We told you heading into free agency be ready for some sticker shock. We then told you in their search for a big man, the Lakers were likely going to have to spend a lot of money. And even though we said all that, when news of the Lakers’ inking Timofey Mozgov to a 4 year, $64 million deal hit, it still came as a surprise.
Welcome to the new world of NBA spending.
I don’t think many would have been upset of this contract was handed out to a sexier “name” player — Whiteside, Biyombo — who was thought to have a higher upside and room to still grow in this league. But Mozgov is a veteran big man who turns 30 this month. It’s doubtful he will improve in any tangible way, though the hope would be he continues to sharpen his strengths to become a more effective version of the player he has been.
In any event, Mozgov is the Lakers’ new starting big man. And, while it will be impossible to ignore the price tag, it’s how good of a player he is and how his skill-set can be used by the team which also matters here.
Up front, it’s important to know that Mozgov was not healthy this past season for Cleveland. He had off-season knee surgery after the 2015 campaign and then developed a cyst on the same knee during recovery. From ESPN Cleveland:
“Mozgov had a bad knee and he shouldn’t have started the season when he did,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said during his weekly radio show ‘Hey Windy’ on ESPN 1540 KNR2 in Cleveland. “He should have been more worried about rehabbing his 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.”
“He had a cyst in his knee that they removed,” Windhorst added in detail to the summer surgery. “The removing of the cyst didn’t completely heal the issue and there’s the possibility that he may need another surgery.”
It is unclear if Mozgov actually needs another surgery at this point. He played sparingly in the playoffs this year and looked okay physically, but I’m no doctor. Rest may indeed be the best medicine here.
Many, including me, have pointed to his lack of playing time this past season and judged Mozgov harshly. Maybe too harshly.
If his recovery from knee surgery did not go well and, as Windhorst explained later in the linked to article, instead of resting he tried to push through and play while never being back to his best physically, that would explain some of his drop off. It should also be noted, however, that Tristan Thompson is also a better player than Mozgov and not earning his starting role or a rotation spot back was like a combination of factors which went beyond health.
This makes Mozgov’s final year in Cleveland a bit difficult to judge him fully on. He played 1132 minutes last season, but many of those were spot opportunities or when games were already decided. This doesn’t mean there aren’t takeaways and conclusions, but they must be put into the proper context. There are some positives to note, however.
Per synergy sports and NBA.com’s stats tool, Mozgov is a good finisher in the pick and roll, scoring 1.22 points per play (PPP) and shooting 66% on shots out of the P&R. Nearly 17% of his baskets came from this action, with his conversion rate putting him in the 87th percentile in the league. Mozgov also produced good results as a cutter (1.31 PPP, 69th percentile) and in transition (1.21 PPP, 73rd percentile). Combined, these actions made up about 56% of his total offense, but the hope is that with the Lakers that number will increase while reducing his number of post ups and other lower efficiency actions.
In season’s past and on the Russian National team, Mozgov has shown to be a capable mid-range shooter as well. Though the samples are small, he shot 41% from 15-19 feet in 2013 through 2015. Last season these numbers fell off dramatically, but he has a history of at least showing some comfort in being able to knock down a mid-range jumper.
Defensively, Mozgov’s impact is somewhat of a mixed bag. In the past two seasons opponents have shot 55.1% and 54.4% in the restricted area when Mozgov is on the floor, per NBA Savant. His size and length allow him to contest and bother interior shots and his career 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes suggest he can be a presence.
However, his team’s defense hasn’t always been better with him on the floor vs. when he’s been on the bench. For example, in his last full season in Denver (2013-14), the Nuggets were 3.4 points/100 possessions better with Mozgov in the game. After being traded to Cleveland the following season, the Cavs were 4.3 points/100 possessions better with him in the game. But in the half season in Denver before the Cavs trade, in limited minutes in Denver in 2012-13, and last season in Cleveland, the defense improved when he was on the bench.
All of the numbers above, on both ends of the floor, give us some background into who Mozgov is a player. But, again, what’s most important is how he projects to help the Lakers. And, ultimately, I see his addition as a delicate balance between need vs. fit.
On the need side, the things he does well are severely lacking on this Lakers team. The size, P&R finishing ability, and defensive potential in the paint are all missing from the Lakers. The Lakers need a big man who can reliably contest opponents’ shots inside and convert his own paint touches on the other end. Roy Hibbert was not that guy. No one on the team really was.
Further, the Lakers sorely needed a viable pick and roll partner for their young guards. And I don’t just mean someone who can finish inside off a hard roll, but someone who can set good, wide screens to free up the ball handler in a significant way. Last year the Lakers didn’t have a single player who did both of these things at a plus level (Roy set good screens, but could not finish; Black could finish, but did not set the best screens).
I can see lineups which feature Mozgov and any combination of Russell, Clarkson, and Ingram working well as he ably provides ball and off-ball screens to free these players up to get into positions where they can be successful. I can even see him pairing well with Randle or Nance, especially in high low or “elbow get” sets where he’s either ducking in or setting a screen for them at the foul line to try and free them up or to force a switch. It will be on the coaches to figure out more ways to integrate him into the lineup and maximize his strengths in combination with who he is paired with.
This is easier said than done, however. As I noted after the signing was reported, Mozgov has not shown he’s a great passer, isn’t so nimble that he changes ends as well as is needed in today’s NBA, and his lack of quickness will need to be schemed around defensively vs. opponents’ P&R’s or when they go small. His post game isn’t so advanced he can be a go-to scorer and his mid-range jumper isn’t a proven, high-volume weapon. How this type of profile fits into what Luke Walton wants to do on both sides of the floor isn’t yet clear to me. Bits and pieces make sense, but the entire body of work in the big picture creates a muddled, at best, fit.
In the end, I do see the logic in this deal. Mozgov is a veteran who plays hard, brings toughness, and will not complain about his role. His presence helps stabilize the team’s biggest position of need and does so with a low usage player who has specific key skills which should help some of the young players continue their development. While the price is high and, more importantly, for too many years, an overpay was likely always necessary for the team to land that first free agent.
It’s the optics of the contract combined with his fit which has befuddled fans, but it’s the filling of a need and the potential for solidifying a key rotation hole which I am sure the Lakers’ brass will point to as the key reasons he was brought on board. Personally, the potential drawbacks of this deal concern me more than the potential upsides excite me. Maybe I and the majority of the internet echo-chamber who see it similarly will be wrong. Time will tell.