The Golden State Warriors announced that center Festus Ezeli underwent surgery for a right knee injury reportedly suffered during the final game of the regular season. According to Sports Illustrated, the surgery will “reinforce both the medial collateral ligament and the posterior cruciate ligament” in Ezeli’s right knee. The operation is expected to leave the 23-year-old center sidelined for six-to-nine months, suggesting a return date sometime between December and mid-March.
Though he was often relegated to a limited role, Ezeli’s injury may have a significant effect on the Warriors’ on-court production and offseason decision-making.
Ezeli’s role waivered throughout the season. He was generally the primary back-up for starting center Andrew Bogut, starting 41 games as Bogut recovered from an ankle injury. With Ezeli on the court, the Warriors scored 104.2 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.1, according to basketball-reference. Many of the minutes Bogut spent on the bench were filled with a David Lee-Carl Landry frontcourt rather than Ezeli or Andris Biedrins, the Warriors’ true backup centers. With Landry expected to opt-out of his $4 million 2013-14 player option, the Warriors may no longer be able to rely on this offensively potent lineup.
With Landry and Ezeli potentially unavailable, Biedrins is the last Warrior to play significant minutes behind Bogut at center last season. Though most Warriors fans do not need reminding, these minutes were not a raging success. With Biedrins on the court, the Warriors were outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions according to basketball-reference, mostly due to a drastic decline in offensive production.
With Biedrins off the court, the Warriors scored 107.5 points per 100 possessions, .3 points worse than the ninth ranked Los Angeles Lakers (the Warriors were 11th in offensive efficiency). During Biedrins’ playing time, the team scored an abysmal 93.3 points per 100 possessions, 6.9 points worse than the league worst Washington Wizards.
While Biedrins’ free-throw shooting was dreadful, his basic fear of playing offense is crippling. In a feat impressive in its ineptitude, he managed to have a usage percentage of only 3.7 percent. For comparison, in 2008-09, Biedrins had a usage percentage of 16.9 percent.
Setting a screen and scampering away without looking for the pass or hiding by the baseline and completely avoiding offensive action does keep the ball out of the hands of an inefficient offensive player, allowing the defense to completely ignore one player drastically decreases the spacing and basic potency of an offense.
Biedrins’ rebounding is generally considered to be his most valuable skill. However, according to basketball-reference, the Warriors’ total rebounding percentage improved by 2.3 percent with Biedrins off the court.
Ezeli’s injury may force the Warriors to reassess the urgency of re-signing Carl Landry. That, or managment might feel the need to pursue a backup big man in free agency. As they are already over the salary cap, the Warriors will be forced to work with the mid-level exception to sign a free agent. The non-taxpayer mid-level exception allows for a contract of up to $5 million to be signed regardless of whether a team is over the salary cap.
However, teams over the luxury tax or teams that would be carried over the luxury tax with the new contract, are forced to use the smaller tax-payer’s mid-level exception. Because the Warriors are so close to the luxury tax line, they rely on the $3 million taxpayer exception for free-agent frontcourt assistance.
With Bogut presumably healthy (an unfortunately required presumption), the Warriors may rely on an increased minutes load for the Australian defensive anchor complemented with smaller, offensively dynamic lineups featuring David Lee and Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes in the frontcourt.
Injuries have been an unfortunate but unavoidable theme of the Warriors’ recent history. While Festus Ezeli’s surgery is no death sentence, the loss of a key role player will likely impact the Warriors’ offseason strategy and playing performance.