Last season, when Anderson Varejao went down for the season in December, it left a lack of size in the big man rotation. On the defensive end, Love didn’t possess the instincts to anticipate ball flow to the paint and Tristan was capable of getting bullied by bigger opponents, creating defensive problems, but, more importantly, The Cavs were an injury away from having an awkwardly shallow rotation after they started off the season slowly. Shortly after acquiring J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and a first rounder from the Dion Waiters trade, Cavs GM David Griffin flipped that pick plus another first for Timofey Mozgov, a then 28-year-old Russian, whose size, rebounding, rim-protection — and underrated scoring —helped to fill a gap. (That’s the short version of the story. Brian Windhort chronicled the entire trail of moves that made room for Moz here.)
Last season, after the All-Star break — when the Cavs made a run that proved if their amended roster stays healthy, they are one of the most dangerous teams in the league — Mozgov averaged 10.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1 block. None of those are earth-scattering numbers —and the rebounds dipped below the 8.1 rebounds per game he averaged with both Denver and Cleveland before the break — but to come onto a roster loaded with talent and give the team exactly the sort of production they hoped for definitely helped the roster exceed the sum of their parts.
Mogov’s contributions should be similar to last year once he gets himself back into basketball shape after his recent injury — that is, if his body makes a solid recovery. Because one of Mozgov’s greatest assets is his ability to be always in motion, with a decent amount of agility for someone his size — which creates avenues and options in the lane for LeBron and Kyrie — the hope is that the knee injury doesn’t limit his mobility. The surgery was said to go smoothly, but there is always skepticism with big men and knees. Although, one of the reassuring things about Mozgov is that his timing, patience and awareness in the lane is something that is as equal, if not greater, in value in comparison to his perpetual movement. In the video below, an obvious amount of his finishes are the result of the Cavs’ primary ball handlers collapsing the defense, leaving Mozgov open. But he has a knack for being in the right place, at the right time, which is the sort of IQ needed to make teams pay for cheating on LeBron or Kyrie or Love. It also subsequently offers the big three more future opportunities for easier looks because the defense has to think twice before completely committing the the help. He doesn’t have to be prime Shaq, he just has to continue to do this:
There are two other things that interest me about Mozgov’s offensive production this year. 1) Can he solidify his midrange game? He has a pretty decent shot and continuing to develop it will benefit him now and later, both in the short term to move him away from the basket to create space, as well as when he gets older and starts to have more volatile battles with gravity. Right now, he just doesn’t take that many shots from midrange, as this shot chart from his post-All Star regular season shows:
And, 2) How will he coexist with Varejão on the court? My first inclination was not very well, especially if the small ball trend takes another leap. And, if they can’t, it’s not really a huge deal, because Love — and hopefully Tristan — will eat up large quantities of minutes. But, what about in small sample sizes or in an effort to survive during Tristan’s hypothetical absence? It obviously depends on the lineup that the other team is throwing at the Cavs, but, as I was watching them share the court during the preseason game against the Grizzlies, my mind kind of changed about the idea. While neither can stretch an opposing defense to the three point line, they both have a mid-range game that has to be taken somewhat seriously.
During that game, there was a play were they cleared out a lane for LeBron by pinning Mozgov and Varejao about 12 feet away from the basket on the baseline, on opposite ends of the paint, leaving them in spaces where they both can catch and shoot, or hover in lay-up territory, or exist in a reasonable distance to crash the boards. And, on the defensive end, Varejão’s goofy length and subversive roaming could be an interesting juxtaposition to Mozgov’s rim protection. Or, it could clog the lanes on offense and have the defense get threes bombed on their heads. I’m just curious.
Defensively, Mozgov’s height and bulk combined with his gritty mentality makes him the Cavs’ best paint protector. Where he needs improvement is with his foot speed. On pick and rolls, he has to be dropped deep as a counter measure so he doesn’t get burned by a guard, although a lot of the time he can be successful with that. He has a good enough mindset to go straight up with contact and often avoids needlessly trying to hammer the ball from an opponent’s hands. The big thing about his lack of foot speed is whether or not teams will try to play him off the court by exploiting his weakness of not being able to close the perimeter. The Warriors did this in the finals and teams that have the capability to replicate that may try, although I argued early this week that I think it will be harder than expected, because Draymond Green has a unique skill set.
All and all, Mozgov will probably have a similar season to what he had last year. He’ll probably average somewhere around 10 points and 7 rebounds per game. He’ll have games where he explodes and doubles those averages. He’ll have games where he sits for long periods of time. And he’ll also be an essential piece of a contender.