You might have heard that Golden State Warriors backup center Festus Ezeli recently turned down a contract extension. The deadline for him to do so came and went, so now he’ll be a restricted free agent in July, free to solicit an offer from anyone and take it back to the Warriors to match. Essentially, he’s chosen the same route as teammate Harrison Barnes, who reportedly turned down a four-year, $64 million extension a bit earlier. Both players are betting on themselves.
“Obviously [agent Ugo Udezue] didn’t come up to an agreement with the team, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I want to be here for the rest of my career,” Ezeli said on Monday, speaking to reporters at the team’s shoot-around. “I love these guys, I love the team.”
On the surface, you might look at Ezeli’s humble career stats and think “this guy’s got some nerve.” After all, Ezeli has all of 128 regular season games under his belt, having missed all of the 2013-14 season with a knee injury. He’s been a reserve throughout his career, averaging 3.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. His claim to fame, basically, is producing 12 points and 9 rebounds in the closeout game of the Western Conference Finals against the Rockets and then 10 points and 4 rebounds in the closeout game of the Finals at Cleveland. He’s proven he belongs in the league, sure, but does he really have the resume to turn down an eight-figure salary?
The short answer is, well, no.
But it doesn’t matter. It was absolutely the right move for him and his agent to pass.
First off, it’s not like Ezeli and Barnes were the only ones. A lot of third-year players have declined extension offers, including Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Washington’s Bradley Beal, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless from Portland, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas from Houston, Orlando’s Evan Fournier, Oklahoma City’s Dion Waiters, Milwaukee’s Miles Plumlee and Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller from Boston.
The league’s salary cap is going to skyrocket from $73 million to $90 million next season and then shoot up again to $108 million in 2017-18. Just about every team is going to have cap room to add a max-level contract, regardless of whether there are any free agents on the market worthy of them.
The CBA also has rules in place about teams having to spend to a set salary floor of 90 percent of the cap, and if they don’t get there they have to pay the difference as a bonus to the rosters they already have in place, so there’s no incentive to not add talent if it’s available.
A few guys have decided not to gamble. Milwaukee’s John Henson, Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas, Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte’s Jeremy Lamb and Toronto’s Terrence Ross re-signed with their clubs. Kidd-Gilchrist, in particular, looks wise for having done so since he tore his labrum shortly after and is out for the season.
The thing to understand is that Ezeli, who’s not nearly as accomplished as Barnes or almost everyone else on the list of decliners, has three things going for him that Barnes doesn’t. He plays a premium position, his successor isn’t already on the roster, and the advanced stats like him quite a bit.
Ezeli is a center who has shown he can walk and chew gum at the same time, and that will always make him a valuable and coveted commodity. He’s an athletic rim protector and finisher who just turned 26 and has virtually his whole career ahead of him as far as usage goes. He knows his role on the team and fills it well. Not many, if any, post-ups will be called for him, but he’ll get opportunities to score by cleaning up around the basket and by catching feeds from Stephen Curry and others who penetrate and draw defenders.
Ezeli doesn’t have a successor on the roster because he is the successor. Andrew Bogut is a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday and has one year remaining on his contract. He is the perfect mentor to Ezeli and the ideal teammate for a developing player in that he’s injury prone. Bogut suffered a concussion in the season-opener, which has allowed Ezeli to start the past three games. It’s certainly possible that the Warriors could re-sign Bogut in the future, but if they can only keep one of the two, it makes sense to hold on to the younger, more athletic guy with a less extensive injury history. Contrast that to Barnes’ situation. The Warriors used their first-round pick on Kevon Looney, a 6’9 small forward who shot 41.5 percent from outside at UCLA last year and then impressed during Summer League before going under the knife.
Finally, Ezeli has fared well in the efficiency stats. He had a 16.3 PER last year in limited time and is at 19.3 so far this season, though, obviously in a tiny sample size. He’s averaging 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per-36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He already has the best defensive rating on the team, with the Warriors allowing just 88 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
DeAndre Jordan isn’t much more skilled than Ezeli, and he just got a max contract from the Clippers by virtue of the fact that he plays with two sensational passers who can find him with lobs from anywhere in the half court. That’s why it was always so absurd that Jordan actually entertained the notion of leaving Los Angeles. If anything he should tithe a portion of his salary to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Without those guys, he’d barely be in the league.
Tristan Thompson just signed a five-year, $82 million contract with Cleveland, even though Kevin Love and Tifomey Mozgov are already on the roster, just because Cavs owner Dan Gilbert didn’t want to risk upsetting LeBron James. Thompson will be making near max money as a backup even though he can’t do anything but score off of offensive rebounds and hedge well on guarding the pick-and-roll.
Curry has never been the ego monster that James is and doesn’t have a contentious history with Warriors owner Joe Lacob that James has with Gilbert, and I don’t get the sense that he’d ever put public pressure on ownership to re-sign anyone, especially if their contract demands are unrealistic, but at the same time he’ll make it clear he wants to play with a championship-caliber roster and there’s no reason for ownership to have a different agenda. Unless they can find a better option to Ezeli between now and next July, I expect him to be a Warrior for a long time.