Timofey Mozgov arrived in Cleveland almost a year ago to the day, and it coincided, and in part spurred, one of the greatest runs in the history of the Cavaliers. With Anderson Varejao sidelined, and Kevin Love playing through a sore back, Tristan Thompson was the Cavs only healthy big. LeBron James was also taking a couple weeks off, and the Cavs were in a tailspin. Almost overnight, the Cavs added Mozgov, James, and Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith to their core. It worked.
I put it this way last month:
Still, even before Timofey Mozgov arrived, the Cavs had lineup combinations that were working just fine defensively. For example, Cavalier lineups with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson were outscoring opponents by 24.2 points per 100 possessions in 240 minutes prior to January 8th, 2015. Defensively, that lineup was holding teams to a very good 97.5 points per 100 possessions. If you applied that number to this season's defensive ratings, it would put the Cavs second in the NBA.
None of this is to discount what Mozgov did last season. It gave the Cavs another option in the frontcourt, and it was a very good one. A major part of the Cavaliers' title hopes rely on Mozgov duplicating what he did last season ...
Those numbers are why the Cavs could have felt reasonably comfortable going with Thompson in the starting lineup over a struggling Mozgov, but the Cavs will need Mozgov to be a capable third big either way. So far, he hasn't been able to replicate the magic of last season. On one level, it makes sense that Mozgov is going through some serious regression. Last season was the first time he had played over 2000 minutes in an NBA season, and it ended with a knee surgery. He's never averaged even 26 minutes a game.
Still, it shouldn't be this bad. Mozgov was a 53% career shooter before coming to Cleveland and posting a 59% field goal conversion rate with the Wine & Gold. This season, it's all the way down to 49.7%. He's attempted seven three point attempts this season after avoiding them entirely in Cleveland to complete last season. His turnovers are up, his offensive and defensive rebounding rates are down, and he's getting to the free throw line a lot less. A year after making up one half of a dynamic duo with Thompson when it came to finishing alley hoop lobs, he's been mostly absent from the dunking club. His usage rate is down a small bit, but his PER has fallen of a cliff from last season post-trade. Whereas he was at 18.7 in Cleveland last season, he's now at 12.8.
Mozgov's play seems to be pulling the Cavs down. On the season Cleveland is outscoring opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions, which puts them fourth in the league in net rating. In 1124 minutes without Mozgov, though, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 9.4 points/100 possessions. That number would bump them up to third. In minutes Mozgov plays, the Cavs outscore opponents by just .9 points/100 possessions. That would be good enough for 15th in the league. Even more disappointing, because he's spent most of his time starting the 1st and 3rd quarters, many of his minutes have come next to LeBron James and Kevin Love, players who are otherwise on the court when the Cavs tend to run away from opponents.
Timofey's struggles are illuminated even more when you look at how the Cavs fare with his replacement Tristan Thompson on the court. Thompson's individual stats aren't gaudy, but Cleveland is outscoring opponents by 10.2 points/100 possessions when he plays, and just 1.5 points/100 possessions when he sits. The Cavs are undoubtedly aware of this, and while Mozgov has been limited to 568 minutes, Thompson has played 942 of them.
The question for the Cavs becomes: does this continue? If Mozgov regains his form, perhaps he becomes a starting option again. For now, the Cavs just need to be able to get 15-18 productive-ish minutes from him on a nightly basis. Maybe the Cavs get desperate and start to look at possible trades for replacements. Mozgov is going to be a free agent, will be 30 years old, and hasn't been good. Hard to know what kind of value you're looking at receiving for him. Perhaps the Cavs would roll the dice on a Tyson Chandler type.
There's still a month plus until the trade deadline. I'm on record as saying this Cavs team is largely the one they'll go into the playoffs with. I still think that's the case. We'll see if Mozgov forces their hand.
Individual stats via basketball-reference.com, lineup data courtesy of nba.com/stats.