With one of the worst bench units in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors can at least look forward to the return of centers Jermaine O'Neal and Festus Ezeli. The question is: When both return, who will play a bigger role down the stretch?
Last season, Ezeli was the first center off the bench (and started 41 games when Andrew Bogut was injured), but that was before the addition of O’Neal in the summer.
Ezeli sprained his right knee in last year’s regular-season finale and underwent surgery in June. He averaged 2.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 14.4 minutes per game as a rookie.
His original return date of January has been pushed back and O’Neal, took over the reserve-center spot. O’Neal played in 17 games averaging 6.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 18.6 minutes before getting surgery on his wrist.
O’Neal is expected back by late January/early February while Ezeli likely won’t return until March. Still, the additions of either will be an important boost to a bench unit that needs a kick in rear.
The addition of Jordan Crawford hasn't provided that kick thus far. Since the Warriors traded for Crawford, the bench’s net rating (the difference between points allowed per 100 possessions and points scored per 100 possessions) has dropped from -7.8 to -6. That’s not to say it isn't working (it's hasn't even been a month yet), but the Warriors could use the return of a couple of their key reserves.
The young Ezeli and the veteran O’Neal have different styles of play. Ezeli relies more on his athleticism than O’Neal, who uses experience and a polished paint game to get in scoring position.
Right now, the Dubs are using a struggling Marreese Speights as the backup to Bogut. Ezeli or O’Neal would likely take their rightful positions ahead of him on the depth chart upon return, when coach Mark Jackson will have two very different centers to add to the mix and a new competition for playing time to monitor.
Whichever one fits the flow of the offense and defense better will likely come out on top.
O’Neal scores often on post-ups and has the ability to create his own shot even at 35 years old, albeit not at the All-Star level he once played at.
In 17 games with Golden State, he posted 10 or more points three times, including a productive 18-point, eight-rebound game in a 102-101 win against the New Orleans Pelicans in November. Comparatively, Ezeli scored at least 10 points just once in 78 games.
The better offensive player, right now, is O’Neal. He fits the some aspects of the Dubs’ offensive scheme—pick-and-roll sets and low-post isolation—which isn't necessarily a good thing.
He will be an immediate upgrade over Speights but won’t help the lack of ball movement that often stifles the second unit. His old legs and lack of quickness also puts him at a disadvantage when playing alongside uptempo players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and David Lee.
Outside those three double-digit games in which he shot 57.1, 75.0 and 87.5 percent, O’Neal went 18-of-52 (34.6 percent) from the floor in 14 games.
What does this mean in terms of O'Neal impacting the Warriors down the stretch? He figures to be a veteran presence on a young team who is able to go off for a vintage O'Neal performance here and there. That’s about it.
Ezeli, who's been playing basketball only since he was 14 years old, isn't as experienced as O'Neal but is more athletic. He still needs polish his offensive game, but he can be a defensive presence, run the floor and occasionally finish around the basket:
Opposing defenses tend to pick up Curry as soon as he crosses half court. As a result, the Warriors set lot of high screens to loosen the coverage.
Ezeli is quicker to set those high picks and roll to the basket than O'Neal.
However, Ezeli's play is inconsistent and he struggles with some basic stuff, like catching the ball. Despite these clips, he is hardly a factor on offense. He scored the fewest points per possession last season among Warrior rotation players not named Biedrins.
As it is, Golden State doesn't rely on its center to score points. For a Warriors team that looks to push the pace and create a scattered floor, Ezeli fits better than O’Neal.
If Ezeli can continue to develop when he comes back from his knee injury, he should emerge as a more valuable addition than O’Neal.
However, this injury issue is real. It should be noted again that O'Neal is expected back before Ezeli. It's plausible that Ezeli will struggle upon his return, and O'Neal will be the more consistent of the two.
Ezeli's athleticism and fit within the pace is his biggest strength, but if Jackson can’t rely on Ezeli, or if Ezeli doesn't show marked improvement (especially on offense), than O’Neal would become the better option for a Warriors team hoping to contend in the Western Conference.