Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 2/23/15

The Cavaliers' recent hot streak coincided with the arrival of Timofey Mozgov in early January. Rocky Widner/Getty Images

By Miles Wray

When the Cleveland Cavaliers gave up two first-round picks for then-Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov in early January, it seemed impossible that the Cavaliers could redeem comparable value out of the trade. While neither of the draft picks originally belonged to Cleveland, they’re still first-round picks, and Mozgov is a 28-year-old who has only recently become an NBA starter—and his contract expires at the end of the 2015–16 season.

The move could still prove to damage the Cavaliers’ long-term sustainability as a winning franchise, Mozgov has been monumental in turning around Cleveland’s 2014–15 season. After getting off to a sluggish 19–17 start, the Cavaliers have gone 16–5 since Mozgov’s arrival in town, putting the team in good position to challenge the current third-seeded Chicago Bulls, and the second-seeded Toronto Raptors are no longer out of reach, either.

While Mozgov wouldn’t win very many games of one-on-one against other players involved in this season’s plentiful mega-trades, he is tremendously helpful in helping the Cavaliers play a well-rounded team game. As we’ll see, the Cavaliers’ defensive integrity begins to droop even during the brief moments when Mozgov takes a breather on the bench.

Perhaps the most impressive win for the Cavaliers during Mozgov’s tenure was a 99–94 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers—during a game when LeBron James was sidelined with injury. While Kyrie Irving was undoubtedly the hero for Cleveland, dropping a career-best 55-point night, I think it’s telling that Mozgov had the team’s best plus-minus (+13) despite receiving only the fourth-most playing time. Mozgov has put together some mighty impressive plus-minus numbers: witness his +25 mark in 28 minutes against the Clippers, or his +29 mark in just 21 minutes against the Hornets, or his +40 mark in 28 minutes against the Wizards.

Single-game plus-minus scores always come with a ton of caveats, but it’s clear to see how much better Mozgov makes the Cavaliers with his defensive awareness and his unique offensive combination of low-post scoring and ability to space the floor.

Offensive Spacing

Shooting a career-high 59.2 percent from the field with the Cavaliers, Mozgov can be trusted to work for a good shot during a handful of post-ups a game. Unlike several of his seven-foot peers, though, Mozgov is also adept at the mid-range shot, which must be respected by opponents. For his career, Mozgov has shot 38.1 percent on two-point shots from more than 16 feet away from the basket. That’s pretty similar to known jump shooters like DeMar DeRozan (38.2 percent), Dwyane Wade (39.0 percent), or even his teammate James (38.9 percent).

By spacing Mozgov on the perimeter, the opposing center is forced to vacate the pain, out of respect for Mozgov’s range. This can create some vast driving range for Cleveland’s guards. When we talk about a player doing the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, this is exactly what we’re talking about.

On this play, Mozgov is almost out near the three-point line. His defender, Meyers Leonard, is tempted to provide help on the driving Iman Shumpert. But, out of respect for Mozgov’s range, Leonard is unable to commit. He floats in no-man’s land as Shumpert earns the foul.

These same spacing factors came up huge in the crucial closing minutes of the game. With Chris Kaman guarding Mozgov, Kaman is unable to rotate in time to defend a cutting Irving. It’s a little hard to see with the camera angle, but Kaman is still standing on the left side of the rim the moment before Irving releases a floating layup from the right side:

While Irving is definitely capable of scoring over centers, or at least drawing a foul in this type of situation, Mozgov’s shooting ability sure made his job a lot easier on this crucial possession.

Mozgov makes the Cavaliers’ offense better even on possessions when he doesn’t touch the ball.

Defensive Awareness

While Mozgov’s ability to space the floor on offense is nice, it’s his heads-up awareness to help on defense that’s most valuable to Cleveland.

Here’s a play that shows Mozgov’s ability to pick up his teammates’ slack. As the play develops, Lillard curls around a Kaman screen on the arc and cuts wide-open into the key. His defender, Irving, has been totally washed out of the play by the screen:

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, Mozgov has been patiently scanning the situation from the key. As Wes Matthews hits Lillard with the pass from the wing, Mozgov is in prime defending position before Lillard has time to set for a shot:

Now feeling pressure from the shot clock, Lillard attempts an off-balance baseline jumper while being smothered by Mozgov. It’s a no-hope shot, and it bounces harmlessly off the rim.

On this play, Mozgov is simultaneously denying his man, Kaman, while scanning the Trail Blazer with the ball, Nicolas Batum. This is a deft job of multi-tasking:

As Batum gets past Irving—hmm, a recurring theme here—Mozgov chooses the right time to slide into the paint and cut off Batum’s driving angle. Batum is forced to pass elsewhere, and the Blazers end up missing a three-point shot:

When Mozgov goes to the bench, the Cavaliers usually turn to Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson as their center. The result is a field day for opposing guards.

Here, Batum has gotten past his man but, instead of facing an imposing wall of Mozgov in the paint, he is unimpeded on his way to the hoop. Love does not attempt to defend Batum, instead offering the open rim while, uh, I guess getting in position for the rebound:

Love won’t get any rebound, because Batum easily drains the layup.

The difference in the Cavaliers between when Mozgov is on and off the floor is so dramatic that I wonder if the Cavaliers’ playoff opponent(s) will stagger their starting lineups. That is: I wonder if other coaches would be best-served resting their star guard at the beginning of the game, and waiting until Mozgov has gone to the bench to let that guard carve up the suddenly weak interior Cleveland defense.

In the meantime, the Cavaliers have new life as a team and as a franchise, and discovering the near-perfect role player in Mozgov is a huge reason why.

This article first appeared on The Sports Post and was syndicated with permission.


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