The Los Angeles Lakers have a problem on their hands. Ok, if we’re being honest, they have a number of problems after falling to the fourth-worst record in the league, but one particular problem, perhaps appropriately, looms large. The Lakers now have a logjam in their front court, and it’s making the decision to give Timofey Mozgov a deal worth $64 million over four years look even more questionable.
Heading into the summer of 2016, it was clear that the Lakers needed a center. Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass would depart in free agency and there was no certainty that the under-utilized Tarik Black would return. Newly-drafted rookie Ivica Zubac had potential, but couldn’t be counted on to handle minutes at the NBA level just yet, especially as a starter.
Meanwhile, the top-tier centers on the market, like Al Horford and Hassan Whiteside, wouldn’t give the rebuilding Lakers the time of day.
Instead, they turned to Mozgov, a player who was an afterthought to many after languishing on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench for much of the 2015-2016 season. Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw had experience working with the Mozgov during his time in Denver, and the Lakers needed high-character veterans to put around their prized young players.
Moreover, they needed someone who could clear space for D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, and as a 7’1” behemoth who sets massive screens, Mozgov fit the bill. Plus, there was hope that he could help shore up a defense that found themselves at the bottom of the league.
The Lakers locked up the big Russian just minutes after the free agency bell sounded, bewildering the league at both the dollar amount and number of years in the deal.
Essentially, the they doubled-down on the strategy that failed them the previous season with Hibbert, taking a declining big man and hoping that a change of scenery revitalizes him. However, Hibbert only had one year left on his deal, so the only real risk on the Lakers’ side was the second round pick they gave to the Indiana Pacers in the trade to acquire him. Mozgov, on the other hand, they bet big on, despite him turning 30 shortly after the deal was signed.
There is such a thing as a bad team tax that had to be paid, as there is little doubt that Mozgov would be elsewhere had the Lakers offered him just his market value, but the contract still raised eyebrows. At this point, it’s fair to say that they misjudged the market and overpaid by a significant amount.
Regardless, they had the starting center they needed (or at least thought they needed).
Black agreed to return on a team-friendly deal, encouraged by the ouster of head coach Byron Scott and the arrival of Luke Walton, who had coached him in college at Memphis. Then former 5th-overall pick Thomas Robinson appeared in summer scrimmages in Los Angeles and out-worked everyone to the point that the Lakers couldn’t justify sending him home. Even without Chinese center Yi Jianlian, who parted ways with the club before the end of the preseason, the Lakers roster had a surprisingly well-stocked front court.
As the season began, they learned something the Miami Heat already knew: that uber-expensive free agent wing Luol Deng is better suited to playing power forward these days. Walton would often shift power forwards Julius Randle or Larry Nance Jr. down to center for brief periods of small ball when Deng played power forward, further limiting the need for a traditional center.
Zubac improved by playing with the D-Fenders in the D-League, and the 19-year-old blessed with a near-perfect skill set for the modern game has now forced Walton to find minutes for him in the rotation as well. In a breakout performance on Tuesday against the Denver Nuggets, Zubac was impressive in 26 minutes, while Mozgov played just 10.
Every player the Lakers didn’t think they could count on this season has proved themselves and then some, making Mozgov suddenly superfluous.
In short order, the Lakers once-sparse front court has become as crowded as Disneyland on a holiday weekend. And here’s the kicker: Mozgov, who easily makes more than every other Lakers front court player combined, is also having the worst season out of the group, and it’s not close.
He was brought to Los Angeles to play the modern center role by protecting the paint, setting screens, and rebounding. Anything provided on the offensive end was gravy.
As of right now, the Lakers have the worst Defensive Rating in the NBA. That isn’t all on one player, but a deeper investigation turns up some fairly damning evidence.
Nearly everywhere on the floor, the Lakers are actually a not-terrible defensive team based opponent’s field goal percentage. The one exception is Mozgov’s domain at the rim, where they allow opponents to shoot 65.6 percent, which is by far the worst mark in the league.
In other words, the Lakers have been so bad at defending the paint, which is part of why they signed Mozgov, that it has dragged their okay-ish defensive averages everywhere else all the way down to the bottom.
On the team, Mozgov is dead-last among centers when it comes to impacting shots at the rim. He even trails power forward Randle in this area, who isn’t known for his shot blocking. Adding insult to injury, Mozgov’s rim protection has statistically been worse this season than Hibbert’s was last season.
Looking at the entire league, Mozgov has the second-worst Defensive Rating for starting centers, and things don’t get much better on the offensive end or on the boards. Per-36 minutes, Mozgov, who is physically the largest player on the Lakers roster, can’t come close to matching the rebounding numbers of the rest of the front court.
He’s also the second-weakest shot blocker of the group, and his PER lags frighteningly behind as well (stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com):
That’s not to say that this is all Mozgov’s fault, either. He plays hard, gets physical in the post when need be and by all accounts is a great guy in the locker room. These things definitely have value, especially on a young team in need of leadership. If he were a reserve on a reasonable deal no one could complain about his production, and instead, the narrative would focus on all the positive contributions he brings to the team off the court. However, the Lakers are paying him at the level of a high-quality starter, and expectations rise accordingly.
What this all adds up to is that the Lakers now find themselves in a difficult position. All of the players who were considered to be question marks have exceeded expectations, which would have been impossible to predict back in July. Walton suddenly has more bigs who deserve minutes than he can accommodate, and that’s before Larry Nance Jr. returns from injury, which should by anytime now.
Statistically speaking, the ideal way to carve out more playing time would be to steal from the already-meager 21 minutes per game Mozgov is playing and distribute them to more productive players (as we saw against Denver). The team would not only be better on the court but they would also improve their future by getting valuable experience to younger players. To do so, however, would mean having the team’s second-highest paid player earning millions to wave a towel from the bench.
Therein lies the problem. To bench Mozgov would be admitting a mistake and a costly one that will be on the books for another three seasons (never say never, but finding a team interested in taking Mozgov via trade seems unlikely). It would also deprive the Russian of an opportunity for redemption, which can only come if he’s on the floor and would certainly take some of the heat off of the Lakers’ beleaguered front office.
There is no easy solution to the problem, and it’s one the Lakers will have to carefully navigate as they attempt to climb the ladder to redemption.
*All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.