As we inch closer to the end of the 2015-16 season, we will start to hear an increasing amount of reports and rumors about various teams’ offseason plans and free agent targets. The most recent free agency rumor surrounds Golden State Warriors’ backup center Festus Ezeli.
Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported earlier this week that the Los Angeles Lakers will have interest in Ezeli and, according to several league executives, it will likely take at least a three-year, $50 million contract to pry him out of Golden State.
“Obviously there are health issues you’re worried about,” one general manager told Sporting News. “So I don’t think you’d want to go beyond three years. But he still has a lot of upside and he can get better in a bigger role.”
Ezeli’s role in Golden State makes it hard to determine just how much he should be paid in free agency. He is 26 years old, has been in the league for four seasons, yet there are still many unknowns about his overall game. The Warriors often rely on their small-ball lineups, which keeps Ezeli on the sideline for long stretches. Also, Andrew Bogut, one of the best rim protectors in the league, is ahead of Ezeli on the depth chart. As a result, these two have to split limited time at center with forward Draymond Green, who plays at center at least a few minutes each game. With a limited track record, health concerns and the league collectively going with smaller lineups each season, there are risks to signing Ezeli to a big contract this offseason.
Ezeli missed the entire 2013-14 season after undergoing surgery on his MCL and PCL and only played in 46 games last season in limited minutes. He was also limited to 46 regular season games this season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery to clear out some debris. Missing so much time to knee injuries isn’t a good sign for a 26-year-old big man who hasn’t racked up huge mileage since he didn’t start playing basketball until he was a teenager and has never averaged more than 16 minutes per game in a single season.
This season, Ezeli is averaging seven points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 16.7 minutes of action per game. Ezeli also averaged just 8.1 minutes in the Golden State Warriors’ first round series against the Houston Rockets. Ezeli did not play in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers, which the Warriors won 110-99. However, Ezeli was key to the Warriors’ second half comeback in Game 2, chipping in eight points, six rebounds and a blocked shot in the fourth quarter.
In addition to putting up nice stats in limited minutes, Ezeli entered the game in the third quarter and helped slow down the surging Blazers offense.
“He changed the whole game with his pick-and-roll defense, his presence around the rim and the energy he gave us,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “It was a phenomenal effort by [Ezeli] to change the game.”
In the clip below, we see Andrew Bogut being targeted by Damian Lillard in pick-and-rolls set above the three-point line. While Bogut is a top-level rim protector, he isn’t exactly the most mobile big man in the league, which makes him vulnerable defending pick-and-rolls against a player like Lillard, who can pull up off the dribble and nail three-pointers from well beyond the three-point line.
Bogut simply doesn’t have the quickness to jump out at Lillard on these sort of shots. Lillard only needs a second of daylight to nail these sort of shots from distance, so giving him this sort of space left Golden State very vulnerable. Steve Kerr recognized that Bogut was getting abused and in response inserted Ezeli into the game.
Despite still recovering from his knee surgery, Ezeli is still much more mobile than Bogut. This allows him to play up on pick-and-rolls, which is valuable when playing against a shooter like Lillard. With Ezeli guarding the pick-and-roll this time, Lillard doesn’t have the space to pull up for a three-pointer off the screen. In addition to taking away the pull up jumper, Ezeli is able to stick with Lillard off the switch and force the ball out of his hands. The result is a three-point attempt from Al-Farouq Aminu, which is highly preferable to Lillard taking an open shot.
In addition to guarding the pick-and-roll more effectively, Ezeli was also able to take away the simple handoff that Lillard and other top-level shooters like to utilize so often. In this play, Ed Davis tries to give Lillard some space and the handoff for an open jumper, but Ezeli plays higher than Bogut because of his mobility and is right there to contest the shot.
The difference between Ezeli and Bogut’s defense on these plays may not seem like a big deal, but in Game 2 it was a big part of the Warriors’ comeback. Shooters like Lillard will often times make these sort of shots despite having a hand in their face, but simply having a big man with the mobility to cover space is a major asset in a league where shooters are becoming more lethal than ever.
In addition to being mobile enough to contest shots up to the three-point line, Ezeli is also a strong rim protector as well. Lillard is a threat to pull up from deep or attack the rim, so being able to guard both areas is a big plus for the Warriors.
This short sequence of Game 2 is a good illustration of why teams like the Lakers have reason to be interested in Ezeli. In today’s NBA, a big man ideally should be big enough to guard other bigs in the post, cover space in the pick-and-roll, protect the rim, alter shots in the paint, set good screens for his shooters, rebound effectively and be at least somewhat of a threat on offense. Those skills and abilities are arguably more important than having a dominant post game considering that modern NBA offenses are designed to generate shots beyond-the-arc and at the rim. Ezeli checks off each one of these essential skills, though there are still concerns about his long-term health and how much room he has to continue developing.
People will balk at the idea of a backup center with knee issues that has never averaged more than 20 minutes per game or come close to averaging a double-double receiving a multi-year contract starting at around $15 million. However, with the cap rising significantly after this season and the need for big men that can do the things listed above, there is some merit to giving a player like Ezeli that sort of deal. Though it should be noted that Ezeli will be a restricted free agent, meaning that the Warriors can opt to match any offer sheet he may sign with another team.
There is risk involved to be certain, but a three-year, $50 million deal may be preferable to giving someone like Dwight Howard a multi-year deal with a roughly $30 million annual salary. Only time will tell whether Ezeli will in deed get such an offer from a team this offseason, but again, there are reasons to be interested in acquiring a player with Ezeli’s skill set, which was a key factor to the Warriors’ comeback in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
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