With reports indicating that the Raptors will finally move Andrea Bargnani to his natural power forward position, the question in Toronto has moved from “Will Bargnani ever be a legit NBA centre?” to “Who will play centre beside Bargnani this season?”

Despite recent reports stating that the Raptors actually want to bring Jonas Valanciunas over to Toronto this season (a move I would fully support), I’m going to assume that the Lithuanian big man will arrive as originally expected, in time for the 2012-2013 season.

Based on those assumptions, we can rule out Bargnani and Valanciunas as starting centres for the 2011-2012 season. So, just who will plug the gaping hole in the Raptors’ middle? Let’s examine.

Internal candidates:

Ed Davis – One of the few bright spots in a 60-loss season last year was the emergence of rookie big man Ed Davis, who stamped his place in the Raptors’ future plans with an impressive debut season. After missing the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery, Davis averaged 7.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and one block in 65 games as a rook. He was efficient around the basket and usually played within his role as a big man, leading to a field goal percentage over 57. He was one of the few consistent defenders on the team and frequently altered shots when he wasn’t blocking them. At 21-years-old, Davis showed that he flat out knows how to play basketball the right way, and with a newly signed defensive coach in the mix, Ed may be in line for a full-time starting spot at the five.

Of course, his size will be a factor when he has to face the likes of Dwight Howard, but realistically, there are few physically imposing centres left in the Association, so I don’t see Davis’ 6-10 frame (listed as 215 pounds) being a problem in the middle. If the Raptors stick with an internal candidate to fill this role, I’d like to see Davis, now 22, get the call.

Solomon Alabi – When the Raptors acquired Alabi (50th overall pick in 2011 Draft) on draft night, everyone knew he was going to be a “project.” I’m not suggesting for a second that the big Nigerian is ready to start in the NBA, but I’m also not going to claim that I know what Alabi is at this point. Here’s what we do know: A 23-year-old who’s over seven feet tall and 250 pounds deserves to at least be given a chance on a young 22-win team with no true centre on the roster. I doubt he’ll ever amount to much in Toronto, but with what should be a loaded draft class in 2012 and a centre of the future waiting in the wings, the Raptors don’t have much to lose by trotting Alabi out there once or twice. If it doesn’t work, at least they’ll know what they have, or don’t have.

Amir Johnson – I may not be as big a fan of Amir Johnson as RaptorBlog founder Scott Carefoot is, but I do like Johnson as a piece in the Raptors’ puzzle going forward. The problem is, I like his energy and style of play as a power forward off of the bench, and his size is more of an issue than it is for Davis. I still think the last high-schooler drafted into the NBA could average a double-double in his prime, I just don’t think it will ever be as a centre. In an emergency situation or a specialized lineup though, I could live with it.

External Candidates:

The Raptors have been linked to four free agents in various rumours and reports. I could have written five, but I’m going to pretend the name “Kwame Brown” never appeared in the same sentence as “Raptors”…ever.

Tyson Chandler – I’m a big fan of what Chandler brings to the table. He brings a consistent effort on both ends of the floor, focuses on defence and rebounding and yet is athletic and smart enough around the basket to contribute on the offensive end. He’s one of the few true centres left in the NBA, and one of the few centres I believe could make Andrea Bargnani look like an All Star at the four – Yes, I just said that, but that’s more of a compliment towards Chandler than it is towards ‘Il Mago.’ Add in the fact that he just anchored a championship winning defence with Dwane Casey and the fact that Bryan Colangelo almost acquired him last summer, and Chandler looks like the ideal candidate to be the Raptors starting centre come the Holiday season. Unfortunately, not everything works out the way it should.

While Chandler would be my ideal external candidate to fill Toronto’s need, I just don’t see how getting him here under the terms I want would work. I’d only want Chandler in Toronto on a two or three year term – just long enough to fill the hole in the middle while mentoring Valanciunas and the other young big men. But a 29-year-old true centre who started 74 games for the defending champions will find a team willing to give him more than two or three years. Which means that the Raptors will either have to overpay him to bring him North, or will have to give him a long-term deal that doesn’t mesh well with the patient rebuild approach.

Nene – You know it’s a bad crop of free agents when Nene is being mentioned as potentially the biggest catch of them all. I’m not knocking the guy – I like him as a role player on a championship team and a starter on a low-seeded playoff team, but unless you’re a team stacked at other positions, you’re not going anywhere in June with this guy as your starting centre. With the pieces, or lack of pieces, the Raptors currently have under contract, I’d be willing to bet Ed Davis can put up better numbers in Toronto. Seriously, look at the stats. Davis can give you the same offensive efficiency (if not better), better rebounding and a much bigger defensive presence than Nene can, and Davis is seven years younger. So I ask, why would anyone in the Raptors front office want to get in on a bidding war to over-spend on Nene at this stage of the rebuild? Nene’s a guy you pick up when you’re a playoff team that believes you’re a piece or two away from legitimate contention, not when you’re a 22-win team unsure of where to go from here.

Marc Gasol – If the Raptors hadn’t drafted Jonas Valanciunas just six-and-a-half months ago, Gasol is the guy I’d want the team to throw money at this off-season. Quite simply, he’s a massive man (7-1, 265 lbs.) and another of those rare “true” centres. And he’s just entering his prime. At 26-years-old, the Spaniard has put up career averages of about 13 points and eight boards to go along with a block-plus per game and a couple of dimes. He’s efficient, is a decent free-throw shooter for a big and sticks to what he’s expected to do on the offensive end. Not to mention, he’s played 232 games over three seasons (an average of 77.3 per season) while often logging heavy minutes. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, he averaged 15 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks, two assists and a steal in his first taste of playoff basketball last spring.

Quite simply, Marc Gasol is going to get paid before the shortened season begins, whether it’s by a new team or a matching offer by the Grizzlies. And he deserves it. He is a legitimate franchise centre in this league. I’d have no problem being the team to give him that money, if I hadn’t drafted Jonas Valanciunas already.

Chuck Hayes – I don’t want to be the downer here, but realistically, if the Raptors are going to bring in a new centre for the short-term, I’d have to think there’s more of a chance they sign under-sized Chuck Hayes than there is they sign one of the big-name free agents. And that’s not a bad thing. Sure, Hayes is only 6-6, which would seem to create a problem for him and his team when he’s trying to matchup against real fives, but the “little centre that could” has dispelled any of those worries in recent years with the Rockets. Hayes is thick enough (238 pounds) and smart enough to play centre in spurts. I wouldn’t roll him out there in the middle for 35 minutes a night, but if you need somewhat of a stop-gap at the position, which the Raptors do, Hayes just might be your man.

He’s 28-years-old, has played six seasons in the NBA, and has never averaged more than 22 minutes per game. He’s the definition of a stop-gap centre. Add to the mix that he’s a very capable defender whose style should mesh with Dwane Casey’s and the fact that he’s known as a character guy, which young teams need, and you see why I’m more comfortable giving Hayes a short, cheap deal (Hayes has never made more than about $2.2 million in a season) than I am throwing big money at anyone else this season.

***

Unless a drastic trade is on the horizon, chances are that one of these seven guys will be the starting centre for the Raptors this season. The thought of creating a splash by landing Chandler, Gasol or Nene is intriguing, but I still believe the best thing for the Raptors to do right now is to let Ed Davis start beside Andrea, and fill bench minutes with Amir Johnson and a cheap plug-in.