In the days leading up to the start of free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers were linked to all of the big-name big men. Al Horford, Bismack Biymbo, Hassan Whiteside — surely the Lakers would at least meet with one, right?
Nooooooooope! Instead, the Lakers swerved us all and signed Timofey Mozgov to a four-year deal just minutes after free agency officially started. The move leaves most NBA observers scratching their heads. Mozgov is a fine basketball player, and better than he showed last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet he doesn’t really seem to fit with a young Lakers core that will try to get out and run under new coach Luke Walton.
Still, it’s not all bad; the Lakers could have been real players for DeMar DeRozan’s services, for starters. That would have been bad. But the Mozgov signing leaves a pretty big question for Los Angeles: What’s next for the Lakers, who have plenty of cap space available even after signing Mozgov and re-signing Jordan Clarkson?
With Mozgov and Clarkson under terms of an agreement, the Lakers could still have $35m in cap space to use in free agency.
The answer isn’t going to excite Lakers fans. The team needs help at power forward and on the wing. That’s inevitably where the Lakers will focus their efforts now that they have their center of the future (at least, until they amnesty him in two years). Yet there’s no reason to suspect any of the top options at those positions will take a look at southern California. The Mozgov signing reveals just how little interest the marquee free agents seem to have in joining the Lakers. There’s very little chance he was L.A.’s first choice. If Whiteside and Biyombo didn’t want to take meetings in Los Angeles, is Chandler Parsons really going to be intrigued by the Lakers? (Update: Nope.) Or is Harrison Barnes, assuming he doesn’t return to the Warriors?
Perhaps Parsons wasn’t the answer anyway, since his knees are balky and he might be overrated. As for Barnes, well, there’s no real evidence he’s going to be worth a max deal to be a primary offensive option outside of Golden State. The Lakers should resist the temptation to make a move on Barnes, if they can. That leaves someone like Kent Bazemore as a theoretical option for the Lakers. He’s come into his own as a 3-point shooter, defender and overall player on the perimeter. Unfortunately for Los Angeles — which could have kept Bazemore on the roster with a qualifying offer in 2014 — the rest of the league has noticed how good the former Atlanta Hawks wing is these days, with reports that he could command as much as $20 million per year this summer.
That’s too steep a price for the Lakers, who should be keeping as much flexibility as possible for next season. Instead, they should commit themselves to some of the less sexy names still available this summer. Or, to put it more bluntly: Los Angeles needs to forget about trying to make a big splash and double down on development (and staying relatively bad). From this point forward, it’s all about trying to keep next year’s top-three protected lottery pick, putting an entertaining team together and preserving the all-important cap space for 2017, when Russell Westbrook will be a free agent and Kevin Durant could be available once again, too.
Seriously, though, we’re talking about some really middling players now that Mozgov’s on his way to Los Angeles. At power forward, Ryan Anderson could be an excellent pickup to back up Julius Randle if the money is right — say, two years at around $11 million each season. He can stretch the floor, which will be crucial with Mozgov taking up all the space in the paint. He’s 28 years old and on the downswing of his career, so it’d be ridiculous to expect him to move the needle very much. But signing Anderson would be clearly superior to doing something ridiculous like re-signing Carlos Boozer.
There’s not a lot of depth at power forward beyond that, though, so the Lakers might have to settle on stockpiling talent and veteran leadership on the bench. Jared Dudley makes a lot of sense in Los Angeles; he can play multiple positions, he’s an outstanding locker room presence, and he should be available on a relatively reasonable deal. Another low-key option who makes a lot of sense for a young team that needs 3-point shooting is Troy Daniels, although he’s a player that basically no one knows.
Luol Deng is another option on the wing who could help the Lakers, assuming they don’t expect him to make much of a contribution on offense. He’d shore up L.A.’s awful defense and provide that crucial veteran perspective. However, there would be questions about his fit next to Brandon Ingram, and Deng will likely be more interested in joining a winner, anyway. Mike Miller — if he wants to come back next season — is another player who fits the veteran mold for Los Angeles. He’d be the polar opposite of Deng: A guy who can shoot 3s … and that’s about it. And perhaps Richard Jefferson’s relationship with Luke Walton could mean R.J. moves west now that he has his long-awaited title.
Are any of these players going to make a huge impact in Los Angeles? Of course not. No one’s buying a ticket to see Jared Dudley shoot or Luol Deng get angry at young players for being out of position on defense. But that’s not the point anymore. The Lakers committed to Mozgov and mediocrity this summer. It’s time to get ready for next offseason.