The Cleveland Cavaliers will have a bit of flexibility next season when it comes to trotting out effective lineups. They can go small, with LeBron James at the four, any two of Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith (just come back boo), Richard Jefferson, or Iman Shumpert joining Kyrie Irving in the backcourt, and Tristan Thompson at center. They can go big, with Delly, Shumpert, LeBron, Kevin Love, and Timofey Mozgov able to match size-to-size with even the league's biggest teams. They can use last year's starting lineup of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, and Mozgov to drop a million points on someone, or they can flexibily defend most lineups with a group of Dellavedova, Shumpert, James, Thompson, and Mozgov. There's plenty of combinations for David Blatt to pick from when he wants to exploit a matchup.
However, as basketball fans we naturally gravitate towards one major lineup question: Who is going to be in the starting five? There's still a certain cache that comes with being a starter, being that those are your most recognizable players, the ones who are going to both start the game and finish it in most situations. The Cavs are in a bit of a unique spot as they head into this year, in this regard. They have seven starter-quality players on the roster, and only three are locked in: LeBron, Kyrie, and Love. Shumpert or Smith will take the two-guard spot, and either Mozgov or Thompson will start at center. Given the climate of discussion right now, the center debate is particularly interesting. Do the Cavs start Thompson, who they're about to pay a not insignificant amount of money, or Mozgov, who was a significant part of their world-wrecking starting lineup from last season?
There's a very good case to be made for both players to get the starting nod in 2015-2016. While Thompson only started 15 games last year, the Cavs were very successful offensively with him at the five, especially with LeBron also on the floor. Lineups with Thompson at the five and LeBron scored 115.7 points per 100 possessions after January 15th (including playoffs, per NBAwowy.com), and those lineups allowed the Cavs to really open things up offensively, allowing them to throw Love in pick-and-rolls or place Smith and Shump on the floor at the same time. Thompson's creation of second chances allows the Cavs to more freely shoot from deep, and he is developing into a very good pick-and-roll weapon as a dive man. The threat of Thompson rebounding or getting a dump-off and converting creates space for the Cavs to drive or Love to operate in the PNR, and we all know what the benefits are of Thompson playing the five from his frustration of Joakim Noah and his success against the Warriors in the playoffs. Thompson would help create a little extra juice for the Cavs' offense as a starter, and while he might make the starting lineup a little undersized, that group (Irving/Smith/LeBron/Love/Thompson) had a healthy 101.8 defensive rating in the regular season last year, and makes for a reasonably strong defensive unit thanks to Thompson's developing range as a defender.
Mozgov, meanwhile, would be the status quo, which is a fantastic option as well. With Mozgov, the starting lineup had an offensive rating of 116.1 and a defensive rating of 96.8. Mozgov developed great two-man chemistry with all three of the big three, as well. Mozgov was a part of a fun, unorthodox pick-and-roll combo with Kyrie, finished a million LeBron oops as he charged from the perimeter during James isolations, and was Love's second-best regular defensive partner behind Iman Shumpert, as all lineups with Love and Mozgov finished with a 100.3 defensive rating. This is probably the biggest plus to letting Mozgov start again. Mozgov is the much better rim protector between the two, and as I discussed back in February, Love is a more productive defender with Mozgov on the floor. The ultimate argument here, though is this: The starting lineup had a net rating of +19.3 in nearly 500 minutes. Why change?
Ultimately, I think the answer is to start Mozgov, at least for the beginning of the season. I understand there is a draw to starting Tristan. He should be better than he was last year, and he'll be making somewhere between $10-15 million more than Mozgov this season, which is a lot for a "sixth man." But going with Mozgov makes sense for a few reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, he provides a stronger offensive threat in the starting lineup, because he can shoot from 15-18 feet if given space, and is lethal if left to charge into the lane and finish an alley-oop over, on, or through someone. Defensively, the pairing with Love was stronger on both ends than the Love/Thompson pairing, and Mozgov's rim protection is always a benefit against an opposing team's starting lineup, even if they can't switch screens as well with Mozgov as they do with Thompson.
And to me, the biggest selling point to me is how you stagger lineups with Mozgov starting as opposed to with Thompson. Mozgov works better against opposing starting centers, as many teams, even those who run out a lot of small-ball action, start a traditional five, and then transition to more athletic big men or smaller lineups later in the half. Against a team like Chicago, who will start Noah and Pau Gasol and then transition to one of those two with Taj Gibson or Nikola Mirotic later, would it make sense to start Love/Thompson against Noah/Gasol and then bring in Mozgov as the Bulls bring in Gibson? Or would it make more sense to sub out Mozgov or Love when that happens and let Tristan battle Taj/Mirotic next to Love or Mozgov, or shift to small-ball? The latter probably works better for the Cavs, allowing them to match size with size and physicality with physicality. For most teams (Milwaukee and maybe Miami are the two East teams who do the opposite), the Cavs probably have a better matchup throughout the game by starting Mozgov and then subbing Tristan for Timo at the 5-6 minute mark of the first and third quarters. Thompson is probably okay in either role, but you probably get a more effective Mozgov battling conventional centers more often than when he's battling small-ball lineups or athletic young bigs. This isn't to knock Tristan at all, either. He's perfectly capable, as he showed time and again in the playoffs. However, if you've got Mozgov and Thompson, this is probably the way to get the most effective versions of both players at the same time.
The Cavs can do all of this without changing the minute totals for both players, too. After January 15th, both Thompson and Mozgov averaged 25 minutes per game, even though Mozgov was starting and Thompson was coming off the bench. It would be easy for the Cavs to do what they did in the playoffs, where Mozgov started, but played just 26 minutes per game to Thompson's 36, just by simply playing Thompson more in the second and fourth quarters as either a four next to Mozgov or as the primary small-ball center. That way, they get their money's worth out of both players, which is really what matters here. Tristan will still get plenty of chances to showcase his talents and be an asset to the Cavs, but until proven otherwise, the Cavs will be a more effective team with Mozgov as the starting center.