The Warriors won the NBA championship last year, which in and of itself was already something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. We’re talking about a team that had a solid 12-year run as one of the most inept organizations in all of American professional sports from 1995-2006. After a two-year blip of semi-respectability, they hit the skids again. Not so long ago, you’d have given Stephen Curry’s hometown Charlotte Hornets similar odds of winning a title before the Warriors even captured one. The ludicrous part of all this is that not only did the Dubs win it all, but they did it with a youthful core that’s under contract for years to come. Theoretically there’s no reason they can’t go on to be one of the league’s great dynasties.
And that’s where Festus Ezeli comes in.
Ezeli, 25, enjoyed a nice comeback season last year as the Warriors’ backup center and actually wound up leapfrogging Andrew Bogut in the rotation during the Finals against Cleveland. He lost a year of development in 2013-14 due to a knee injury and didn’t play nearly as many minutes or games as he did in 2012-13 as a rookie, but he was far more efficient and effective in the minutes he did play, both in his shooting from the field and the free-throw line but also in the way he dramatically reduced his turnovers.
Per Basketball-reference.com, Ezeli finished with the same Win Shares per 48 minutes (.159) as Bogut did, he used a much bigger chunk of possessions (17.7 percent to 13.2), gobbled up a higher percentage of offensive rebounds (13.3 to 9.9), swatted a higher percentage of shots (6.2 to 5.3) and had a superior PER (16.2 to 15.8). For comparison’s sake, Draymond Green, who was awarded with a five-year, $82 million extension over the summer, had a 16.4 PER last year.
There has been a lot of speculation that despite his modest pro resume (156 games and 1,941 minutes combined over two regular seasons plus the playoffs), that Ezeli will soon sign a deal that will be worth eight figures per season. Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe, hardly one to blow smoke in matters such as these, wrote back in August that a four-year, $40 million contract would be on the low end of what Ezeli could command on the open market, especially when you take into account a salary cap that’s set to skyrocket over the next two seasons. Being able to secure a young-ish starting-center-in-waiting for four years at less than ten percent of a team’s cap would be a bargain. There’s no question that Ezeli has quicker feet and a springier leap than the older Bogut, but he doesn’t have his veteran savvy and isn’t nearly the passer the Australian big man is.
Ezeli absolutely has to play more next season if he’s healthy, for four reasons, and frankly there’s no downside to him sopping up more minutes in the rotation.
For one thing, he obviously needs to develop more. He showed flashes last season, but is still just scratching the surface of his potential. Just because he’ll have the leverage to get a big payday doesn’t mean he’ll be able to live up to it. He needs all the live reps he can get, especially against opposing starters. He needs to get more comfortable playing with the team’s stars and vice versa.
For example, of the 687 minutes Ezeli logged last season between the regular season and playoffs combined, only 394 came with Curry, per NBAWowy.com. Just 319 came with Green and only 296 with Klay Thompson. Ezeli still needs more of an offensive repertoire and needs to be able to see the floor better to hit open teammates with passes once defenders converge on him. All that comes with playing time. And if Ezeli winds up hitting a plateau, then perhaps the Warriors can save themselves from an expensive mistake before it’s too late.
Playing the Nigerian more will also help keep Bogut healthy and fresh for the games that matter. It’s no secret that Bogut has an extensive injury history, and he seemed to wear down a bit during the latter rounds of the playoffs. The numbers don’t show it, but coach Steve Kerr and his staff asked a lot of Bogut last season. On offense he has to move all over the court away from his comfort zone in the paint to set punishing screens for the team’s various shooters, and then hustle toward the basket to battle for caroms. It’s a thankless job, with little glory. In his own end Bogut was counted on to be last line of defense and the primary communicator and choreographer back there, barking instructions to everyone else. He often had to operate with undersized personnel –Green is 6’6″ at best– meaning that he to battle multiple behemoths inside on shot attempts and rebounds. The more relief Ezeli can give him next year, the better off Bogut will be.
The thing is, the same could be said for virtually all of the starters. As dominant as the Warriors were, with a 10.1-point differential, the team’s dirty secret was their bench wasn’t as much of an asset as one would assume given many massive leads they enjoyed. The Warriors were actually outscored in the 1,331 minutes Curry sat during the regular season, according to Basketball-reference.com. Even though Golden State had more blowouts than anybody, with Curry frequently sitting out entire fourth quarters, Kerr played his subs just 18.8 minutes a night on average, according to Hoopstats.com. That figure was tenth in the league, while the bench’s cumulative 36.4 points per game was ninth. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston were quality defenders, but had limited shooting range. Marreese Speights, David Lee and Leandro Barbosa could score, but couldn’t guard anyone. Only Ezeli was an above-average performer on both ends. The bench far-and-away led the league with a 47.4 percent field goal percentage, but finished 20th in three-point percentage, making just 32.8 percent, again according to Hoopstats.com. It only makes sense to play Ezeli more and to pound the ball inside to him if he’s leading a bench-heavy lineup.
Finally Ezeli has to play more if for no other reason than just to reduce the wear-and-tear on the team’s perimeter playoffs. It’s fun as heck when Kerr goes to micro-ball with Green at center, and those lineups were highly effective both in the regular season and the playoffs, but you don’t want to go to that well too often because it takes too much of Green, Iguodala and Harrison Barnes to bang down low and deal with size mismatches on defense. It’s better used as a tactic to change things up when the team is slumping or to break open a close game, but not for some routine February game in Indiana. The less Kerr uses it, the less opponents will be prepared for it when he does.
Ezeli is both literally and figuratively a big part of the Warriors future. His playing time needs to be commensurate with that.