The Roy Hibbert era in L.A. has mercifully come to an end after just one season.
The Lakers have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Timofey Mozgov to a four–year contract worth $64 million, according to Yahoo Sports and the Los Angeles Times. Mozgov, 29, averaged 6.3 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Cavaliers last season as he shifted to a reserve role during the team’s championship run. The Russian big man earned $5 million in 2015-16.
After ranking 29th in offense and 30th in defense last season, there was little doubt that the rebuilding Lakers would pursue an upgrade over Hibbert with their significant cap space flexibility. Unfortunately, Mozgov is only a modest upgrade by most measures and he suffers from many of the same limitations that held back Hibbert. What’s more, Mozgov arrives on a four-year, above-market deal that will carry him well past his prime window. Even Hibbert arrived last summer as a low-risk, one-year rental.
The initial reaction from many observers will be that the Lakers went too far here in both dollars and years. That’s true, but the bigger concern is Mozgov’s fit with L.A.’s young core. The slow, physical Mozgov found his greatest success in Cleveland when the tempo slowed way down during the 2015 playoffs. In a half-court game, Mozgov was free to play off of LeBron James as a cutter and to use his size to finish in pick-and-roll scenarios.
When Cleveland opted for a smaller, faster style this season, Mozgov’s minutes were the first to go. During the regular season, the Cavaliers played meaningfully better on both offense and defense without Mozgov, and he wound up playing just 25 minutes total in the Finals against the Warriors.
With Luke Walton, the Lakers’ new coach, arriving from Golden State and looking to build around a young, athletic core featuring Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, Mozgov presents major fit questions. Can he keep up with the youngsters? Will his presence in the low post compromise Randle’s desire to attack the basket? Will he be able to find success as a roll man when the passes are coming from Russell, a second-year floor general who has vision but needs polish, instead of James? Will he be forced into an Andrew Bogut-like managed minutes role? If so, why pay him starter money?
The questions get bigger the further one zooms out. Is Mozgov a long-term solution given the age disparity between himself and the rest of the Lakers’ core? Will his age/contract combination prevent him from being be able to be moved for a better asset? Assuming the Lakers would rather play like the 2016 Cavaliers instead of the 2015 Cavaliers, given their young pieces, why exactly was Mozgov targeted at all?
L.A. is left hoping (praying?) that Mozgov can bounce back from a rocky 2015-16 season, as he ranked 75th out of 76 centers in Real Plus-Minus and posted a below-average 14.6 Player Efficiency Rating following offseason knee surgery. Even at full health, though, Mozgov will struggle to cover for his teammates’ many defensive deficiencies and he’ll need to completely adjust his expectations after going from a contender to one of the league’s worst teams.
Strangely, the center position was the only spot with true depth on this summer’s market, and yet the Lakers opted to reach an early agreement with a player who wasn’t one of the top 15 available options. There are only two explanations: The Lakers love Mozgov a lot more than the stats do, or they simply couldn’t get any of the better, more proven free agents to take their calls and/or money. If the former, outside observers have every reason to be skeptical given the miss rate on L.A.’s free agent moves in recent years (Nick Young, Lou Williams, etc.). If the latter, it’s time for everyone to start adjusting to a world where even the Hassan Whitesides and BismackBiyombos of the world are no longer enthralled by the “Showtime” shine.