The Los Angeles Lakers entered the 2016 NBA offseason knowing that they needed to upgrade their roster, particularly at the center position, where Roy Hibbert had failed to live up to expectations. With over $60 million in cap space available, the Lakers identified their target and moved aggressively the second free agency began, offering a 4-year, $64 million deal to Timofey Mozgov.
I mean….Timofey Mozgov.
Pundits around the league shook their heads while fans of the NBA’s 29 other teams had themselves a good laugh at the Lakers’ expense. On the surface, it appeared that the league’s glamor franchise had just spent a good chunk of their precious cap space on an aging center who could barely get on the floor for the Cleveland Cavaliers during this year’s NBA Finals.
Now the Lakers are betting that Mozgov can step in and be their starter for at least the next few seasons, which is quite a gamble. Mozgov certainly helps to fill a need at center, but at 7’1” and 275 pounds he isn’t the nimble, pick-and-roll-killing, jump shooting, rim protecting big man that is the ideal five in coach Luke Walton’s system.
To be fair, Mozgov is a decent, maybe even good rim-protector, but he isn’t at the level of free agents Hassan Whiteside or Bismack Biyombo, though Whiteside wasn’t interested in the Lakers and it isn’t clear if they were interested in him.
There are also serious concerns about pace, with Mozgov’s step-above-plodding speed not being a great fit with a young Lakers team that will almost certainly want to run like the wind.
Defensively, one has to wonder if the big Russian can stay on the floor when teams go small. Yours truly watched the Phoenix Suns absolutely eviscerate the Lakers back in March by employing two stretch power forwards in Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer. The pair combined for 39 points that night, including seven threes, torching the slow-footed Hibbert time and time again, while Hibbert’s offensive game couldn’t make Phoenix pay for going small.
Now, it appears the Lakers have signed up long-term for more of the same with Mozgov, who can also struggle to take advantage of smaller defenders.
To top it off, Mozgov is no spring chicken. He turns 30 in two weeks and had knee surgery last summer that didn’t go as well as it was hoped, which may have contributed to him losing his starting position with the Cavs to Tristan Thompson.
Add it all up and on the surface, the Mozgov deal doesn’t look good at all for the Lakers, but there are some real positives to consider here as well.
After all, thy would the Lakers wouldn’t move so quickly, or spend so much, on a free agent of Mozgov’s caliber, when others were still available? There has to be some method to the madness, right?
First and foremost, the Lakers have been lambasted for spending the last few summers missing out on attainable players because they wasted their time chasing stars that were never likely to come. They reversed that trend this year.
Sure, Biyomobo and Whiteside were still out there, but both will be receiving substantially more than Mozgov, and both have their fair share of question marks. Instead, the Lakers locked up a known commodity that their coaching staff is very familiar with.
On paper, Mozgov absolutely looks like a difficult fit given the up-tempo style that Walton is likely to run, but the Lakers know what they are getting. In fact, Walton has spent the last two NBA Finals game planning against Mozgov and the Cavaliers, including the 2015 Finals when Mozgov averaged 16.8 points, 9 boards, and 1.8 blocks (omitting game 5, when then-coach David Blatt went small and Mozgov only played 9 minutes).
In fact, if this deal was signed during the summer of 2015, with figures adjusted for that year’s cap environment, no one would have batted an eye at it. Mozgov was considered to be a steal for Cleveland, a behemoth who would be the missing piece to their championship puzzle. A lot can change in a year, but it wasn’t that long ago that fans were lamenting the Cavs’ good fortune in landing such an imposing center.
Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw is even more familiar with Mozgov than Walton is, having coached him for a season and a half in Denver. In fact, it was Shaw who first promoted Mozgov to a starting role, and his eventual success there led to Cleveland trading two first rounds picks to acquire him. If anyone knows the positive impact that Mozgov can have on a team, it’s Shaw.
While Mozgov doesn’t offer some of the traits that would make him an ideal modern center, one can’t escape the fact that he is an absolute mountain of a man. He may not be able to get out and run, but in the half court he can be effective. Mozgov sets a mean pick (ask Klay Thompson), and rolls hard to the basket, where his strength allows him to absorb contact. On a team built around D’Angelo Russell, who is at his best playing in the pick and roll, it’s important to have someone who can effectively do these things.
Mozgov also may not be a true pick-and-pop option, but he is respectable enough in the midrange to at least be a threat. Assuming Julius Randle isn’t able to completely fix his jumper this summer, it was important that whoever the Lakers find to play center is at least competent from 15 feet, and Mozgov connected on 43 percent of his shots from that range last season.
On a team filled with young players, it was also crucial that the Lakers add high-character veterans to their team, and Mozgov is known for being well-liked in the locker room. He should also be an excellent mentor for rookie Ivica Zubac, who will attempt to stick in the league as a foreign-born center.
Even though the fit looks dubious from the outside, it’s clear that the Lakers do have a plan here. They very well know what Mozgov brings, and clearly feel he will be a good addition.
As of this writing, we also don’t know the exact terms of Mozgov’s deal. It’s possible that the final year or two aren’t guaranteed or could possibly be a team option, which is a tactic the Lakers used when signing Jordan Hill two years ago. If all four years aren’t fully guaranteed it could change the value of the deal substantially by eliminating some of the tail end of it, when it’s unlikely that Mozgov will be as effective.
Regardless of the potential positives, the negatives are going to dominate the narrative. This deal is going to be panned by pundits and fans alike, and the perception will be that the Lakers made a foolish decision. The only thing that can change that is Mozgov performing well on the court, and we won’t be able to see that until October. If he plays well and improves the team, all will be forgiven.
Here’s hoping that Mozgov is able to find his 2015 form again.