In desperate need of a traditional big man in their starting lineup, Los Angeles quickly locked Cleveland Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov into a four-year, $64 million contract, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
The Lakers, projected to have close to $56 million in cap space, focused on their need at center to complement power forward Julius Randle, point guard D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft. Mozgov has a reputation as a hardworking, energetic player, and he would seem to be a good fit with such a young core.
With his 30th birthday two weeks away, and the Lakers in clear need of a reliable interior presence, Mozgov has the opportunity to fill a void, play big minutes and prove last year’s struggles were a fluke.
But that doesn't mean serious questions aren't in order, or that Los Angeles can go to sleep knowing exactly what it paid for.
After he played 81 games in 2015 with the Denver Nuggets and Cavaliers—and finished seventh among all centers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus—offseason knee surgery all but ruined Mozgov’s 2016 campaign. He plummeted to 70th in DRPM and saw his postseason PER fall from 17.9 to 4.7.
Here’s what ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported earlier this year (h/t ESPN Cleveland's Tony Cartagena) about Mozgov’s troublesome knee:
The surgery that they performed last summer was not a success but he felt pressure to play really well because he saw a massive paycheck coming his way. It was the combination of worrying about the contract and an unhealthy knee and a changing role on the team that all contributed to him having a down year.
When healthy, Mozgov is perfectly fine starting for just about any team in the league. He's unspectacular but effective, and he'd probably help. The Lakers defense allowed a league-worst 63.3 percent shooting within five feet last season; in 2015, Cleveland held opponents to 56.6 percent shooting within five feet with Mozgov on the floor and 61.7 percent when he was off it.
Technically, He's An Upgrade
Relative to L.A.'s starter last year, Roy Hibbert, Mozgov is superior in almost every way. He's a better rebounder and rim protector, and as one of the better pick-and-roll bigs in the league, he flashed a bit more bounce as a roll man.
With D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers need a big man who’s content running the floor, crashing the glass, setting screens, bottling up pick-and-rolls and protecting the rim.
There won’t be designed post touches, nor should there be. Mozgov will earn his money controlling the paint on both sides of the ball. If he can stay on the floor, pump in junk buckets off tips and lobs and help create space for three-point shooters as a diving decoy, he’ll be a big plus.
But there’s still a good chance Mozgov's offensive game isn’t as effective in Los Angeles, where instead of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and, arguably the smartest passer who ever lived, LeBron James, he'll have a power forward with no range and two guards who don't yet know how to consistently create easy opportunities for teammates.
Mozgov's True Shooting percentage was a feeble 48.7 in 254 minutes over the last two years without any of Cleveland's Big 3 on the floor, per NBAWowy (overall, it was 60.7 percent in a Cavaliers uniform).
Embedded with some of the best offensive players in the world, Mozgov looked fantastic. Free agency just started, and there’s a good chance the Lakers will add more veterans to what they already have. But it’s worth wondering if his strengths over the past couple seasons will translate when he’s on the floor beside much less talent and experience.
Life will be rockier in Los Angeles than it was in Cleveland. Mozgov is going from the best team in the league to arguably the worst. But from his perspective, this decision was a no-brainer. Mozgov lost his starting spot to Tristan Thompson earlier this past season, and it was highly unlikely he'd ever get it back. As a Laker, he’ll double his minutes and quadruple his salary. Sounds nice!
But is He Worth It?
But if you're the Lakers, it's still so hard to justify four guaranteed years on a declining player who's about to turn 30 and has only logged more than 2,000 minutes once in his career. Mozgov’s best days are almost certainly in the rearview mirror, but money is no object for a Lakers team that entered this offseason with more cap space than anybody else.
They negotiated this contract as if they had no leverage, and, considering the market and their own desire to lock up an unrestricted 7-footer, maybe they didn’t. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported that Hassan Whiteside refused to hear a pitch, Dwight Howard never entered the conversation for obvious reasons and Joakim Noah already cast his focus on Manhattan, per Chris Broussard of ESPN.
The class still has several younger options like Festus Ezeli and Bismack Biyombo, but neither can match Mozgov’s experience.
Ezeli is a restricted free agent, which makes acquiring him a lot harder because the Golden State Warriors can match any offer, and Biyombo’s market value will be based on two weeks of spectacular play as Jonas Valanciunas’ backup against two teams with small front lines. Ian Mahinmi is another option, but he’s only a few months younger than Mozgov, and he will almost definitely command considerably more than $64 million.
Including the qualifying offers they made to Tarik Black and Marcelo Huertas, the Lakers still have about $32 million of cap space to play with, according to The Vertical. Even if they look desperate right now, the Lakers won't regret signing solid veterans who won't hinder their young core's development.
Statistics courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.