This will be the first in a new series where I lay out the situation for a Warrior with more on the line this season. There may be no better place to start than Mr. Ezeli.

Festus Ezeli is at a fascinating crossroads both common and uncommon for an NBA player. The story of a team being unsure of a big man’s future three years into his career is so frequent it borders on cliché but Ezeli stands out in that group because he turns 26 before the start of this season and will be 27 for the first game on his second NBA contract. As such, his first chance at a sizable contract may be his last as well.

Those circumstances provide Festus Ezeli with a simply massive few months. Golden State’s cap situation moving forward likely forces the Warriors to decide on whether they see Ezeli as the eventual replacement for Andrew Bogut before agreeing to his next contract, whether that comes before the October 31st extension deadline or next summer.


Festus Ezeli Right Now:

When he actually got on the court in the 2014-15 season, Ezeli did well. In an admittedly tiny sample of 504 NBA minutes, he was the #5 rim protector in the league behind Clint Capela, teammate Andrew Bogut, Rudy Gobert and the recently retired Elton Brand. Playing fewer minutes per game and not having a starter’s burden allows a big man to be more aggressive but that eye-popping level of paint dominance bodes well moving forward even if it exaggerates his effectiveness in that area.

As a rebounder, Ezeli cannot match Bogut but still can hold his own. His combined Rebound Rate last season was in line with players like Zaza Pachulia and Timofey Mozgov who are very good but not elite on the boards. Interestingly, Ezeli has one notable strength that is somewhat unusual on this Warriors team: crashing the offensive glass. While partially attributable to occupying a different space within Coach Kerr’s offense due to his more limited skill set, Ezeli tied for 13th in Offensive Rebound Rate in 2014-15 and was only Warrior in the top 50 (Marreese Speights was next at #56).

Even a center with limited contributions in other facets of the game can deserve starter consideration if he can effectively protect the rim and gobble up offensive boards. Over the coming weeks and months, Ezeli has a chance to prove his performance in those categories was not a fluke and that he can be more than those key skills.

I had a running joke Ezeli’s rookie year that he had hands like feet but he has worked hard and improved his catching since then. While still higher than desired, Ezeli almost cut his turnover rate in half from his rookie season while taking a higher share of offensive possessions. His passing will never reach Bogut’s heights but Festus can provide value through rebounding and effective finishing at the basket. Making free throws would help too, especially since an almost 10% improvement brought Ezeli to a little under 63% from the charity stripe last season. Nudging that closer to 70% likely takes Hack-A off the table entirely.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Extension Game:

Like Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli’s low cap hold looms large in how Bob Myers thinks about extending him now. At present, the big man only counts $5 million on Golden State’s 2016 books which should be meaningfully lower than any contract agreed to in October or next July. While it would take some doing for the Warriors to generate functional cap space, extending Ezeli at even a team-friendly number makes being a player for max-level free agents in 2016 substantially tougher. What’s more, his 2017-18 salary cuts into the Warriors’ presumed last chance to bring in starter-quality talent through free agency since that will be the summer Stephen Curry finally receives his big raise and the team already has lucrative deals with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the books. Retaining both of Draymond’s 2012 draft classmates likely means that signing any max-caliber player would require shedding both Bogut and Iguodala outright and even that might not be enough.

For Ezeli, the more pressing issue may be that it is incredibly difficult for the two sides to come to an agreeable number at this stage. The Warriors giving up cap space ahead of time would come via Ezeli sacrificing some salary for the security of a long-term deal, especially considering his regrettably long injury history. Despite that understanding, the two sides would need to agree at least broadly on what value he would be taking a discount from and that could be untenable as well. While Ezeli and his agents can point to his role on a championship team and a presumably strong market for his services next summer, three major factors work against a high valuation: uncertainty on how good Ezeli is and will be, his inability to stay on the floor and the general shakiness of non-max players in restricted free agency. Next summer will have more franchises carrying substantial money into the off-season but teams could still be reticent to tie up their cap space for three days when they expect the Warriors to match, should that be the case.

My instinct is that if Ezeli was willing to take a contract starting at $7-9 million per season, the Warriors would pull the trigger on a four-year extension. With maximum 7.5% raises, that starting point would yield a contract worth $31-40 million. Ezeli can justifiably hope and/or expect to get more than that in free agency but pushing higher just does not make a ton of sense for the Warriors right now. The combination of keeping his low hold on the books for an unlikely chase of Kevin Durant coupled with the lack of certainty makes a six figure per season extension hard to take now, particularly when more established members of Ezeli’s draft class Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jonas Valanciunas recently agreed to extensions in that general ballpark.


That confluence of factors makes Festus Ezeli playing the biggest season of his life the most likely outcome and all parties can root wholeheartedly for him to deliver.