Timofey Mozgov’s four-year, $64 million contract with the Lakers, agreed to in the opening hours of free agency, was the canary in the coal mine. If a guy who had fallen out of a rotation and played a grand total of 76 minutes in the playoffs could get that much money, anything was possible in the NBA’s brave new financial world. A day later, the Lakers agreed to terms on a four-year, $72 million contract with 31-year old forward Luol Deng. It’s a lot of money for two players out of step with the timetable of the team’s young core, and it locks them out of the hunt for premium free agents. So, what were they thinking?
In a normal market, Mozgov would have been an intriguing buy-low candidate, a player looking to rebuild his value on a short-term deal. Instead, the Lakers locked him up at the first opportunity, committing huge money to a guy who couldn’t even get on the floor for the Cavs.
Of course, just because a player is a benchwarmer for the NBA champions doesn’t mean he can’t help one of the worst teams in the league. The Cavs had given max contracts to Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, and LeBron James was at his most effective playing power forward, so there just weren’t many minutes available for Mozgov, especially after Cleveland traded for Channing Frye at last season’s deadline. Even if Mozgov was at 100 percent, he was always going to be a victim of a numbers crunch in a crowded frontcourt in Cleveland. He wasn’t close to full capacity, which made his fade to the end of the bench all the more justifiable.
Mozgov never really recovered from an offseason knee injury, as he reportedly rushed himself back too soon at the start of the season. He wasn’t the most mobile big man to begin with, so asking him to chase around smaller and more agile players on one knee was a recipe for disaster. While his per-game statistics remained steady, his advanced stats collapsed. Mozgov had an RPM of minus-4.24, second to last among NBA centers, ahead of only Jahlil Okafor and one spot behind last season’s Lakers starter, Roy Hibbert. The only way Mozgov’s contract makes any sense is if the Lakers believe this season was an aberration and he can be the player he was two years ago.
In 46 games with the Cavs in 2014–15, Mozgov had per-36-minute averages of 15.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 1.2 assists on 59 percent shooting. He was even better in the playoffs, when injuries to Love and Kyrie Irving changed Cleveland’s identity and gave him a bigger role on both sides of the ball. The Cavs played like a defensive powerhouse with Mozgov, holding opponents to 96.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, compared to 104.8 when he was off. He had some great moments on offense as well, highlighted by a 28-point and 10-rebound game in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
The Warriors eventually played him off the floor by going small with the Lineup of Death, but a big man with his skill set still offers plenty of value in the regular season. At 7-foot-1, 275 pounds, Mozgov is a rim-protecting Leviathan who can clean the defensive boards and also step out and knock down midrange jumpers. An excellent pick-and-roll finisher, he can make plays on the move and finish in the lane, as he demonstrated this past season, scoring 1.2 points per possession (in the league’s 88th percentile) on rolls to the rim this past season. He probably won’t be as effective without LeBron, but he should still offer more value in that role than Hibbert, who had a PPP of 0.93 on those plays last season.
That’s important, because D’Angelo Russell is at his best in a spread pick-and-roll system similar to the one he ran at Ohio State. Russell is not an elite athlete, so he’ll never be a great isolation scorer, but he’s a well-rounded offensive player who can shoot, dribble, and pass on the move, and he knows how to manipulate a defense. To get the most out of Russell, the Lakers needed a big man who can set bone-crunching picks on the perimeter, roll to the rim hard, and be a vertical threat.
Mozgov is an easy fit with the rest of the Lakers’ young core. He’s not the passer that Andrew Bogut is, but he could operate in a similar role in the scheme that Warriors assistant Luke Walton will likely install in Los Angeles. Mozgov will be a roll man for Russell and Clarkson, a screener for Brandon Ingram, and a frontcourt partner for Julius Randle. He will help on defense as well, as it’s hard to build good defensive habits when you aren’t playing in front of a good rim protector. Off the court, he is a beloved locker-room presence, who should be able to help Walton create a positive culture in the aftermath of Byron Scott’s disastrous tenure with the team.
Deng is viewed similarly around the league. He’s a respected player in the NBA, a humanitarian and a professional who puts his body on the line for his team. Deng and Mozgov are veteran influences the Lakers could use in place of players like Nick Young. They will help the team win games, but the tone they set in practice and in the locker room might be more important.
On the court, Deng provides a stabilizing influence at the 3 and 4 positions, although he is probably best used as a small-ball 4 going forward. While he’s no longer the player he was in his prime, he’s not going to make a lot of mental mistakes, and he can handle the tough defensive assignments that neither Randle nor Ingram can at this stage in their careers. There should be more than enough playing time for their forward rotation to coexist over the course of the season.
It doesn’t matter all that much if Mozgov and Deng are overpaid, because the Lakers didn’t have many other places to spend their money. They couldn’t even get a meeting with Kevin Durant. The best players in the NBA do not want to play for bad teams, no matter what market they play in or how much history they have. The Lakers have nothing to sell to guys who want to compete for a championship, as they found out last year in their meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge, which made them a punch line around the league.
Even if they rolled over their cap space to the summer of 2017, when there should be even more elite players on the market, there’s no reason to think they will have a chance at any of them. The Lakers would have the space for two max contracts, but why would veterans in their prime want to play with such a young team? Clarkson is 24, Randle is 21, Russell is 20, and Ingram is 18. Stars want to play with other stars in their prime, not guys who could be stars down the road. The Lakers aren’t the Miami Heat of 2010, and the sooner they recognized that, the better off they were going to be.
There’s a very good chance that the contracts for Deng and Mozgov, who are both on the wrong side of 30, become weights around the Lakers’ necks three years from now. But they have the capacity to absorb the money now because all of their best players are still on rookie deals. Should everything go according to plan and the Lakers become the contender they hope to be, they’ll be able to move either player in the final season by attaching picks to them. If history has shown us anything, it is that there are no untradable contracts.
The Lakers’ free-agency haul thus far signifies a new stage of the franchise rebuild; they don’t want any more high lottery picks. They have a young core in place and they are committed to developing them. Deng and Mozgov aren’t stealth tanking signings like Carlos Boozer; this team is built with competitiveness in mind.
There is no quick fix in L.A. To become a viable free-agent destination, the Lakers need Russell, Ingram, Clarkson, and Randle to become stars. If those guys can live up to their potential, their future is bright. In the meantime, the only thing the Lakers can do is acquire players who can put those guys in the best position to succeed. That’s the only way to judge the Mozgov and Deng deals, not by how it affects their salary cap.