There's an old rule of thumb about the use of the "question mark headline" in journalism. It's a pretty simple rule, really: "Whenever a headline ends in a question mark, the answer to the question is no." This idea has become known as Betteridge's Law, named after British journalist Ian Betteridge, and it's applicable to just about any journalistic genre you can name. Whether you're reading a serious analytical piece in the Financial Times or a bit of celebrity gossip on TMZ, the same logic holds. The question being asked is probably speculative, and the idea isn't to be taken seriously.
This situation comes up a lot in the basketball blogosphere, because there are few things basketball fans love more than reading about wildly speculative ideas that aren't based in reality. There are lots of opportunities for question mark headlines. Whether it's "Will the NBA add a 4-point line?" or "Should LeBron James leave Cleveland next summer to join the Knicks?", silly questions get clicks, even when the answers to those questions are painfully obvious.
This is not one of those cases.
The question you see above is not a leading question. I'm not asking it because there's a clear answer and I'm getting ready to beat you over the head with it. I'm asking because I legitimately don't know, and that's despite spending a solid chunk of my day yesterday watching film and poring over stats and mulling it over.
Is Festus Ezeli better than Mason Plumlee? Is he a better fit for this Trail Blazers lineup? Is he here to steal Plumlee's job?
I don't know, I don't know and I don't know. What I do know is I understand the thought process behind the Blazers' signing Ezeli, which they did on Thursday night for two years and $16 million. There's been a ton of talk in Portland these last couple of months about what the Blazers can do to upgrade at the other positions aside from the two guard spots, with center in particular being singled out often. Neil Olshey swung and missed at the big names early in free agency, most notably Hassan Whiteside; a week into July, he needed to get someone who at least had a chance of improving his lineup come November. Ezeli offers just that - a chance. And he was a chance who became available relatively late in free agency, as Kevin Durant's Golden State decision didn't come down until the 4th, leaving the rest of the league to scavenge for the Warriors' spare parts this week. Olshey became one of the biggest beneficiaries, getting a decent big man on the cheap.
The problem is, Ezeli isn't Whiteside. He's not an obvious step up from the starting center the Blazers already have in Plumlee, and Plumlee has the not-insignificant advantage of being the incumbent. He's already spent a year starting next to Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu. That counts for something. If Ezeli's going to swoop into town and steal Plumlee's role, he's got to earn it by showing he's really, definitively better. So far, he hasn't done so.
- Festus Ezeli, 2015-16, per 36 minutes: 15 points, 12 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.3 blocks, 0.8 steals, 54.8 percent from the floor, 53 percent from the line
- Mason Plumlee, 2015-16, per 36 minutes: 12.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.5 steals, 51.6 percent from the floor, 64.2 percent from the line
In terms of the counting stats, Ezeli might look a tiny smidge better, but it's worth considering that he may have had more opportunities. He played a lot of his minutes with the Warriors' backups, against other second units; Plumlee was a full-time starter. Advanced stats-wise, Plumlee has a solid edge over Ezeli in ESPN's real plus-minus stat, giving the Blazers 2.43 extra points per 100 possessions versus Ezeli's 1.42. Ezeli has the slightly higher PER (17.7 to 17.2), but also the slightly higher usage rate (18.2 percent to 17.1). It's hard to put up numbers when no one's running plays for you.
In summary: It's close. I've studied these two guys pretty closely, and in my somewhat-educated opinion, it's hard to say definitively that either one is markedly better. For Terry Stotts next season, it's going to be a challenge to juggle his two centers situationally, as they both present strengths and weaknesses that can help or hinder the Blazers in certain spots.
Let's talk about them.
Obviously, one of the biggest things the Blazers have been chasing after this summer is rim protection, and in Ezeli, they most certainly now have it. There are two different kinds of rim protection, one far more difficult than the other - one is the "just stand there at the rim and be huge" kind, and the other involves switching onto smaller, quicker players and defending in space. Ezeli is the rare big man who's excellent at both, and it's increasingly important to have a player like that in the modern NBA, where liberal use of the pick-and-roll forces defenses to make challenging reads.
Ezeli makes all of that easy. Watch him here, from Game 4 of the Warriors' playoff series against Portland this May. Plumlee sets an extremely high screen on Klay Thompson, in the hopes of giving Lillard a massive amount of room to operate one-on-one against Ezeli. This usually works like a charm, as Lillard is one of the best players in the NBA at using open space creatively to create his own shot. Against Ezeli, though, he's got nothing. Ezeli shuffles his feet perfectly, follows Lillard to the rim every step of the way and stuffs him when he tries to score at the rim.
What Ezeli demonstrates here - the ability to roam out to 20 feet from the basket and then dart back and protect the basket when necessary - is a skill the Blazers haven't had in years. They've searched their roster for it, but to no avail. Ed Davis has tried to be that guy, but he's not mobile enough; he usually ends up hanging back close to the rim, which makes it easy for crafty guards to use their in-between game and hit open shots. As for Plumlee, well ... he's struggled at times with the opposite problem.
Mason Plumlee is not a bad defensive player. I repeat: Mason Plumlee is not a bad defensive player. In fact, if you believe the aforementioned real plus-minus statistic, his defensive rating is a 2.11, meaning he saves the Blazers about a basket per game more than the average NBA player, all other factors being equal. Plumlee has a lot of good qualities defensively - he's big, long, somewhat mobile and tries hard to position himself well and limit opponents from getting easy baskets.
Except he does sometimes screw up. It's not because of apathy, and it's not a Davis-type thing where he hangs back too far and surrenders open shots. Instead, he's sometimes overly aggressive and jumpy, over-extending himself with swipes and close-outs and other gambles. Watch him above as he gets caught in a transition cross matchup with Klay Thompson. Plumlee does a nice job closing out on Thompson and keeping him from getting an open 3, which is laudable, but he also insists on doing more than just close out. He starts lunging out farther into Thompson's airspace, trying to single-handedly suffocate him, and when that fails, he's 24 feet from the basket and facing the wrong direction when Thompson uses a simple give-and-go with Draymond Green to drive to the basket for a layup. If Plumlee had positioned himself better, hanging back inside the 3-point line and staying ready to scramble back to the basket in a pinch, the Warriors wouldn't have an easy two points.
Plumlee is not a horrendous rim protector. According to Nylon Calculus' rim protection stats, he holds opposing players to a 52.9 percent clip when they shoot around the basket against him, which is roughly a league-average number. But again, there are two different kinds of rim protection, and the other one is being able to move away from the basket and defend in space before retreating into the paint. Plumlee is still learning in that area.
Ezeli, by the way, holds opposing shooters at the rim to 44 percent shooting. He also moves very, very well and has good instincts doing it. Advantage: Ezeli.
And then ... you look at the offense.
Being an offensive center in the modern NBA is about a lot more than just playing with your back to the basket and posting up. There are very, very few guys in the league today making a living trying to play the way Patrick Ewing did back in the 1980s. There are many, however, functioning like Draymond Green as playmaking bigs. Plumlee, for all his weaknesses with the former style, is excellent at the latter.
The above play, from Game 5 against Golden State, is a great example of Plumlee using his court vision to make a play in the pick-and-roll. The Blazers here are doing their thing - drive, kick, drive, kick and create seams in the defense. Eventually they create a situation where two defenders collapse onto Lillard, Lillard then dumps it off to Plumlee, and Plumlee draws in Draymond and Andrew Bogut before kicking out to wide-open Maurice Harkless for a 3.
Plumlee made plays like this for the Blazers last season all. The. Time. He's never been a lethal scorer around the basket - per basketball-reference shooting data, he's a 63.1 percent shooter from inside of 3 feet, just a hair above the league average of 62.4 percent - but he's nonetheless a lethal player because he can create for others. What Plumlee lacks in pure scoring ability, he makes up with instincts. He's able to see the floor and quickly make good decisions. He scores when defenses let him and finds shooters when they're available. This ability makes him a potent weapon for the Blazers on rim rolls, at the elbow and even in post-up situations. Even though he's only an OK scorer, he's more of a multi-dimensional player than he lets on.
Can Ezeli also play this way? Well, I don't doubt that he tries to. The results aren't always great, though.
This play, from later in the same game, unfolds similarly to the Blazers' possession above, with Ezeli situated away from the action as Draymond and Stephen Curry run a pick-and-roll together. Curry does a nice job drawing in Plumlee a little bit, then dropping the ball off to a somewhat open Ezeli in the post; Ezeli then struggles to do something with it.
The Warriors' offense, much like Portland's, relies upon all five players being able to make quick reads and take decisive action when the ball comes their way. Whether you shoot, pass or put the ball on the floor, you should do it quickly rather than give the defense a chance to scramble back into position and take away your options. Ezeli struggles with doing things quickly. His offensive moves aren't terrible, but he's rarely decisive about making them, and that hurts. On this possession, if Ezeli had caught Curry's pass and put the ball up right away, that's a likely two points. If he kicks out to Harrison Barnes (who is wide open!) in the corner, it could easily be three. Instead he takes a second to collect the ball, giving the Blazers time to collapse on him, and things break down. He finally gets rid of the ball, gets it back and ends up failing to dunk on Plumlee, who's well positioned to stop him. Put Plumlee in Ezeli's shoes for this play, and Barnes probably already made that corner 3 a long time ago.
On both ends of the floor, the differences we're talking about between Festus Ezeli and Mason Plumlee are marginal. All in all, they're fairly similar players. Either one, in a pinch, can be a perfectly serviceable NBA starting center. I'm confident that come opening night, one will do the job just fine, and the other will be a very good backup. But I think it's clear where each guy has a slight, yet noticeable, edge - Plumlee is the more skilled offensive player, and Ezeli is the Blazers' best defensive big man. There's room for both.
The Blazers devoted a lot of minutes last year to guys who specialize in one particular skill or another. Specialization is good, but it can hurt you sometimes. Early in the Clippers series in April, pre-Clippers injuries, I lamented that the Blazers had the defensive chops to slow down L.A.'s wing scorers (Aminu) and they had the shooting to light the Clippers up (Allen Crabbe); they just couldn't find both at the same time. They always had to sacrifice one skill in their lineup to gain another, and that made things tough.
I fear that this new center rotation might present the same problem. Just like on the wing, Terry Stotts now has to juggle two guys at the five who are skilled in certain areas but flawed in others. That doesn't mean the Blazers failed in free agency, per se - I absolutely think it was the right move for them to sign Ezeli, as he's a decent young player on an affordable contract. It does mean, however, that Stotts will have a challenge in front of him this season as he doles out roles to Ezeli, Plumlee and everyone else. This summer was supposed to be about getting upgrades for the Blazers' lineup, and Festus isn't that - at least not definitively. Not yet. The Blazers have added a piece in Ezeli, but he might not be the easiest one to fit into the puzzle.