February 15, 2019

In this case, the other shoe dropped quickly.

Seemingly as soon as Monday’s trade involving Dion Waiters for J.R. Smith, Shump and a pick was consummated, the Cleveland Cavaliers turned around and dealt two future first round picks (one from the Memphis Grizzlies and one from the Oklahoma City Thunder received in the Waiters deal, both with significant lottery protections) to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for center Timofey Mozgov.

Leaving aside discussion of the asset management and value side of this deal for Cleveland, the move is clearly intended to fill the team’s frontcourt needs. Since preseason, the need for a rim protector was apparent. Kevin Love is famously poor in this area, while Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao are no great shakes themselves. Further, with Varejao’s season ending Achilles tear, the squad was down to only Love and Thompson as legitimate bigs, forcing the team to either “go small”, deploy LeBron James at the 4 spot more than he’d like, or even call upon the long-past-useful Brandon Haywood for minutes.

Looking to what Mozgov brings to the table, the first aspect is size. Even with a healthy Varejao, Cleveland was operating more with two power forwards than with a legitimate center. Mozgov stands 7’1 and 250 pounds, providing both the length and bulk lacked by Love and Thompson.

In terms of skills, too, Mozgov certainly provides some of the rim protection they were targeting. So far in Denver this season, he has been slightly above average among all interior players at denying and deterring shots in the paint. In 2013/14 he was borderline elite in this measure, ranking 11th among rotation big men in points saved per minute. (An explanation of the “points saved” metric can be found here). As alluded to, both the now-sidelined Varejao and Thompson have been mildly below average on this front, while Love has been abysmal for the second straight year. Unsurprisingly, the Cavs rank 29th in opponents’ field goal percentage from 5 feet and in, so this is an obvious need.

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Another possible benefit will be schematic. Cleveland has hurt itself with a scheme which asks big men to be far more aggressive defending the pick and roll than their talents support. Mozgov is slightly more mobile than his size and apparent awkwardness suggest, but surely he won’t be expected to aggressively chase point guards past the top of the arc. Doing otherwise would be madness, and would only play into Mozgov’s tendency towards foul trouble. In this way, forcing the team into a more conservative strategies might be a benefit unto itself.

Offensively, Mozgov won’t be asked to do much, though he is an able screener and surprisingly effective as a finisher off of the pick-and-roll. While he won’t be able to duplicate the nifty synergy Varejao enjoyed with James and Kyrie Irving, it is a nice bonus skill for a primarily defensive addition to possess. Another perk is Mozgov’s competence from the free throw line, with his 74% career mark more than adequate for a big man.The Cavs should not push their luck and expect Mozgov to be a low post scorer of any note, as his high center of gravity and at times questionable hands render him inefficient and turnover prone with his back to the basket. But he is not a non-factor on that end, a capable finisher and occasional half court option who understands his limitations.

Perhaps most importantly for a key piece being added midstream, Mozgov is already familiar with coach David Blatt, the two having a relationship stemming from Blatt’s time heading the Russian national team. This familiarity will help Mozgov assimilate while also allowing Blatt to skip the process of learning about the capabilities of his players which plagued a good portion of Cleveland’s early season.

Whether the improvements and heretofore lacking skills brought by Mozgov are enough to return the Cavaliers to hopes for legitimate contention this year is certainly an open question, but between this trade and Monday’s, the team’s roster is in far better shape once the pieces are all reassembled than it was before.

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Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow is a former small college player and current armchair analyst. In addition to BBallbreakdown.com, his work can be found on the Hardwood Paroxysm Basketball Network, The Cauldron and Washington Post's "Fancy Stats" blog. He is also the host of the Make or Miss Podcast and can be found on twitter @SethPartnow.

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