It’s never a bad thing to have faith in your players. Most guys feed off that confidence, and it usually allows them to play free and loose, without looking over their shoulder. Guys love playing for coaches that trust their players and their abilities.
But there can be a fine line between having confidence in your squad and stepping over into hyperbole, and Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni crossed that imaginary border yesterday with gusto when he referred to newly signed veteran center Nene Hilario as a “top five center when healthy.”
Look, I like Nene. I think the Brazilian big man will be a great fit in Houston and in Mike D’Antoni’s system. I broke down what to expect from Nene about two weeks ago, and if he does stay healthy (a huge if, mind you), his skills in the pick and roll and his ability to knock down open jumpers from the center position is something the Rockets really lacked last season with the shooting-handicapped, pick-and-roll-averse Dwight Howard manning the paint.
With only Clint Capela back this season and Donatas Motiejunas’ fortunes still up in the air, it was imperative that GM Daryl Morey brought in another versatile and capable big man, and Nene fits that bill perfectly. Make no mistake, this was a smart signing. But to suggest he’s somehow top five in the NBA is mind-bendingly off base.
You have a top of group, consisting of players like DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond.
You have a solid second tier with guys like Pau Gasol (mostly playing center for the Spurs this season), Nikola Vucevic, Brook Lopez, Rudy Gobert and Marcin Gortat.
And then even a third group where I’m not certain if Nene belongs anymore, with guys like Tristan Thompson, Nerlens Noel, Steven Adams and Robin Lopez.
We can argue about which guys belong where, and I’m sure we all have different opinions on where the tiers start and end, but the point is, there are at least 15 centers, maybe even more that can be considered as better than Nene at this juncture in his career.
The 34-year-old Nene played in 57 games last season, and averaged 9.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 19.2 minutes per game. At this stage, even if he draws some starts due to matchups, he’s still just a solid role player, signed for his versatility and veteran presence. He won’t be carrying the load offensively, defensively or in rebounding. A top five center would be dominating at least one of those facets for his own team, let alone the rest of the league.
In fact, even during his best stretch of ball, from approximately 2008-2012, would anyone have considered him a top-five center even then? His high water mark for rebounding during that time was 7.8 in the 2008-2009 season, along with a career-best 14.6 points and 1.3 blocks per game in the same year.
He led the league in shooting percentage in 2010-2011 with 61.5 percent from the field, showing his efficiency during that several-year run where his lowest percent from the field was 53.7.
His advanced metrics during that time frame were also good, as he earned a positive offensive and defensive plus-minus in each year except one (2012). He was a fine player in his prime, that’s undeniable. But even at his best, top five was a stretch.
As he heads into the twilight of his career, his shooting has plummeted to around the 50 percent level cumulatively over the past four seasons — still effective, but obviously regressing — and while still an effective defender, he hasn’t finished with a positive offensive plus-minus in five seasons.
Ultimately, Nene should be a good addition to this squad. His skills as a defender, along with his ability in the pick and roll game the Rockets will be utilizing and his knack for knocking down an open jumper will be a welcome and effective addition to this team. His toughness and attitude will also be much needed.
He’ll work in a platoon with rising youngster Capela and possibly D-Mo to give the Rockets a solid rotation at the center position. I’ll repeat that I think Nene was a very good signing. But a top five center in the NBA? He was never that and certainly not at 34.