The Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks heavily combated the notion that shorter deals are the optimal route to take during this summer’s free agency in an effort to maximize flexibility next July and beyond in the opening hours of free agency.
Both cast their lines into the free agency waters quickly, but hooked Sunnys and Blue Gills as opposed to largemouth bass with the signings of 30-plus-year-old centers in Joakim Noah and Timofey Mozgov (Mozgov turns 30 July 16). While there’s nothing wrong with signing useful veterans, both organizations doled out contracts that reached into the 2020s, and neither Mozgov nor Noah is particularly suave in all facets of respective team playing style and roster construction.
Noah is a savvy big man, who can slice opponents from the elbow with dribble handoffs and precision passes on backdoor cuts, one seemingly engineered to operate in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But the four-year commitment to Noah is an overzealous belief in his health and productivity defying the age curve. Noah’s has an extensive injury history and is set to earn $19.1 million in his age 35 season, a potentially grotesque number. Magnifying the issue, the Knicks’ front office brass acknowledged the organization still envisions Kristaps Porzingis as a stretch 5 capable of tormenting the league, which moves Noah to either the 4, causing the Knicks to circumvent the advantages of Porzingis at the 5, or to the bench. The bench role seems reasonable for Noah as he ages as his on-court value wanes, his energy and locker room presence maintains its value, but not to the tune of almost $20 million.
The Lakers, meanwhile stuffed wads of cash in Mozgov’s face with a four-year $65 million contract. It’s a defensible move; Mozgov is a massive dude who has a penchant for defending the rim effectively…hey, that was why they signed Roy Hibbert last season. Mozgov is a facsimile of Hibbert now under contract for four years as opposed to a one-year make-good deal.
He’s the second coming of Hibbert as a pick-and-roll partner with D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson– a bumbling big man with poor coordination, glitchy finishing moves and no explosiveness above the rim. He also doesn’t run in transition and his jumper is on par with Hibbert’s, which isn’t overstretching defenses. Even defensively, Mozgov is the plodding big who get spun around and tormented as if he’s being worked by a meat cleaver when he is forced to dance on the perimeter with quick guards.
However, if Mozgov were a free agent last summer after a year of optimal health no one would’ve bucked at a $16 million per year salary even when considering a cap that was $24 million less. It’s impossible to take Mozgov’s injury and uptick in age off of his resume, but this is a guy who was prepared for the job a year ago, and that was enough for the Lakers to bet on.
The Lakers also locked up Clarkson before another team could offer him a funky deal under the “Arenas” provision, which would’ve capped the first two years of Clarkson’s deal at $5.6 million and $5.9 million, the equivalent of the mid-level exception. The Lakers would’ve assuredly matched, setting Clarkson’s cap hits well below his market value while giving Los Angeles foison amounts of cap room for the first two seasons of the deal before seeing a huge leap up to nearly his max salary of $22-plus million. Instead, the Lakers opted for a steadier year-to-year salary that smooths Clarkson’s cap hit more evenly across the entirety of the contract, displaying, yet again, they didn’t mind punting on space this summer or next, when a star-studded free agent crop hits the market.
Clarkson’s deal is at an appropriate cap number, and he’s a secondary ballhandler with potential, who warranted such a deal to remain with the Lakers, but by negotiating with him immediately, the Lakers punted on future space.
Both the Lakers and the Knicks have received their fair share of flak for the Noah and Mozgov deals, but it’s not fair to mock the Lakers and Knicks for accepting their place in the league’s hierarchy and abandoning their pompous outlook of their cap space holding a value substantially greater than that of other organizations.
How many times have we poked fun at the Lakers and Knicks the past few offseasons for trying to woo free agents based solely on their organizational mystic and pride, only for players to chuckle and point to their respective finishes in the conference standings? Perhaps this is an indication the Knicks and Lakers have been humbled and chosen to face the reality of their place in the league and appeal to free agents.