When the Cavaliers entered training camp last season with Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao, and Tristan Thompson as the primary bigs they would be utilizing, it was clear that protecting the rim would be a major issue. There was hope that Thompson could develop from being among the league's worst to something approaching average. There was hope that Varejao could contribute defense in a variety of ways that didn't involve rim protection. There was hope Kevin Love would be something other than a minus defensively.
The results ranged from mixed (Thompson and Love) to sad (Varejao), but Timofey Mozgov was brought in to save the day. He was a big help, and by the time the Cavs got deep into the playoffs with Kevin Love hurt, defense wasn't really the team's biggest issue. There was optimism this season that Mozgov and Thompson would provide a potent defensive combo. Kevin Love remained the wild card. Where are we after 10 games? Let's take a look.
Timofey Mozgov is still getting it done - it seems
Mozgov is a curious case. His rim protection numbers seem pretty darn good on the surface. When Mozgov defends a shot within 6 feet of the basket, opposing player's are shooting 15.5 percent worse than their normal rate. The only players doing better than that around the league on at least 45 defended attempts are Draymond Green, Derrick Favors and ... Karl-Anthony Towns. So that's fantastic, right? On the whole, yes, yes it is. Especially when we are dealing with small samples, Mozgov is coming off an injury that is apparently still bothering him, and the Cavs so desperately need that skill.
Mozgov rates particularly well in Seth Partnow of Nylon Caculus' Estimated Rim Protection metric, which is probably the best tool we have. He is third behind Rudy Gobert and Festus Ezeli in points saved per 36 minutes at 8.38. He's done that while also keeping his foul rate low. If you are looking solely at rim protection, it's hard to fault Mozgov for his play at all.
So what's the catch? Well, the Cavs are giving up a far-from-good 105.7 points per 100 possessions with Mozgov on the floor. When he is off the court, the Cavs defense gets amazingly stingy: they give up just 92 points per 100 possessions when he sits. It could be small sample size noise all the way around. It could be that both Kevin Love and Mozgov struggle to move, and their pairing just means too little mobility. It does seem that Mozgov has been a step slow rotating a bit this year, and his ground coverage on pick and rolls could be better. Perhaps this is the injury working, or perhaps this is all much to do about nothing. Time will tell.
Tristan Thompson might be taking a big step forward
Is Tristan Thompson an average rim protector? It's been the subject of a lot of debate over the last year or so, and it makes sense because it's a hugely important question when trying to assess the worth of the guy the Cavs have invested so much in. We'll get to the answer in a bit, but let's just get it out of the way early: the Cavs are defending really well while Thompson is on the court. He's spent a lot of time with Matthew Dellavedova, and they seem to be a solid pairing. In Thompson's 25 minutes a game, the Cavs are giving up just 92.3 points per 100 possessions. It's not all on Thompson by any stretch, but he has more often that not been asked to carry a large defensive burden. So far, he's been up to the challenge.
Let's talk about the rim protection. On 51 attempts, opponents are shooting 9.1 percent worse within six feet of the rim when Thompson is the closest defender. 10 players can boast a better mark on more than 45 attempts defended. Only Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are younger than Thompson on that list. It seems to be a pretty darn good start to the season for Thompson defensively. Whether it's sustainable or not becomes the next big question.
Partnow's metric indicates that the average center saves about six points per 36 minutes with their rim protection. In the first 10 games of the season, Thompson is saving 6.03 points per 36 minutes. It's the best kind of average. Factor in that Thompson has played a bit of power forward while sharing the court with Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov, and that number looks even better. Thompson's value defensively comes in his versatility: if he can add capable rim protection to the toolkit, he becomes an extremely important player in the league. We will see.
Because we can't get let you get too excited - Kevin Love is here
Opponents are shooting 9.6 percent better within six feet of the basket than their normal rates with Kevin Love as the primary defender. A lot of the time he doesn't even put his hands up. He's looked a lot better moving around in this early season, and he's been very active offensively. The Cavs as a whole are giving up 97 points per 100 possessions when he plays, which isn't a bad number at all. His defense doesn't seem to be something the Cavs can't work around. It'd be nice if it were a bit better, but this just might be the player Kevin Love is. If his offensive game keeps rounding into form, he's still a superstar.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of nba.com/stats