The Monday Edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag covers the newest Portland Trail Blazers center, Festus Ezeli, and his prospects for long-term success with the team. If you have a Blazers-related question, send it along to email@example.com.
Festus Ezili is my favorite of all the people we got or kept this year. I'm so stoked about his potential. Do you see him becoming a dominant force and how lucky will we be if it happens? Do you think he can take over for Plumlee right away? If not, when?
Evan Turner is more of a sure bet to add wrinkles to the attack but if Ezeli pans out, he has the potential to rearrange the whole house. We agree on that point.
Along with individual improvement, continuity is an important plank on which the Blazers will try to build a better season. As such, I'd assume that Mason Plumlee has the inside track to the starting center position. If I had to guess, I'd say he'd retain it through the early months of the season at least, if not all year. That's based on a combination of his ability to pass the ball from the middle of the floor and Ezeli's health concerns.
Those health concerns will be the #1 determining factor for Ezeli's future in the league no matter where he plays. Nobody can predict the future, but the contract between Ezeli and the Blazers shows that the prognosis is shaky. If he were healthy and his future secure, why would he agree to a $7.5 million contract with the second year only partially guaranteed? Modest reserve guards are getting better deals than that this summer. It's a trial deal, designed for him to be able to prove himself and the Blazers to allow him to do so without serious risk if his knees go south.
That same deal all but guarantees that if Ezeli does flourish, becoming the dominant center of Portland's dreams, he won't be with the team long-term. The Blazers are scheduled to be so far over the salary cap line two years from now that getting under it--let alone far enough to offer a big contract to Ezeli--would require rapid roster decompression. If they want Ezeli to return after this deal is up, they'll have to use a salary cap exception to re-sign him.
The problem is, the Blazers won't have Bird rights to Ezeli. That's the famous cap exception that gives teams carte blanche to re-sign their own free agents to any size contract even if they're over the cap. It only kicks in after a player has served three years with a team (or a combination of continuous teams on the same contract if he's traded). Ezeli signing as a free agent resets the clock on the Bird exception. When his current deal expires the Blazers will have had him under contract for two years, not three, so he won't be eligible for it.
Portland will have a limited version of the exception, called Early Bird Rights, with which to lure Ezeli. But the most they could offer him under those terms would be 175% of his current salary, which would work out to around $13.5 million per year. If he becomes a league-crushing center, would he be satisfied with that amount in an economy where Mo Harkless is worth $10 million per year? He'll be 28 at that point. It's not like he could sign a two-year deal (the minimum term allowed for Early Bird contracts) and then hope to get paid next time around...especially with his past injury history. He'll need the most money possible as soon as he can get it. The Blazers won't be able to offer that.
If both were motivated, the Blazers and Ezeli could find a work-around for this problem. It would probably involve dumping the entire lower half of their roster and trying to trade away Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis for draft picks. They could also hope the salary cap rises more than forecast, lessening the need for roster cutting. They could even pray that next summer's likely renegotiation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement changes the terms of the cap or free agency. All of those are long-shot possibilities though.
In the end, Ezeli's contract is designed to avoid catastrophic failure more than it's designed to take advantage of possible unbridled success...at least from Portland's point of view. (Ezeli would be just fine with unbridled success because another team would pay him.) That in itself should put in perspective the odds of Festus becoming the next monster center for the Blazers. Looking at his compensation package, they're more or less betting that won't happen. If it does, the Blazers will need to trade him before his current contract runs out or they'll almost certainly lose him to big-dollar free agency.
Ezeli could be a step to the next level of contention, but even if he plays great he's not going to be THE step...at least not for long. That should temper your expectations of his potential to change the fortunes of the franchise.
Keep those questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!