Cavs Add Last Piece, Timofey Mozgov from Nuggets; We Pick Him Apart

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The Cavaliers' long pursuit of a big man has come to fruition. The trade for Russian-born Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov is something the Cavs have been pursuing since the summer, GM David Griffin confirmed last night. They got him for two first round draft picks, a very high ransom indeed in a market where it’s become rare to surrender even one. (Notice all the second round picks trading hands.)

Of course both the pick the Cavaliers picked up from Oklahoma City in the Dion Waiters trade and the one they secured in the Memphis trade are a lock to be in the bottom third of the draft, even if the OKC pick could be as high as 19. It’s not like they’re surrendering lottery picks, but it’s still a lot to pay for a soon-to-be backup center. Yet Griffin felt this was the guy they had to have. The price says as much. So, why Mozgov?

Unlike Samuel Dalembert, Mozgov is a solid basketball player. He’s definitely not as good a shot-blocker or rim protector as the recently waived Knicks center, who it’s worth noting could be had for nothing. Mozgov played for Coach David Blatt on the Russian National team in the 2012 Olympics, and Blatt recommended him to Griffin, who already had the 28-year old big man on his radar.

Most importantly, perhaps: Mozgov is a legitimate space-eater at 7-1, 260 pounds, but he runs the floor and moves like a, well, like a European basketball player. That alone is high praise if we are to listen to Kobe Bryant who bemoaned the lack of fundamentals of AAU-playing U.S. teens. He helps explain his fluidity on the floor, though, clearly, he’s just a good athlete who does not mind getting out and running.

We assembled a montage to highlight his skills.

Among the things you can see is that he will run and beat other smaller players down the floor. Last year he averaged 1.44 points per possession in transition, tenth best in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports, and shot 75.9 percent (41-of-54) in those situations.

The other thing you can see is that he knows how to run the pick and roll game. He’s a willing screener and cutter. Coach David Blatt noted as much in the post-game press conference, noting his ability to set multiple screens. This may not seem big, but we have at least two guys who drive to the basket a lot. Having a big body to throw in front of their men who’s then able to dive to the hole himself is a valuable thing.

In the Denver Post’s post-season breakdown in May they noted that Mozgov “would often set a screen and move, receive a pass, move it and set another screen. He … was rarely seen standing still.” They complimented his “feel” for when to roll to the hole and when to pop out, as well as when when to return the rock to the ballhandler.

His major weaknesses as they saw it was a lack of lower body strength that forced him into more of a finesse game in the post-up (where he also has a hook shot with his off/left hand) on offense, and easier to back down on defense. They also noted a predilection toward bad passes and other turnovers.

Yet he’s cut his turnovers by a third this year and proven to be a pretty good rebounder, grabbing nearly 5 offensive rebounds and 10 defensive rebounds per 48 minutes. For comparison, Tristan’s numbers are 6.4/7.0, Varejao 4.3/8.0 and Love 2.7/11.2.

On the negative side, Mozgov only shot about 60% around the hoop the past year and a half, putting him in company of such mediocre finishers as Tiago Splitter, Samuel Dalembert, Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez and Omer Asik.

Though he’s averaging the same 1.2 blocks he did last year, he’s not shown the same rim protection. Last year he was among the (bottom of the) top 20 defenders inside 5 feet amidst names like Omer Asik, Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson and Joachim Noah. (In any case he’d be better than a healthy Varejao or Thompson.)

Griffin described it as the last part of the three-way deal that sent Dion Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder and secured them the draft choice to send to the Nuggets. That trade filled their need for a perimeter defender (Iman Shumpert), and replaced Waiters’ bench scoring spark with J.R. Smith, who’s excelled in that role as recently as two year ago. Smith also worked out with LeBron during the summers when he was in high school and James was playing for Cleveland, possibly mitigating his knucklehead reputation.

The Nuggets drafted Jusuf Nurkic, aka the Bosnian Beast, at 16th this year and the 6-11, 280 pound center has been scintillating in the past five games, during which he’s averaged 12 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.2 blocks and 1.4 steals in 23 minutes/game. So they had reason to deal Mozgov, but as he’s signed to a very reasonable contract ($4.65 million this year, $4.95 million next) the Nuggets didn’t feel any need to deal him, forcing the Cavaliers’ hand.

The fact that Mozgov has a decent offensive game and can run the floor are key. LeBron’s teams always run, and getting fastbreak points is the easiest way to win ballgames. He’ll improve the defense but not to the extent that it needs. Mostly how he fits is by not mucking up the offense the way another big man might, mitigating the gain on defense. He has size, he’s apparently coachable, and even at 28, he appears to have some upside. He’s not Brad Daugherty, but under the circumstances he’ll have to do.

Overall, Griffin did a pretty amazing job of turning one discontent square peg and a 1st round pick into three rotation players including, in all likelihood, two starters. It’s not caviar and champagne, but all the guys they acquired have some toughness about them, which the Cavs could use a little more of.

When everyone finally returns it will also have the domino effect of improving the team’s lackluster bench. Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith – all players who started last year – make a fine bench. Add Joe Harris and Dellavedova to that and you’re in pretty good shape. They could probably still use another point or combo guard, and they have an open roster slot after waiving A.J. Price, so we’ll see what happens.

As we’ve been saying all season, it’s a process, but at least we’ve got the right pieces on hand. Now we can see if they’ll go together better than what we’ve seen since Anderson Varejao went down. The team lost to Houston after taking a lead into the fourth quarter. They’d not lost a game that they had a lead going into the fourth quarter before losing to the 76ers on Monday, so this is two straight games.

However, the effort’s been there for both games – for about three quarters – after which they ran down. It may just be the circumstances of a busy couple days where four of their mates were sent packing. While Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson and A.J. Price were bit players, they’d been here since training camp. Obviously Dion had friends in the locker room as well. (One didn’t get the impression at any point or even from his comments that LeBron will “miss” him, just that he won’t enjoy playing against him.)

Given the turmoil and the incipient West Coast road trip, all without LeBron James to fall back on, it’s perhaps not surprising their play has been so spotty. But there are bits of sunshine. The team’s moving the ball better and playing scrappier on D. Last night they played an explosive Rockets team very tight before losing their focus and the lead as the fourth got going.

These reinforcements, added at the cost of one player who didn’t fit, will make a difference for the team. When and how much will decide how far this team goes this summer. Consider the next three and a half months rehearsal time for the big show, and as such we’ll try to be forgiving knowing that the real curtain doesn’t come up until the end of April when the playoffs start. Whatever the naysayers suggest, that’s the only real metric for this team, and as San Antonio showed in the West, seedings aren’t everything.

The Cavaliers kick off a 5-game West Coast road trip with a game against the NBA's best team, Golden State, on Friday night. Follow the action though my live tweets with video on twitter @CRS_1ne, and read the analysis on Saturday in the Scene blog.

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