Festus Ezeli has agreed to terms with the Portland Trail Blazers, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. Ezeli's two-year deal will be worth about $16 million - equivalent to what the Los Angeles Lakers are paying Timofey Mozgov per season.
Free agent center Festus Ezeli has reached agreement on a two-year deal with Portland, league source tells @TheVertical.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 8, 2016
Source: Festus Ezeli's two-year deal with Blazers will be worth $16M.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 8, 2016
The signing finally gives the Blazers the rim-protection they lacked last season, and at a very cost-effective salary. The second year of the contract will also be a team option, making the deal even sweeter for the Blazers. (H/T to Dan Marang for noticing this).
Festus Ezeli's Blazers deal is actually $7.4 million the first year with a team option of $7.33 million in the second year, a source said.— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) July 8, 2016
At those numbers, the Blazers could sign Ezeli without renouncing any of their restricted free-agents, which was reportedly a road block to signing him earlier in the negotiations. The Blazers, however, did have to waive Cliff Alexander to reach $7.4 million in cap space. Alexander's contract was not guaranteed so there is no financial penalty for waiving him.
Sources: The Portland Trail Blazers waived forward Cliff Alexander, which was needed to create cap room to sign Festus Ezeli.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 8, 2016
Ezeli's previous team, the Golden State Warriors, renounced his rights to facilitate the signing of Kevin Durant after most of the best available centers had agreed to terms with other teams. It appears the Blazers were able to take advantage of reduced competition on the free agent market and snag Ezeli at a discounted rate.
The 6-foot-11, 255 pound Ezeli averaged 7.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 16.7 minutes per game for the Warriors last season. He played in only 46 games after missing the middle part of the season recovering from left knee surgery.
What will Ezeli bring to the Blazers?
Ezeli represents a high-in-potential, low-on-track record acquisition for President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and the Blazers. At his best, Ezeli has flashed gamechanging defensive ability and could immediately fill the Blazers' need for a defensive-minded starting center.
Ezeli is capable of completely locking up a pick-and-roll in ways that Blazers fans have rarely seen from a starting big man. 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 Ezeli's elite defensive potential from Game 2 of the team's second-round playoff series against the Warriors:
Ezeli's versatility and ability will also allow the Blazers to adopt a "switch everything" approach with its frontcourt players. 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 generally underwhelming. 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. The bottom line is that this is a purely defensive move for the Blazers, and any extra offense Ezeli brings to the floor will be a bonus.
Ezeli has also battled consistency issues during his three seasons with the Warriors. At times he has been the defensive monster that Olshey hopesfor, 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 relying on a career backup center with knee issues.
Ezeli offers the Blazers something they desperately needed - a center who can guard the modern NBA pick-and-roll and protect the paint. 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 Ezeli's team-friendly contract helps blunt those "Ifs", making this a very positive transaction.
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com