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What's the Issue with Timofey Mozgov?

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are looking stronger, but their starting center still is struggling. What is the cause of Mozgov's weak play?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Timofey Mozgov is having a rough go of things.

The Cleveland Cavaliers may be looking better after a bit of a swoon in late November, but Mozgov's slow start to the beginning of the season has turned into a quarter-of-the-season cause for concern. A year after posting career highs in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage, along with an entrance onto the "strangest NBA Finals leading scorers" list, Mozgov is playing just 19.5 minutes per game, averaging just 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, and is down to shooting 52.9 percent from the field. He's also missed time with a shoulder injury, and, perhaps most concerning, the Cavs have been 7.4 points/100 possessions better defensively with Mozgov off the floor than with him on it. This has been a bit of a nightmare season for Mozgov, but why is this the case?

One of the biggest issues Mozgov has had this year is that his mobility has not been as good. Mozgov has never been a nimble athlete, but you can tell there is a significant drop-off in his lateral quickness compared to last season. This particularly affects him defensively, where he's been miserable outside of the paint. Mozgov has been excellent protecting the rim this year, allowing just 44.4 percent at the rim per SportVU data. But when he moves beyond the paint, Mozgov begins to have serious issues. Mozgov's been one of the worst players in the league at defending isolations, per player tracking data, allowing 1.21 points per possession, which ranks him in the 5th percentile of the league. Against the pick-and-roll, he's also been pretty average, allowing 6-13 shooting when defending the roll man, per synergy, and ranking in the 66th percentile there.

Offensively, the same is true, as it's Mozgov's play away from the ball that has made him a bit of a liability. Mozgov's hitting a healthy 69.4 percent inside of three feet this year, per basketball-reference, and those are accounting for about 60 percent of his shots, about equal to last season. However, he's taken about half as many shots from beyond 16 feet as last season, and he's been one of the worst spot-up shooters in the league this year, hitting just 3-15 attempts in that category per Synergy. Now, part of this shift in shot selection to moving closer to the basket is because of higher involvement of Kevin Love on the perimeter, but still, part of the issue appears to be that Mozgov isn't getting to open spots on the floor as easily, resulting in less effective catch-and-shoot opportunities.

The other issue is that Mozgov appears to be bothered by contact on the offensive end. Mozgov may still be finishing well at the rim overall, but when he has a defender within two feet of him, per SportVU numbers, he is hitting just 38.2 percent of his shots. He hit 53.6 percent on those shots last season, and that could be indicative of a strength issue, as shots in the "very tight" category usually are shots that come while well defended underneath the basket for players like Mozgov.

Rebounding, however, is where this potential strength problem has really taken hold. In 2014-2015, Mozgov posted a very healthy adjusted rebound chance percentage (A measure of how many rebounds a player grabs that fall within 3.5 feet of him, while filtering out rebounds deferred to teammates) of 65.6 percent. This year, that number is just 53.7 percent, which is the lowest percentage of any starting center in the league. Just 37.2 percent of Mozgov's total rebounds are contested, as well, compared to 45 percent last year. Mozgov's career-low rebounding rate goes beyond just deferring to Love and Tristan Thompson on the glass - it appears Mozgov's having real issues establishing positioning and fighting for rebounds under the basket.

Mozgov's issues appear to be mostly physical in nature, and this really doesn't come as a surprise. Mozgov had a knee arthroscopy to clean out some frayed areas of meniscus over the summer, and he has been on record saying that he's had issues lingering from this procedure throughout the season. That coupled with the deltoid injury explains much of what Mozgov's going through. The issues with the knee surgery can commonly include chronic inflammation and impaired muscle strength, and those are things that are going to restrict Mozgov's ability to move fluidly. Meanwhile, the deltoid is the primary mover in bringing the arm above the head, and a deltoid strain can be problematic when you need to power up against a defender inside or battle someone for a rebound, because the resistance is going to cause pain and weakness in the muscle. The injury may have caused Mozgov to only miss three games, but it often takes weeks or months for a muscle strain to truly resolve and return to 100 percent, and when you're forced to battle inside with the strongest frontcourt players in the league every night, that's going to present some complications.

The good news is that Mozgov's injuries are minor, and while they've presented complications this season, it's reasonable to think Mozgov will continue to work himself out of it. He's played slightly better as of late, and he does still have four months to get fully right in time for the playoffs. For now, though, the Cavs have been playing him less, and they're getting better results out of using Thompson and Love at the five than they are with Mozgov in the middle. If they can continue to slowly integrate Mozgov back as he gets right, they should be able to get back to the well-oiled machine they were with Mozgov inside last season.