Lakers: Kudos to Mitch Kupchak and the Front Office For Finally Getting It Right

Jun 21, 2016; El Segunda, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, head coach Luke Walton and part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss at today
Jun 21, 2016; El Segunda, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, head coach Luke Walton and part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss at today /

When the Lakers signed center Timofey Mozgov, an avalanche of derision followed but critics overlooked the reality of today’s NBA and ignored the wisdom of the Lakers’ strategy

Current league rules were specifically designed to prevent a large-market team from buying the top players, which is ironic especially considering the latest news surrounding Kevin Durant. This is no longer 1996, where Jerry West could simply offer Shaquille O’Neal the most money to come to LA.

After swinging and missing at the cream-of-the-crop free agents the past three years, the Lakers front office finally got the message that some fans and critics missed. There will be no quick fix to return the team to title contention.

Instead, the Lakers will rely on their ‘reward’ for enduring the three worst seasons in franchise history: three straight top seven draft picks, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram. Now that the circus atmosphere surrounding Kobe Bryant’s farewell year has ended, the reins will be turned over this coming season to those three budding stars, four if you include Jordan Clarkson.

More from Lake Show Life

Nobody can predict with certainty how good the youngsters will eventually be. Each of the four could become All-Stars or they could all crash and burn. But how well and how fast they develop will largely determine the success of the team.

With all of this in mind, before free agency even began, Mitch Kupchak and company decided not to waste time chasing the likes of Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Lakers fans were obviously displeased but in today’s NBA no superstar wants to be a team’s savior without first knowing he has proven teammates.

Instead, the focus of free agency for the Lakers was to sign players to support the young potential stars. Their three biggest goals were to first re-sign Jordan Clarkson, then find a starting center, and finally, add a high character veteran to set an example and provide mentorship.

And in the first two days of free agency, the team succeeded in all three of those objectives as they got commitments from Clarkson, Mozgov and Luol Deng though they seemed to do so in a confusing order. The net result is that this offseason the team essentially replaced Roy Hibbert, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre and a physically-hampered Bryant with Mozgov, Deng, Ivica Zubac and Ingram. Kupchak should be universally praised for his accomplishments!

Much of the disparagement centers on the amount of money paid and years guaranteed to Mozgov and the fact that they “settled” for him rather than pursuing a superstar big.

The NBA team salary cap sharply increased by a whopping 1/3 to $94.1 million. That guaranteed player salaries would be much higher than ever before. But what many fans don’t understand is that team salaries must also reach a salary floor of 90% of the cap, or about $85 million, or be penalized.

When free agency began, the Lakers had only six players signed and two incoming rookies for a total payroll of just under $30 million. So they had to add another $55 million of player payroll for the 2016-17 season. That meant overpaying some players was an acceptable outcome as long as they got what they wanted.

The perfect Lakers’ candidate at center would protect the rim, rebound, set screens, roll to the hoop and switch on defense against quicker players and wouldn’t demand the ball so that the younger players could do their thing on the perimeter. The reality was that no available big man could completely fit that role.

The top two free agent bigs, Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside, opted to stay put for maximum money. Al Horford would only join a team that made the playoffs this past year. Joakim Noah, coming off a major injury, wanted to return to the city he loves, New York. Dwight Howard, well let’s just say been there, done that. Pau Gasol was intriguing, but is at his best when the offense flows through him, which would detract from the team’s new big three, plus he’s 35 years old and is now a San Antonio Spur.

So it was on to the next level of about five possible centers. Festus Ezeli, a restricted free agent, was a disappointment in the NBA Finals, and apparently Luke Walton, his assistant coach the past two years, didn’t push hard to sign him. Bismack Biyombo has mostly been an under-achiever until he had a breakthrough few games in the playoffs against Miami. However, that came after Whiteside was sidelined by injury and the Heat had no decent back-up to battle him. The other three big men were Mozgov, Ian Mahinmi and Zaza Pachulia.

New Lakers assistant Brian Shaw was head coach at Denver when Mozgov was there and lobbied to sign him now. Other than switching on the perimeter, he fits what the Lakers were seeking. Plus he is well-liked and respected by his teammates and he is also a 73% career free throw shooter

Yes, he was buried deep on Cleveland’s bench but the Cavs have a strong frontcourt led by two max players, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, along with the 3-point shooting Channing Frye, sometimes even using James at power forward. It’s also noted that Mozgov probably returned too quickly from off-season knee surgery (presumably he is now fully recovered). Further, he shined in the 2015 Finals, when he totally outplayed the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut.

Certainly Mozgov won’t be next in the line of great Lakers’ big men like Mikan/Chamberlain/Abdul-Jabbar/O’Neal, or even Bynum or Gasol but the Lakers aren’t asking him to be. They are paying him what seems like a ludicrously high amount, four years for $64 million, to be a supporting player. But guess what? Biyombo and Mahinmi got very similar deals elsewhere and Pachulia probably will get one too.

With the salary cap is increasing again next year to at least $107 million, perhaps four years is too long of a contract but that also means they don’t have to pay him more in the coming years. More over, by the last year or two, if things go according to plan, the youngsters will have proven themselves and another big can be recruited. Perhaps, even second round pick Zubac, who Mozgov will help mentor, might blossom by then.

In summary, the Lakers have already hit rock bottom. Fortunately they now have the clear possibility of a bright future riding on the shoulders of their homegrown youngsters.

Next: Nick Young Could Be On The Move Sooner Than Later

The signing of Mozgov helps rather than hinders that prospect. To say differently ignores both NBA and Lakers’ reality.