From the end of the 2016 NBA regular season through the conclusion of the Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers took their fans on a magic carpet ride. It was the first time they had done so since 2010, and probably the first time they had ever done so without actually making the postseason.
Kobe Bryant’s 60 point farewell game on April 13 and the selection of Brandon Ingram with the second overall pick in the June 23 NBA draft bookended a series of events in La La Land that were almost too good to be true, including the replacement of Byron Scott with Luke Walton as head coach and the unlikely lottery luck that secured the Lakers’ chance to select Ingram in the first place.
Often, when you experience such a long and amazing period of time, the transition back to reality can be brutal. Case in point: I’m writing this about twelve hours after I left a two-week-long camp in which I took a break from my phone and social media. It was an amazing experience, one in which I made some fantastic friends who I plan to keep in touch with for many years to come. The time came, however, when we all had to go back and re-adjust to our regular lives.
Much in the same way, there was going to be a time when the basketball gods ran out of blessings to bestow upon the Lakers. And when that moment came, fate made sure it would be as painful as possible.
Lakers and Timofey Mozgov have agreed on a 4-year, $64 million deal, per @WojVerticalNBA.
— Lakers Outsiders (@LakersOutsiders) July 1, 2016
Yes, Mozgov is by all accounts a great locker room presence and fills a huge need on the Lakers’ roster. But there are so many reasons to dislike the contract, from the massive contract given to a 30-year-old to the fact that Mozgov barely played down the stretch during the Cavaliers’ title run last season to the fact that he’s a lumbering big man on a team looking to replicate the ferocious small ball of the Golden State Warriors.
There’s also the fact that he goes directly against what the Lakers have always stood for. From the days of Showtime to the scrappy Lake Show teams to the Kobe era, the Laker brand has been built on artful, aesthetically pleasing displays of high-powered offense. The Buss family clearly values that brand, given that they hired Mike D’Antoni to fit Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol into his ball movement-heavy, seven-seconds-or-less scheme. (You know the rest of the story.) Yet Mitch Kupchack’s first call upon the dawn of free agency was reportedly to Mozgov, who was described in the following manner by former Grantland writer Shea Serrano:
I mean, he’s Russian, right, but he’s also GODDAMN SEVEN FEET TALL. He should’ve been the real life Zangief. He should’ve been dunking on people and then making a hammer and sickle gesture or talking shit in Russian or whatever. Imagine every time he mashed on someone he just snarled, “Das vedanya, comrade.” I swear to God he’d have been a global sensation two weeks into his rookie year if he’d done that. But we didn’t get any of that and we don’t get any of that. All we get is a very large man with an aggressively pedestrian haircut. He dunks it like like the only color he’s ever seen is grey, if that even makes any sense. A Mozgov dunk creates reverse energy.
Understandably, the fallout among Lakers fans was swift and negative. But at the same time, isn’t this exactly what many fans hoped for in a way? The Lakers won seventeen games last year. Seventeen. Not only were they not going to get a shot at Kevin Durant, but no “second-tier” free agent like Al Horford, Nicholas Batum, and Hassan Whiteside was going to join them either. Why would they?
The Lakers’ best recruiting pitch, rather than “take a look at last season and see what we’re building”, is “forget last season and just trust that we’ll actually be good again one day”. Heck, that’s pretty much what the Lakers’ best recruiting pitch has been the past several seasons, but that never stopped Kupchak and Jim Buss from shooting for stars like Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Mozgov signing represents a long-awaited departure from that superstar chasing. Yes, the Lakers overpaid veteran big man who could already be declining. What other choice did they have? After the unmitigated disaster that was Roy Hibbert in 2015, this team needed someone, anyone, capable of protecting the rim alongside Julius Randle and catching passes from D’Angelo Russell while rolling to the basket. They weren’t about to get Whiteside or Bismack Biyombo for that. Heck, they probably wouldn’t have even been able to sign Mozgov without spending much more than what he was thought to be worth.
After years of denial, Los Angeles finally accepted reality. Of course it sucks, because reality often does. But it’s better than continually living in denial. The Lakers won’t return to their former glory overnight-it’s gonna be a process. (No, not that kind of process.)
Rather than resort back into criticizing Kupchak and Buss, like we rightfully did when they spent $1 million on producing a film on Anthony’s life and begging Aldridge for another meeting after massively disappointing him in their first, let’s applaud them for finally accepting reality and taking the needed baby steps back toward relevance.