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Breaking down the play of the Cleveland Cavaliers' big man rotation during 10 game win streak

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The Cavs are thin in the frontcourt but have been performing well anyway

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks ago the Cavaliers' situation in the interior looked bleak. Kevin Love appears to be banged up, and hasn't been his best offensively this season. With Kyrie Irving and LeBron James running the show, he hasn't had as many opportunities to create from the high post. Tristan Thompson had moved to the starting lineup, and while he was doing a serviceable job in place of the injured Anderson Varejao, he's a low end starting center at this point and best served coming off the bench for a good team at age 23. Behind them?

disaster

There wasn't anything. I teach at a school with a successful basketball program, and on January 7th I wandered into our coach's office after school. He asked me what was wrong with the Cavs, and I said, well, it would be nice for LeBron James to play. And then I said that the team desperately needed a third big. A competent third big. Not a starting center, not someone that really even needed to be that much better than Thompson. Just someone that you could reliably play for 20-25 minutes a night that would rebound and play some defense and finish inside in respectable fashion. On my way home from school Twitter blew up. The Cavs had acquired Timofey Mozgov.

Tristan shot chart

Above is Tristan Thompson's shot chart for the season. Below is Timofey Mozgov.

Timo Mozgov shot chart

Remarkably similar, though Mozgov takes a few more shots, with greater success, away from the rim. Aside from Mozgov's skills as an actual player, he has a huge body that can change shots, and he also plays with a physical edge the Cavs had been missing. He allowed the Cavs to adjust how they defended the pick and roll. Now, I'm not sure how good Mozgov actually is. He provides slightly better than average rim protection, though it's a bit below average for a center. Estimated Rim Protection also doesn't take into account foul rate, which tends to go up as a player challenges shots. Mozgov averages 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes, per basketball-reference.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing! Average rim protection is an improvement on what the Cavs had. Thompson's rim protection is bad for a center, average overall for bigs, and slightly helped by the fact that he doesn't foul often. But guards that drive to the basket with Mozgov in the game know there is a presence there, and his willingness to foul might be a deterrent as well. As Ryan has put it on twitter, Mozgov is simply helped by the fact that he is a large human. According to Synergy Sports, Mozgov is in just the 38th percentile defensively since coming over from the Denver Nuggets. He's struggled to get out and defend spot up shooters, and his foul rate has helped to make him a poor post-up defender (he's in just the 11th percentile guarding post-ups since he came to Cleveland). It's a small sample size.

There are also some encouraging signs in the lineup data. In the last eight games in particular, the Cavs are allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions when Mozgov is on the court. Were that to hold up (it won't), the Cavs would have the best defense in the league by a comfortable margin. The Warriors give up 97.1 points per 100 possessions overall. The eye test says Mozgov is helping in a big way. The question is whether the Cavs have someone behind him to soak up minutes when he gets in what will likely be semi-regular foul trouble.

Tristan Thompson wants the answer to that question to be answered in the affirmative. If Saturday night's game with the Timberwolves is any indication, he can be. He played 31 minutes when Mozgov picked up four fouls in 16 minutes, and played excellent individual defense on Nikola Pekovic despite giving up size. Per basketball-reference, Thompson averages just 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes and is rarely hurt. There's value in that. He also is able to guard power forwards and almost every center with some capability. He too can boast that the Cavs are giving up just 97.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays over the last eight games.

Synergy also rates Thompson's defense this season relatively highly. Thompson is in the 74th percentile overall. While many seem to think Thompson has trouble getting out in space to defend stretch fours, it hasn't been the case this season. Thompson is in the 67th percentile defending spot-ups. Another aspect of his game caught the attention of Zach Lowe:

None of this is to say Thompson is a great defender. But as a third big on good a team, he's been supplying a lot of value. At 23, he appears to have taken a nice little leap defensively.

Tristan Thompson defense, per Synergy Sports:

Play Types
% Time
Poss
Points
PPP
Rank
Rating
FGm
FGM
FGA
FG%
aFG%
%TO
%FT
%SF
%Score
P&R Ball Handler (Big Defender) 39.5% 203 156 0.768 49% Average 84 63 147 42.9% 45.2% 22.7% 7.4% 5.9% 36%
Post-Up 19.8% 102 83 0.814 57% Good 47 34 81 42% 42% 12.7% 9.8% 7.8% 40.2%
Spot Up 18.5% 95 86 0.905 67% Very Good 49 36 85 42.4% 48.8% 8.4% 2.1% 2.1% 40%
Isolation 9.5% 49 38 0.776 64% Good 28 14 42 33.3% 36.9% 6.1% 10.2% 8.2% 36.7%
P&R Roll Man 8.9% 46 30 0.652 83% Excellent 27 14 41 34.1% 36.6% 10.9% 0% 0% 30.4%

Kevin Love is a more unusual case. Whether he is hurt or not, I don't know. He's missing a lot of shots at a higher rate than he did last season. After being a 37.6% three point shooter a year ago in Minnesota, he's down to 32.9% in Cleveland. Is it variance? Teams are still accounting for his shooting, and they should. Even this season, Synergy rates him in the 67th percentile on spot up opportunities. If he starts trending up to the 36-37% mark on three pointers, the Cavs offense becomes that much more dangerous. Given that the team is already 1st in offensive efficiency since January 15th, it's nice to have that possible regression as a way to potentially bump up the team's performance.

Love still rates as a very good defensive rebounder, and the Cavs are 3rd in the NBA in rebounding rate since the start of the streak. Given that the Cavs over the course of the season have given up high opponent field goal percentages, it's important to secure the shots that do miss the mark. And while he certainly doesn't have a glowing defensive reputation, Synergy rates Kevin Love in the 73rd percentile this season on that end. On 589 possessions Synergy has him classified as the primary defender, Love is allowing .815 points per possession. That's not bad. It's not a perfect stat, far from it, but his individual defense hasn't been awful. He's an awful rim protector, but you knew that going into the trade. He's in the 82nd percentile guarding post-up opportunities.

Kevin Love defense, per Synergy Sports:

Play Types
% Time
Poss
Points
PPP
Rank
Rating
FGm
FGM
FGA
FG%
aFG%
%TO
%FT
%SF
%Score
P&R Ball Handler (Big Defender) 40.6% 239 159 0.665 79% Very Good 110 62 172 36% 37.8% 21.3% 7.9% 6.7% 32.6%
Spot Up 22.1% 130 141 1.085 26% Below Average 67 55 122 45.1% 55.7% 4.6% 2.3% 2.3% 43.8%
Post-Up 19.5% 115 82 0.713 82% Very Good 57 37 94 39.4% 39.4% 11.3% 7.8% 7.8% 37.4%
Isolation 7.3% 43 34 0.791 61% Good 25 12 37 32.4% 36.5% 4.7% 9.3% 9.3% 37.2%
P&R Roll Man 7.3% 43 37 0.86 47% Average 23 16 39 41% 44.9% 7% 2.3% 2.3% 39.5%

And back to Mozgov and Thompson. The presence of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love allows the Cavs to ask for very little from those guys offensively. Both have low usage rates, and both have been productive. For the year, Thompson rates in the 80th percentile offensively according to Synergy. He rates particularly high in transition (where he is in the 99th percentile) and finishing pick and roll situations.

It makes sense. With Love spacing the floor and Kyrie or LeBron handling the ball, Thompson has had free reign for most of the year. It's worth noting that Thompson's true shooting is better with Love off the floor, which I find strange but gives more credence to the idea that LeBron James is the main reason for Thompson's improvement. Mozgov is in the 86th percentile offensively since coming to Cleveland, which makes sense because he is a bit more skilled than Thompson. He too is undoubtedly helped by the Cavs real big three.

Obviously you'd like to see Kevin Love play better. And time will tell if Mozgov and Thompson are good enough in May and June. If I were the Cavs I'd be dangling Brendan Haywood's contract for an Ed Davis type big that can soak up minutes in case of an injury and be a good fourth big. But the Cavs have the NBA's best net efficiency since January 15th, and these guys have been a big part of it.

Stats, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of nba.com/stats.