We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:
Will Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov justify their long-term costs to Lakers?
When we talk about the Lakers heading into this season, we talk about the future. We speak of potential, development, and patience. We talk about their young and promising core of D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and rookie Brandon Ingram.
But that’s not where the Lakers spent their money this summer.
Free agency was just hours hold when the Lakers agreed to give Timofey Mozgov a four-year, $64 million contract — a move that was almost universally panned.
Within 48 hours of that, the Lakers gave Luol Deng four-years, $72 million.
That’s a lot of money for two guys on the wrong side of 30 who do not match the career arcs of that young core. That’s a lot of money for a team that had talked about hoarding cap space to make a run at an impressive (although shrinking, see Russell Westbrook) crop of free agents next summer.
Will the Lakers get their money’s worth from those two deals?
Or, three years from now, will those contracts be seen as anchors on an up-and-coming team’s path back to contention?
Lakers fans are understandably skittish after the kind of Carlos Boozer/Roy Hibbert moves the front office made in recent years, signings that felt like a team trying to tank without looking like they were trying to tank.
The Mozgov and Deng contracts are better than that. These aren’t the signings of a team seeking to tank.
Whether the Lakers come to regret those contracts will come down to how much production they get from the pair the next two seasons, then if they can move the deals in the final years. These signings were about more than mentors for the young core now, it was about having viable trade pieces to interest teams should a star player — hypothetically, an elite center playing about a six-hour drive to the north — come available.
No doubt, the Lakers overpaid for this crop of veterans — particularly Mozgov. But that’s also where the Lakers are right now. It’s not like they had somewhere else to spend that money — they couldn’t even get a meeting with Kevin Durant or Al Horford. A legendary history and a big brand aren’t enough on their own anymore. If you think the answer is to sit on that money until next summer, the Lakers aren’t going to be in a position to land an elite free agent then, either. The Lakers need to win some games, develop a new culture, and develop that young core to the point that a top free agent wants to come to L.A. because he knows he can win. Think Horford going to Boston. The Celtics won 48 games last season, then they got the big free agent. The Lakers need a couple of seasons to get to that point.
In the short term, the Lakers went looking for veterans who can both help that young core develop and help the team win a few more games. Clearly, Lakers’ management wants to be done with the 17-win seasons like the last one — Kobe Bryant isn’t around to fill Staples Center every night while the youngsters learn on the job. Luke Walton has talked about playing veterans to get wins and bringing guys like Ingram off the bench until they earn their spots.
However, management also has to know this team is in a development process that will take years and can’t be shortcut.
Regarding veteran guidance — guys that can help change a locker room chemistry that was strained at times under the old-school style of former coach Byron Scott — the Lakers couldn’t have spent their money much better. Both Mozgov and Deng are respected and well-liked teammates. They are guys that can show the youngsters how to prepare and act like professionals (an influence they did not get from Nick Young last season).
On the court, it’s easy to see what role Luke Walton is picturing for Mozgov — a poor man’s Andrew Bogut. The question becomes: Will Walton have the healthy Mozgov of a couple of seasons ago who may be able to fill that role, or will he have the injured and slow one of last season that fell out of the Cavaliers’ rotation? Even when healthy Mozgov isn’t going to be described as fleet of foot, and basically playing on one leg last season — he admitted he rushed back from knee surgery too quickly — he was easy to expose if dragged into pick-and-rolls. He was a defensive mess.
Two seasons ago Mozgov shot 59 percent during the regular season, then was critical in the playoffs for Cleveland when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured and Mozgov’s gritty style fit what the team needed (he had 28 points in Game 4 of those Finals). He anchored the paint defensively — Cleveland allowed just 96.4 points per 100 possessions when was on the floor those playoffs (it jumped 8.4 per 100 when he sat). Walton can use that Mozgov: Anchor the paint on defense, get rebounds, and set brick wall-like picks for Russell and Clarkson (and sometimes Ingram).
Deng is just a rock solid veteran who can do a little of everything. He defends well, he can score inside, he has a jumper, and he can play the three or a small ball four. Players such as Randle and Ingram aren’t yet ready for big time NBA defensive assignments, Deng can take those. He can be the Lakers’ glue.
This year’s Lakers should take a step forward from dismal outings of the past couple seasons — there should be hope, not just the distraction of Kobe’s final season — but they are not a playoff bound team. Getting into the low 30s in wins would be real progress. The Lakers give up their pick in next year’s draft (now belonging to the Sixers) if it is not in the top three. Barring a lottery miracle, it should not be.
This Laker team should be competitive — not good yet, but putting up a fight most nights. That’s the culture Luke Walton wants to build, it’s part of the reason Mozgov and Deng got paid. They can help create it.
The question is, in three seasons will the Lakers still have these guys on the books, and if so will those large contracts be anchors on the team’s growth? How will the new Collective Bargaining Agreement — to be pounded out before next season starts, one way or another — impact those long-term plans for the Lakers? And where do Deng and Mozgov fit into all of this?
In the short term the Lakers should get some value for those signings, but if those players are both Lakers in the last year of those contracts, Los Angeles will regret the deals.