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NBA Saturday: Festus Ezili May Be Worth Steep Free Agent Price

Is Festus Ezeli worth the high price tag he may command in free agency?

Jesse Blancarte

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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.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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