After Monday’s 28-point blowout loss at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Lakers have now dropped nine of their last 10 games to fall to 20-47 on the season. For the second straight season, the Lakers own the worst record in the Western Conference; this comes on the heels of two straight seasons with its second-worst mark.
All they’ve got to play for is the future — in more ways than one — and that means some, shall we say, “rotation adjustments” in the present. First, from Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:
Lakers recently shut down healthy center Timofay Mozgov to take a stronger look at their younger guys the rest of the season, a source said.
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) March 14, 2017
And next, from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne:
The Los Angeles Lakers have effectively shut down healthy veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov for the rest of the season to give the majority of playing time over the final 15 games to their younger players, sources told ESPN. […]
Deng and Mozgov had each been replaced in the starting lineup and their playing time had been cut dramatically. Rather than play sporadically, sources told ESPN that Deng and Mozgov were comfortable with the decision to shut it down for the rest of the season after meeting individually with coach Luke Walton over the past few weeks.
While sources said the Lakers could revisit the situation with either player before the end of the season, the plan right now is for both to remain inactive.
Shutting down veterans Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng would, as Darius Soriano of Lakers blog Forum Blue and Gold and Mark Medina of the Southern California News Group have noted, really just represent the formalization of a shift head coach Luke Walton had been making for more than a month:
I know the Timo "shut down" thing is technically new news, but he's been a DNP in 9 of the team's last 11 games. So, it's not really "news".
— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) March 14, 2017
I appreciate the clarity on his situation & the reporting, but this was basically already happening.
— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) March 14, 2017
Luke Walton said shutting down Mozgov/Deng had been established for a while now considering their string of DNP's
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 15, 2017
Which is, y’know, true. Mozgov has played a grand total of 58 minutes since the beginning of February and has been on the inactive list for the Lakers’ last two games, as Walton has prioritized a pair of younger pivots — second-year man Tarik Black and 19-year-old rookie Ivica Zubac — over the Russian veteran, whom L.A. imported on a four-year, $64 million deal back in July.
Deng had logged just under 31 minutes since the All-Star break, and hadn’t suited up since Feb. 26, with Walton increasing the playing time of 2016 No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram (from 27.7 minutes per game before the All-Star break to 35.7 since) and wings D’Angelo Russell (26.5 mpg pre-break, 32.4 since) and Jordan Clarkson (27.4 mpg pre, 31.1 post), despite Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss giving Deng an even richer deal than Mozgov received: four years, $72 million, an offer that reportedly stunned the other team with whom Deng was negotiating, the Washington Wizards.
The Wiz weren’t alone. The prices the Lakers paid for Mozgov and Deng elicited rampant shock around the league in the early hours of the 2017 free-agent season, standing as perhaps the biggest examples of how the NBA’s economy had been exploded by the combination of the league’s $24 billion broadcast rights deal and the National Basketball Players Association’s decision to reject an NBA “cap smoothing” proposal that would have slowly phased all that money into the league’s financial system rather than having it all hit at once.
In one fell swoop, the NBA salary cap skyrocketed from $70 million to $94 million, leaving teams flush with cash to spend and cap space to fill. The Lakers, eager to surround their young core with some veteran mentorship, used that financial flexibility to give $16 million a year to an about-to-be 30-year-old center who’d gone from playing a significant two-way role as a board-crashing rim-protector for an NBA Finalist to receding all the way out of the title-winning Cleveland Cavaliers’ rotation due to ineffectiveness after right knee surgery, and $18 million a year to a 31-year-old forward with more than 31,000 very, very hard-driven miles on his wheels who had produced at a fairly average level on the wing for the last several years.
The front office that gave Mozgov and Deng those deals doesn’t work here anymore. And after neither Mogzov (7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game over 54 appearances, opponents shooting 53.5 percent against him at the rim, 47th among 56 bigs to defend at least five up-close shots per game, the Lakers performing about three points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench) nor Deng (7.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 26.5 minutes per game in L.A., shooting a career-worst 38.6 percent from the field and 31.1 percent from 3-point range, with the Lakers about two points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court) offered much inspiration or production during their Year 1 floor time, L.A.’s new regime doesn’t seem to feel particularly compelled to keep running them out there.
Consigning Mozgov and Deng to a season-ending month of healthy scratches continues the Lakers’ ongoing move to de-emphasize their vets, as detailed last weekend by Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times:
Sunday, Lakers Coach Luke Walton removed [shooting guard Nick] Young from the starting lineup for the first time this season. The move, Walton said, isn’t a punishment.
“Nick has been one of our best two players all year long,” Walton said.
No, the move is more about the Lakers’ mind-set as they enter the season’s final month, where Young chasing the franchise’s 3-point record is a distant second priority to getting starts for undrafted free agent David Nwaba.
“Again, Nick’s been absolutely great for us all year,” Walton said. “but with giving (Young) so many minutes and wanting to see more of David and see Tyler (Ennis) a little bit before the season end, it’s not really fair to him to keep playing four or five minutes per half. We’re thinking about making that move and committing even more so to the youth.”
So in come Nwaba, Ennis and Zubac, and out go Young, Mozgov and Deng.
You might be tempted to argue that the late-season youth movement is motivated by an awareness of the value of tanking. Remember, the Lakers traded their 2017 first-round draft pick to the Phoenix Suns in the deal that brought them Steve Nash in the long, long ago of 2012. The Suns later flipped that pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in the three-way 2015 deal that landed Brandon Knight in Phoenix and Michael Carter-Williams in Milwaukee.
That pick is protected for the first three selections in the draft, which means that if the Lakers land the first, second or third overall choice in the 2017 draft lottery, they get to make their pick. If they end up fourth or lower, though, the pick will go to the Sixers.
The Lakers have dodged this lottery bullet in each of the past two seasons, allowing them to select Russell and Ingram with the No. 2 overall picks in the 2015 and 2016 drafts. If they can’t this summer, they’ll hand Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and company another (hopefully healthy) top-of-the-draft talent with which to grow.
Nine losses in 10 tries have fortified L.A.’s positioning as the team with the second-worst record in the NBA, two games worse than the 22-45 Suns and 3 1/2 games worse than the 24-44 Orlando Magic. At the moment, according to the helpful calculations of lottery/losing tracker Tankathon.com, the Lakers have a 55.8 percent chance of landing in the top three in the lottery and keeping their pick.
Then again, given how Mozgov and Deng have performed, and how good the 7-foot-1 Zubac looked against the Nuggets …
— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) March 14, 2017
… then maybe this isn’t the best way to secure a season-closing string of Ls.
Whatever the true principal motivation for the turn away from L.A.’s vets — and whatever the future holds for Mozgov and Deng, whose contracts loom as millstones for the Lakers’ rebuilding efforts over the next three years — this certainly wasn’t the way anyone involved envisioned things playing out in Hollywood when they put pen to paper back in July.
“I have to stay in shape and be ready at any moment,” Mozgov recently told Medina of the Southern California News Group. “In this league, you never know. Things could change the next day.”
Yeah. You could go from being the two highest-paid dudes on the team to getting shelved for the last month of the season. Life comes at you fast in the NBA.
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