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Warriors Shouldn’t Extend Festus Ezeli Just Yet

The impulse is understandable.

Festus Ezeli is a broad-shouldered interior force on defense — one who made a significant leap forward in his abbreviated 2014-15 campaign with the Golden State Warriors. Sign him! Sign him now!, you’re thinking.

The Warriors may be thinking that, too, and in some ways, it’s easy to understand why.

Now seems to be the time to make seemingly rash financial commitments, what with the salary cap going up and moderate overpays just a year away from looking like bargains. For Ezeli in particular, injury (he’s played just 124 out of 246 possible games in three seasons) and inexperience (he didn’t play organized ball until the summer of 2007 — when he was 17), leave open the possibility of investment-worthy future growth.

Ezeli is eligible for an extension until Oct. 31, and there’s legitimate urgency attached to that date. Because although the Warriors would retain control over Ezeli’s options in restricted free agency next summer, a breakout year from the still-developing big man could push his price tag into uncomfortable territory.

In other words, if $8 million or $10 million per year feels like too much to pay for a player with Ezeli’s limited track record now, imagine having to match offers of $12 million or more next summer. A number like that could easily be in play if, say, Andrew Bogut misses time and Ezeli gets a chance to log serious minutes.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, and so is everyone else drooling over Ezeli’s potential earning power. If the Warriors are smart, they won’t get caught up in all that and won’t succumb to the fear of Ezeli’s market rate spiking.

If they’re smart, they won’t extend him by the Oct. 31 deadline.

Now, it’s important to note before moving on that Ezeli might very well be a monster this year. There’s a viable scenario in which he starts a ton of games, anchors the league’s best defense, proves his offensive advancement last year was real and plays himself into a huge payday.

That’s possible, and it’s a risk for the Warriors.

The bigger risk, by far, is investing in him too early.

Because so many arguments in favor of paying Ezeli cut both ways.

The fact that he’s played only one-and-a-half seasons’ worth of games makes it seem like there’s room for major improvement. But he’s played so few games because of injury — one of which, a knee, was significant enough to cost him the entire 2013-14 season. All the potential in the world doesn’t mean much if it’s planted on the bench in a suit.

Was the knee an anomaly two years ago? Was the ankle an outlier last season? Or should the Warriors be wary? (That’s rhetorical. The answer is wary. Very wary.)

And as for that potential, the notion that Ezeli’s inexperience in organized basketball is a plus can just as easily be spun into a minus. He’ll already be 26 when the 2015-16 campaign kicks off, which means the normal growth trajectory we’d apply to a three-year veteran doesn’t work here.

Put another way, the improved form Ezeli showed last year could easily represent a peak.

Finally, there’s the cold financial consequence of spending on Ezeli now.

They’re not there yet, but the Warriors aren’t all that far from a transitional phase in their organizational development. Bogut and Andre Iguodala are on the wrong side of 30, and Golden State now has the league-wide cachet to seriously pursue big-name replacements. If the Warriors don’t extend Ezeli this offseason, his cap hold next summer will only be about $5 million. An extension would cut into Golden State’s cap space in a much bigger way.

Maybe Kevin Durant‘s a pipe dream, and maybe he’s a real possibility. But if the Warriors are going to pursue another superstar to pair with Stephen Curry (whoever it might be), along with forking over the certain max deal it’ll take to keep their MVP when his contract expires after 2017, they’ll need flexibility.

This is where those refrains about the cap rising and the changing landscape of NBA contracts typically come up. It’s tempting to use that logic to justify spending for spending’s sake, but it’s still probably better to preach caution when it comes to a player like Ezeli.

He’s an intriguing, potentially key piece of the Warriors’ interior going forward and, if things go well for him this season, a possible missed opportunity.

But he’s also wildly unproven, often injured and generally risky.

So let’s pump the brakes on the big extension talk for now. It just doesn’t make sense for the Warriors to commit this early unless they can lock in an obscene discount.

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