end. Serge Ibaka is going to become a starter in the frontcourt at some point, but he struggles to defend physical post players and would make an ideal defensive pairing with Nenê. Like the Rockets, Oklahoma City has plenty of flexibility to make a deal work. The issue is whether Nenê would fit in the Thunder's salary structure with Russell Westbrook up for an extension this summer. At some point, however, Oklahoma City is going to have to commit money in the frontcourt, and better to do so on Nenê than Green.

Another team worth watching is the New York Knicks. As with Houston, the Knicks might be more interested in pursuing Anthony from the wreckage of the Nuggets, but the New York Post reported recently that Gasol is New York's Plan B. That could make Nenê Plan C. His quickness has made him effective in an up-tempo system in Denver and Nenê could be dangerous with duck-ins and big-to-big passes from Amar'e Stoudemire set up by pick-and-rolls.

Of course, Nenê could end up sticking with the Nuggets, the only team he's known in his NBA career. The situation does not seem to have reached the same point of no return as Anthony's future in Denver. If the Nuggets are to rebuild by dealing Anthony and Chauncey Billups, however, a new contract seems to make little sense for player or team. So when pondering Denver trades over the month between now and the trade deadline, don't make the mistake of forgetting about Nenê.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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