When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Timofey Mozgov to a four-year, $64 million contract the moment free agency started this summer, the move was immediately ridiculed in the media and questioned by the fan base. That is a lot of money for a player who has averaged a mere 6.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game over six NBA seasons. ESPN dubbed the move the third worst signing of the offseason behind the Chicago Bulls picking up Rajon Rondo and the New York Knicks acquiring Derek Rose.
Despite the criticism, there is reason to believe that Mozgov may emerge as one of the biggest surprises when NBA training camps start on Tuesday. Although he is 30, he has only played in the league since 2010 and is still in his prime. His career was on a definite uptick when he suffered a knee injury which hampered his play at the start of last season. By the time he recovered, he was no longer part of the rotation or future plans for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The year before, however, was Mozgov’s best professional season. He averaged 9.7 points on 55 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. He was a featured performer in the playoffs that year when he averaged 10.6 points on 50 percent shooting as the Cavaliers went to the NBA Finals before losing to the Golden State Warriors.
Mozgov did not stop to celebrate or even rest after signing with the Lakers this summer. He played on the Russian National Team that participated in the FIBA EuroBasket competition and qualified for the 2017 tournament. There were nervous moments as word spread that he had injured his groin, although he returned to finish the competition. Photographs circulated showing Mozgov’s knees swathed in ice after each game.
The key for Mozgov is to stay healthy. If he does, and continues to show the growth that was evident during the 2014-15 season before his knee was injured, Mozgov may very well surprise a lot of people this next season.
On offense, Mozgov has a surprising number of agile moves around the basket and can finish with both hands. He also has a solid mid-range shot and is known to shoot from behind the three-point line on occasion. He has never proven to be much of a passer which is something the coaching staff will get him to work on.
On defense, at 7’1” and a solid 275 pounds, Mozgov is an enormous body that fills the lane. In his best year, 2014-15, he averaged 7.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, which are unspectacular stats for a man his size. It bears remembering, however, that he has never averaged more than 25 minutes per game in his NBA career and last season only played 17 minutes a night.
Luke Walton was an assistant coach for the Warriors two seasons ago when they played the Cavaliers in the Finals. It was Mozgov’s best NBA moment following his best season, and it is entirely possible that Walton took notice. The past four years the Warriors featured Andrew Bogut, whose modest statistics often belied his importance on the court. When Bogut was around and healthy the Warriors won; when he wasn’t, the team often struggled.
Interestingly, Bogut’s statistics over that period were comparable to those of Mozgov’s leading up to last season. During his four years with the Warriors, Bogut averaged between 5.4 and 7.3 points per game and between 5.3 and 10 rebounds per contest. He played between 20.7 and 24.6 minutes on average.
When Walton was hired as head coach of the Lakers, the plan was to sign a center who could emulate what Bogut did for the Warriors: A solid, big body performer who would complement the flashier, more athletic players around him. Based on what he saw of Mozgov in the NBA Finals in 2015, Walton probably informed the Lakers’ brass that Mozgov was his man, someone who could play around 25 minutes a night, score nine or 10 points on high percentage shooting from the field and the free throw line, grab seven rebounds, and clog the lane on defense.
Much of the criticism levied at the Mozgov signing involves the length and size of his contract, but it is all relative. Are Mike Conley ($153 million), DeMar DeRozan ($139 million), and Harrison Barnes ($94 million) worth the lucrative contracts they received this summer? Conley has career averages of 13.6 points and 5.6 assists per game – a little better than what D’Angelo Russell averaged last year in what most thought was a disappointing rookie season — yet Conley signed the most lucrative contract in the history of the NBA.
Is signing Mozgov at less than half the price the Grizzles and Raptors will pay Conley and DeRozan all that bad? Further, with the rapidly-rising pay scale in the NBA, who’s to say the $16 million per season Mozgov is getting won’t be considered a bargain four years from now.
Signing Timofey Mozgov this summer was not a sexy move by the Lakers, but it was a solid one that could make a big difference on the court. The team has exciting players in Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Lou Williams and Larry Nance, Jr., and could use some hard-nosed, understated, consistent play in the post. Mozgov could also prove to be a valuable mentor to 19-year-old Ivica Zubac, who comes from the same region of the world as Mozgov.
If Timofey Mozgov can stay healthy and carry on where he left off after the 2014-15 NBA season, he will be a solid contributor and play an important role for the Lakers for the next few years. With Walton at the helm and the exuberance and improved performance of the younger members of the roster, there is every reason to be optimistic.