NBA Free Agency Preview: Top five centers

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We’ve gone over the point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards. Now it’s time for the big guys in the paint.

There are some talented players in this group but they all come with questions. They are all gambles. What teams will make the smart plays and what teams will overpay is going to be fascinating to watch over the coming weeks. Here is our list of top centers.

1) Andre Drummond (restricted). Just 22 and the second best all-around center in the league (behind DeMarcus Cousins). He’s technically a free agent but he did the Kawhi Leonard move of not taking his extension last season so the Pistons would have more cap room to make moves. Now they will max him out and he will take it.

2) Hassan Whiteside. He has gone from a guy who couldn’t stick in Sacramento due to a lack of work ethic and maturity, through playing overseas in places such as Lebanon, to coming back to Miami and leading the league in blocks. He’s going to get a $22 million a year max contract, which is amazing for a guy who has never even made $1 million in a season before. Can he handle it? A lot of teams including Dallas, New York, and the Los Angeles Lakers think he can and will chase him hard. Miami is in the driver’s seat, he wants to stay with the Heat, but they are chasing Kevin Durant and have to pay Dwyane Wade, it’s a financial tightrope walk for Pat Riley at the start of free agency.

3) Dwight Howard. Despite what his legions of Twitter-based critics think, Dwight Howard can still play: He averaged 13.7 points a game on only 8.5 shot attempts last season, added 11.8 rebounds a night, and is a decent defender. He’s not the same player after the back surgeries, but he’s good. The questions teams have are about everything off the court — he’s left a wake of fired coaches and damaged organizations behind him — and how long they really want to be committed to a center with back problems. He’s a No. 3 option who should be focused on defense, but he doesn’t want to accept that role. That said, when teams strike out on Whiteside, Howard’s agent will get a lot of calls.

4) Pau Gasol. At age 36, Gasol was an All-Star last season who put up numbers for the Bulls — 16.5 points and 11 rebounds a game. His high IQ game and passing can help any offense. However, there are declines in efficiency that are not going to get better with age, and he defends like a Spanish matador at this point. The Spurs are reportedly interested and that fit makes sense, but the Knicks and a number of other teams will give Gasol a lot of options.

5) Joakim Noah. He’s great in the locker room and he’s still fierce on the defensive end, but at 31 years old his body has started to betray him and teams need to be concerned about how much he can play (and if they can limit his minutes). There is going to be a lot of interest in Noah, and that starts in New York, which already acquired his buddy Derrick Rose.

Bonus: Bismack Biyombo. The fact he’s going to get a contract in the $20 million a year range shows how important rim protection is and how desperate teams are to obtain it. Biyombo has little offensive game to speak of, but teams want his defense that much. He’s not sticking in Toronto, and once teams strike out on Hassan Whiteside Biyombo’s agent will get a lot of calls.

Others of note: Al Jefferson, Zaza Pachulia, Festus Ezeli (restricted), Ian Mahinmi, Donatas Motiejunas (restricted), Timofey Mozgov, Marreese Speights