Kosta Koufos is exactly the type of player the Celtics need to target this summer.
Given their history of failed free-agent pursuits and the unlikelihood of landing a center of Marc Gasol’s caliber, the C’s are forced to pursue under-appreciated options, so the latest ESPN.com report that team president Danny Ainge already targeted Koufos in trade discussions this season makes complete sense.
After ranking in the middle of the pack this past season with a 102.1 defensive rating — a number that climbed to 110.2 points allowed per 100 possessions in their brief playoff stint — the Celtics are in desperate need of a rim protector, and Koufos was as good as any backup center in that regard. According to NBA.com/stats, the 7-foot, 265-pound former first-round pick held opponents to 46.9 percent shooting at the rim, putting him in good company with Defensive Player of the Year candidates Tim Duncan and Draymond Green at the same percentage.
Offensively, Koufos has proven a capable scorer around the basket, converting 56.2 percent of his shots inside of 8 feet. It might be too much to ask a 26-year-old to suddenly develop a mid-range jumper, but Tyler Zeller made significant strides from outside the paint under Celtics coach Brad Stevens this year.
Regardless, Koufos has averaged 12.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes since being drafted 23rd overall out of Ohio State in 2008, and those numbers have remained fairly consistent for all six years, including when he started 81 games for a Nuggets team that won 57 games in 2012-13.
Koufos earned $3 million as a reserve this past season, and that number could at least double in unrestricted free agency come July, as he left NBA general managers with eight points on five shots and eight rebounds in 14-plus minutes during a season-ending Game 6 loss to the Warriors last week.
It stands to reason the Celtics will be among his suitors this summer, since Ainge has the cap and roster space to offer Koufos the starting role he’s coveted since being faded from Denver in June 2013. The interesting part of that pursuit will be whether the C’s aim to lock him up early in free agency or first take a stab at a big-name option like DeAndre Jordan and risk losing out on Koufos to another suitor.
In the same vein, keep an eye on a group of similarly under-appreciated young bigs entering free agency should the Celtics fail to land their first, second or even third options: Alexis Ajinca (16.7 points, 55.0 field goal percentage, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes); Ed Davis (12.8 points, 60.1 field goal percentage, 11.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes); Kevin Seraphin (15.2 points, 51.3 field goal percentage, 8.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes); and Kyle O’Quinn (12.8 points, 49.2 field goal percentage, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes). None of those players quite offer the intrigue of Koufos, but Ajinca is a 7-foot, 220-pound center who emerged as a serviceable reserve behind Anthony Davis and Omer Asik in New Orleans.