The Portland Trail Blazers brought free agent center Festus Ezeli into town Wednesday for an interview and a physical. President of Basketball Operations and GM Neil Olshey likely hopes that Ezeli can fill a position of need as a rim protecting center, assuming his health checks out.
Cap Ramifications of Signing Festus Ezeli
Ezeli will cost at least $17 million per season according to league insiders, Sean Deveney of The Sporting News reported last month. That will likely be a low-end offer for Ezeli as most players have been signing for more than was anticipated.
The Blazers, however, do not have the cap space to sign Ezeli outright without sacrificing some of their other players. After acquiring Evan Turner and Shabazz Napier, the Blazers have only about $6.0 million in cap space - less than half of what they will likely need to sign Ezeli.
Note: These figures assume the Blazers renounce their Bird exceptions for free agents Chris Kaman and Brian Roberts
Thus, Olshey will need to sacrifice at least $10 million in salary to make a competitive offer to Ezeli, which means the Blazers will certainly lose two of their current players in the process.
Looking at the cap figures above, the simplest way to clear the necessary space would be to renounce rights for Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless. Eliminating their cap holds would give the Blazers about $21 million in space and allow as much as a maximum offer to Ezeli. Alternatively, the Blazers could also renounce Leonard or Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Luis Montero, and Cliff Alexander and have about $18 million to $18.5 million in space. Under either scenario, Olshey must renounce two of Portland's three RFAs.
In short, acquiring Ezeli would mean choosing which of the team's restricted free agents are most replaceable. Given that the Blazers lack perimeter shooting and are reportedly very high on Crabbe, it seems very unlikely that they will let him walk. But Crabbe is also going to fetch more on the open market than Harkless or Leonard - the Nets are reportedly considering offering him a four-year, $70 million deal. Olshey may decide that paying Crabbe an exorbitant fee is less defensible than retaining Leonard or Harkless at a - hopefully - lower rate.
Alternatively, Olshey could also opt to trade Ed Davis or Al-Farouq Aminu in a salary dump and then he would be able to retain two of Portland's three restricted free agents. This move is slightly more complicated as it involves finding a trade partner, and also sacrifices the high-value Aminu or Davis contracts. Of the two, Aminu would seem more movable with Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, and Moe Harkless all capable of playing forward.
For simplicity, here are Olshey's options if he wants to sign Ezeli:
Option 1: Release Harkless and Leonard. Cap space: $20 million
Option 2: Release Leonard and Crabbe, waive Montero and Alexander. Cap space: $18.5 million
Option 3: Release Harkless and Crabbe, waive Montero and Alexander. Cap space: $18 million
Option 4: Salary dump Aminu or Davis, retain two of three RFAs. Cap space: Varies from $17 million to max contract.
Why sign Festus Ezeli?
The follow-up question on every Blazer fan's mind: Is acquiring Ezeli worth sacrificing at least two current players?
This is an incredibly high-risk but high-reward proposition for Olshey and the Blazers.
At his best, Ezeli has flashed potentially gamechanging defensive ability. He has the ability to completely lock up a pick-and-roll in ways that Blazers fans have rarely seen from a starting center. He's mobile enough to pick up and contain a ballhandling guard on the 3-point line and then recover back to his own man as necessary. He also understands defensive rotations well enough to make the right decision the majority of the time.
Blazers fans vividly remember this "peak Ezeli" from Game 2 of the team's second-round playoff series against the Warriors:
Ezeli's versatility and ability would allow the Blazers to pair him with Aminu/Turner and Harkless (if he's still on the team) in the frontcourt so they can adopt a "switch everything" approach. That defensive style is en vogue in the modern NBA and regularly employed by elite teams such as the Cavs, Warriors, and Spurs. None of the big men on the Blazers' roster have shown even flashes of the skills that Ezeli brings to the table, so his addition to the team has the potential to be transformative on the defensive end.
Offensively, Ezeli is mostly "meh." He scores the vast majority of his points around the rim, and shoots a decent 68 percent at that range.
Image and all stats from Basketball-Reference.com
79 percent of his baskets are assisted so he has little ability to create his own shot, but he did finish last year in the top 20 for offensive rebound percentage (13.5) so there is hope he could score second chance points. But, overall, the bottom line is that this would be a purely defensive move for the Blazers. In fact, Ezeli's inability to score outside the lane and offensive rebounding ability could possibly push Olshey toward salary dumping the similarly limited Ed Davis in favor of re-signing the rangier Meyers Leonard.
Ezeli has also battled consistency issues during his three seasons with the Warriors. At times he has been the defensive monster that Olshey hopes to sign, but he has also struggled to get off the bench occasionally. During the 2016 NBA Finals, for example, Ezeli was completely ineffective as both teams went to smallball lineups.
But his consistency issues in Golden State may have had more to do with fit than with ability. As a smallball center, Ezeli lags behind the All-NBA level talent of Draymond Green, and in a traditional lineup he was out-shined by the all-around abilities of Andrew Bogut. Additionally, the Warriors were competing for high playoff seeds during the last two years and had little time to wait for Ezeli to improve in-season. In Portland, Ezeli will be the only viable defensive option at center, regardless of smallball or traditional lineup, and the Blazers have time to wait for him to improve in-season. It's possible that his consistency issues will evaporate once he starts playing more than 17 minutes per game for the first time in his career.
Perhaps more concerning is Ezeli's injury history. He missed the entirety of the 2013-14 season recovering from right knee surgery, and missed a chunk of last season recovering from surgery on his left knee. On the bright side, he has no prior injury history, but it is concerning that he has been unable to stay healthy for an entire NBA season since his rookie year. The Blazers do have a state of the art training staff and have avoided the major injury issues that plagued the team previously, but fans may be wary of paying top dollar for a career backup center with knee issues.
Ezeli offers the Blazers something they desperately need - a center who can guard the modern NBA pick-and-roll. He has shown flashes that suggest he could transform the Blazers' defense, but has struggled with consistency and injury issues. If Ezeli's past inconsistencies were the result of a poor fit in Golden State and his injury issues are behind him, he could be very valuable to the Blazers despite a limited offensive game. But those "Ifs" loom very large, making this an extremely high-risk, high-reward move for the team.
What do you think? Is Ezeli worth sacrificing at least two players currently on the roster?
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com