The Portland Trail Blazers might have just lost a little more hope to fix their ailing front line. On Saturday, it was reported by Yahoo! Sports that Blazers center Festus Ezeli will likely undergo season-ending knee surgery.
Ezeli, 27, was signed by Portland in the offseason to a 2-year, $15 million deal, the second year of which is a team option.
Declining Ezeli’s option for next year and filing for a disabled player exception would give the Blazers — a team $18 million over the salary cap — a little bit of financial leeway, but it still leaves a gaping hole on the floor for 2016-17.
Portland has struggled defensively, and while their rim protection numbers aren’t horrible, they have clearly had issues defending as a team thanks to the play of their forwards and centers.
The Blazers have run out Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, and Maurice Harkless up front, and have sorely missed the defensive presence of Al-Farouq Aminu, who has played in 12 games due to injury.
Plumlee is a sore spot for Portland, a short-armed offensive center who is a delightful passer and fits well into Terry Stotts’ flow offense. However, his inability on the pick-and-roll has been a point of exploitation for opposing teams.
So, too, have the Blazers felt a sting as Davis’ advanced numbers have receded from last year. The 7-year veteran has not been as effective on the offensive glass, and his finishing around the rim has dipped significantly.
Meanwhile, Leonard has been recovering from a shoulder injury as he rounds into playing shape, and Vonleh is still developing.
Ezeli — who entered 2015-16 with the Golden State Warriors — was slated for a big payday, but injuries have hampered much of his career. He received a bone marrow injection in September, and folks in Portland seemed hopeful he would return. The Blazers seemed to think Ezeli’s signing was more akin to a mid-season acquisition, but they went suspiciously quiet on him as fall turned to winter.
Now we know that the Blazers will likely be without him entirely, and we may never see Ezeli in a Portland uniform if the team declines his option for next year.
Rumors have swirled for Portland about potential trades as a disappointing 13-15 start to the season has them at the No. 8 position in the Western Conference, below where many — including yours truly — slated them to end up.
Potential targets have ranged from Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut — also injured and an unlikely cultural fit in the Willamette Valley — to disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers youngster Nerlens Noel.
It’s unclear what or if Portland is willing to give something important up to bolster the front line. Although the Blazers have started off slow, they are still ahead of where they were at this point last season when they were 11-17. Their schedule is supposed to get easier after the All-Star break, and GM Neil Olshey has shown a propensity to play the slow hand, instead waiting out the season to see what comes of the market and his developing teams.
Still, it’s hard to see a season with so much hope for Portland start to fizzle. Realistically, even if they do end up being a playoff team with a low seed, there’s not a lot of fighting hope for them come elimination time if they can’t do a lot of things well defensively. Just this week the Denver Nuggets lit them up for 132 points thanks to 15 3-pointers, and indeed they are one of the worst teams in the NBA at defending the arc, both in terms of percentage and allowed shots.
It seems unwise that the Blazers will sit tight. Expectations are high this year and with both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum playing at increasingly high levels, it’s going to be hard for the team to waste a year of their primes.
Several Blazers players — including Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe — will become trade-eligible on Jan. 15. Between those two, Aminu, Harkless, and the two first-round picks the team holds, it seems that Portland should have enough to get into serious trade talks in light of Ezeli’s potential surgery.
While Olshey may have wanted to do what he always does — wait, see, and prosper — it seems that Ezeli’s left knee may force the Trail Blazers’ hand sooner rather than later.