Debating the merits of the Lakers signing Timofey Mozgov

The Los Angeles Lakers shocked most people when they signed Timofey Mozgov early in the free agency period. The team had a clear need for a starting-caliber center and found their player in Mozgov.

Since the signing became official, there has been plenty of debate about the Lakers’ strategy and decision. On the one hand, they found a decent player to fill their biggest need. On the other, they likely over-spent and gave an older player a long-term deal.

The truth of the matter is likely somewhere in the middle of these two stances. There are pros and cons to the decision and depending on the viewpoint that you hold, the opposing evidence often gets lost.

With that in mind, my colleague, Jacob Rude and I (Honi Ahmadian) have decided to make our Twitter arguments public for those of you willing to read it. I am taking the viewpoint that the Mozgov deal was a poor decision and one that can be detrimental to the future of the Lakers. Jacob, meanwhile, claims that the signing was beneficial, even if it happened in strange circumstances, and that #LakersTwitter overreacted as they often do.

Now having introduced the subject material, we’ll start with the opening statement for the challenger: Mr. Rude:

Jacob: In recent years, the Los Angeles Lakers have been mocked and criticized for living in the past.

Starting with the hiring of Byron Scott and ranging through multiple free agency pitches, the Lakers seem enamored with the idea that “We’re the Lakers. We’re in Hollywood. Who wouldn’t want to play for us?” The “wait and see” approach the Lakers took in free agency cost the team multiple free agents, both their own and other potential targets.

If nothing else, the Lakers have been one to adapt. Their selection of D’Angelo Russell signaled the beginning of change for the Lakers. After firing Scott, the Lakers’ list of potential candidates featured names like Ettore Messina, Kevin Ollie and Luke Walton, a far cry from the likes of Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Vinny Del Negro that were considered the last time the position was open.

Heading into free agency this season, the Lakers also changed their approach, a change partially of their own and partially forced. With the likes of Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Hassan Whiteside uninterested in meeting with Lakers brass, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss turned their eyes elsewhere.

No longer did they wait for action to happen, instead aggressively pursuing their targets. As it is, their target was Timofey Mozgov, a name that (rightfully) shocked many people.

Mozgov saw little time in the playoffs last season, stuck behind the Cavs’ gluttony of forwards in LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love.

The most convincing case for Mozgov comes from the fact that the Lakers’ current coach and assistant have much familiarity with Mozgov.

Brian Shaw served as Mozgov’s coach for one season in Denver, giving him first-hand experience with the big man. Walton, meanwhile, helped game-plan against Mozgov in two consecutive NBA Finals, the former of which featured some of the best ball Mozgov has ever played.

While the Russian big man couldn’t get off the bench this spring, last year in the 2015 NBA Finals, he had a coming out party at the Warriors expense, averaging 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game, highlighted by his 28-point, 10-rebound effort.

There’s lot of reasons to be fine with the Mozgov signing, which I’ll dive deeper into, but given the experience the top two coaches on the Lakers’ staff has with Mozgov, there’s reason for optimism in this signing.

Honi: I certainly see the merit of not sitting back in free agency and hoping for a superstar to join one’s team.

However, there is an in-between space where the Lakers could have been aggressive in finding mid-tier free agents without overspending on Mozgov.

Yes, Mozzy played very well for the Cavaliers after being traded mid-season last year. His postseason was phenomenal and had some wondering aloud about whether or not he could be a max player. However, that was a small sample size in which Mozgov played better than he had ever played before. It’s fine to see that as potential for what Mozgov might bring to LA, but it’s also important to see that it’s improbable to see that production again.

For his career, Mozgov has averaged a nice 6.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. His stats extrapolated to a per-36 minute basis yield a productive, if unspectacular, 13.6 points and 10 rebounds. But there may be a reason that Mozgov has not played more than 25.2 minutes per game over the course of a season.

The Lakers are paying a decent player a large sum of money hoping that he replicates production he’s really only had over one half of a season and knowing that he will likely only play half of the games he is featured in.

More importantly, the Lakers are giving a four-year deal to a 30-year-old who has played an average of 61.5 games per season. This is all not to mention that he had a botched surgery on his knee last summer, contributing to his limited playing time last year for the Cavs.

The issue here is that the Lakers panicked. Rather than pursuing the bevy of better options available in free agency, they aggressively pursued a candidate who would find it difficult to say no, especially to a four-year deal worth $64 million.

Jacob: I would not call what the Lakers did panicking. I think they realized they weren’t going to get a meeting with Whiteside or Horford, the two big names on the front court market. Instead of battling for young, unproven guys like Bismack Biyombo or Ian Mahimi, they set their sights on someone who has, at least at some point, proven he’s a quality player.

Mozgov is old, yes. But the Lakers were a 17-win team last year who now have a first-year head coach with a roster comprised almost entirely of players with two years of experience or less.

In short, they aren’t a free agent destination.

To acquire talent, they are going to have to overpay. It’s been much talked about, but Mozgov’s deal won’t be nearly as ugly next season when the cap jumps even more, equating to roughly a $10.7 million deal under the current cap, which is reasonable.

And while Mozgov didn’t find much time on the court last year, he was effective in certain aspects of the game that could translate well into LA’s new offense.

As a roll man last season, Mozgov scored 1.22 points per possession, ranking in the 87.7 percentile in the league. Comparatively, the Lakers’ best big man in the pick-and-roll was Brandon Bass, who managed just 1.15 points per possession last year.

Most importantly, with Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell excelling in the pick-and-roll, Mozgov represents the best partner they’ve had since joining the Lakers, a large upgrade over Roy Hibbert, Robert Sacre and even Julius Randle.

All that being said, there’s no good way to frame that Mozgov was anything but bad last year. As you said, he rushed back from a potentially botched knee injury that really hampered him.

Defensively, even with his injury, Mozgov was still a solid rim protector on the Cavs last season.

The biggest takeaway is that the Lakers needed a center, which was their biggest hole on the roster, hands down. With the Roy Hibbert Experiment failing, Mozgov steps in as an instant upgrade.

Did the Lakers overpay? Yes. Is Mozgov a risk? Yes. But given that free agency is a two-way street, the Lakers’ choices were limited. Mozgov presents himself as a legitimate big man who, if healthy, can elevate the Lakers’ play next season.

Honi: I do recognize that the Lakers upgraded at their biggest position of need and that is very important. That said, nearly any addition would have been an upgrade over the season that Hibbert just had in LA.

The pick-and-roll is precisely where Mozgov can make this deal look much better. If he is healthy, he can provide a better partner for Russell to operate with. That alone does hold merit.

Defensively, I’m not quite convinced that Mozgov can have a huge effect. Remember that this time last year, we commended the Hibbert move because, if nothing else, he could provide solid rim protection. In some instances, he certainly did. In others, he damaged the Lakers’ defense as a whole.

Plodding big men are difficult to play in the current NBA, not necessarily because of their offensive skillset, but because of their defensive ability. In a league designed more and more around high usage pick-and-rolls, slow big men like Mozgov tend to struggle defensively. I’m expecting that to happen with Mozgov, even without considering how injuries may have slowed him down further.

As for rim protection, that remains a bit of a question mark. The statistic previously brought up paints a pretty picture, but among all centers who played heavy minutes, Mozgov had only the 19th best block percentage (3.5) out of 37. That’s below the aforementioned Hibbert who was 11th in the league.

I’ll be the first to admit that that statistic is flawed, but it does show to an extent that Mozgov’s effect on the defensive end is limited.

All of that really isn’t relevant to my point, however. Yes, the Lakers may have had to overpay to get free agents, but their strategy in overpaying this particular free agent was flawed.

You mentioned the Lakers choosing a more established player in Mozgov, but I don’t see him as very established at all. Yes, he is a veteran who has been on two Finals teams now. However, the injury history and the objectively poor play last season make him more of a risk than the less established talent like Biyombo.

That’s not to say that the Lakers could have signed Biyombo; it’s not as simple as that. But they did take a much larger than necessary risk in order to sign a mediocre player that really doesn’t move the needle much.

The Lakers did not have to sign a major free agent center. If they missed out on some of the near-max players like Biyombo, they could sign filler talent and roll mostly with the young guys like Tarik Black and Ivica Zubac.

And if you really want to grind my gears, remind me that Cole Aldrich signed a three-year, $22 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Aldrich, the younger and better player, who had the incentive of staying in the same city he played in last season, signed with a similarly young, albeit slightly further ahead, team.

The Lakers badly misjudged the market for a starting-caliber big man, when they had better and cheaper options and when they did not need to make a move for the sake of making a move.

The Lakers’ move for Mozgov will remain a divisive one and one of the bolder moves in all of free agency this year.

The big question mark will be his health. By all accounts, if he’s healthy, he should be a contributor to a team to some degree. However, the deal will remain a big talking point throughout not only this year, but likely the length of the contract.

Do you agree with the deal? Tweet at us @LakersOutsiders and let us know what you think of the Mozgov deal.

5 thoughts

  1. good write up. i think an important point – or perhaps the important point – is that mozgov can be a role model and practice partner (not one of the 6’9 guys) in many ways to zubac. I think Zubac is superior athletically and even shooting, so mozgov is going to accelerate Zubac’s development and be a solid player until Z’s ready.

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