As we head into the new year, things are looking up for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team has won eight of its last 10 games. They hold the best record in the East and third-best record overall at 21-9. LeBron James continues to churn out MVP-like numbers (25.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, six assists per game), while Kyrie Irving is finally back in the starting rotation after a near-seven-month layoff.
However, the biggest fly in Cleveland’s punch bowl is center Timofey Mozgov, who went from potential preseason breakout candidate to starting big man to coming off the bench in just a few months.
After losing veteran pivot man Anderson Varejao to a devastating Achilles injury last season, the Cavs mortgaged the future in hopes that Mozgov could fill that void. The team coughed up two first-round picks to the Denver Nuggets last January in exchange for Mozzy, who had experience playing under David Blatt from their time together on the Russian national team.
In 46 games with his new team, Mozgov appeared to be the missing piece to the Cavs’ championship puzzle. He posted career-highs in scoring (10.6 points), blocked shots (1.2) and field goal percentage (59 percent), while also pulling down a modest 6.9 boards per night. With injuries decimating the roster, Mozgov stepped his game up at both ends in the Finals with a stat line of 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 rejections in 28.2 minutes per game.
With momentum on his side and the chance to cash in as a free agent next summer, the 29-year-old seemed poised to play an even bigger role this season. Instead, injuries continue to hamper the talented seven-footer. He missed three games with a shoulder injury and has been slow to fully recover from offseason knee surgery.
With his body betraying him, Mozgov’s numbers have taken a hit. His 2015-16 stats (6.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 49.3 percent shooting) are well below last season’s production and slightly under his career averages (seven points, 5.1 rebounds, one block, 52.7 percent shooting). As a result, his playing time has dipped and his starting spot now belongs to preseason holdout Tristan Thompson. After averaging a little over 20 minutes per game in the first two months of the season, Mozgov logged 16.6 minutes per game in December and has seen the floor for just 14.6 minutes in his last five contests.
The situation with Mozgov and the Cavs is similar to what the New Orleans Pelicans went through with Omer Asik in last year’s playoffs. Like Mozgov, the Pels traded a first-round pick to the Houston Rockets hoping Asik could take defensive pressure off superstar Anthony Davis. Asik contributed 7.3 points and 9.8 boards while playing 26.1 minutes per game in 76 games with his new squad. New Orleans also allowed 103.3 points per 100 possessions with Asik on the floor, as opposed to 106.2 when he sat.
However, in the postseason, the Golden State Warriors’ small-ball lineup confounded Asik and he became almost unusable. He logged just 20 minutes per game, scoring a combined eight points and failing to register a block during a four-game sweep. Fortunately for Asik, the team still rewarded him with a five-year deal over the summer, which is a move the team would probably like to have back given his ’15-16 numbers (2.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.4 blocks).
With Asik serving as a cautionary tale, Mozgov might be lucky to get a similar deal when he hits the market next summer if his numbers continue to dwindle. The most telling statistics in how far Mozzy has fallen surprisingly come at the defensive end, which is supposed to be his area of expertise.
In the 501 minutes Mozgov has been on the floor, the Cavs have a defensive rating of 103.7. When he sits, that number improves to 96.1, per NBA.com. In other words, Cleveland’s defense has been better when the man brought in to be its linchpin is sitting on the bench. Additionally, Mozgov’s 0.9 blocks per game is his lowest output since the 2012-13 season, when he logged just 8.9 minutes per game with the Nuggets.
Fear The Sword’s Trevor Magnotti recently noted how Mozgov’s lack of ideal health has affected his play on the defensive end:
“One of the biggest issues Mozgov has had this year is that his mobility has not been as good. Mozgov has never been a nimble athlete, but you can tell there is a significant drop-off in his lateral quickness compared to last season. This particularly affects him defensively, where he’s been miserable outside of the paint.”
Here’s another telling fact about Mozgov this season:
Timofey Mozgov is playing in the fourth quarter for just the 4th time this season.
— Chris Fedor (@ChrisFedor) December 29, 2015
It’s worth noting that Mozgov’s fourth trip to the final frame lasted all of three minutes in a tightly-contested 101-97 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 28.
Mozgov’s work on the boards is also suffering. Here’s a list of fellow Cavaliers with a higher total rebounding percentage than Mozzy’s 12.7 percent: Tristan Thompson (obviously), Kevin Love (another obvious name), Anderson Varejao (uh oh) and Sasha Kaun (yikes). Mozgov is also fifth on the team in offensive rebounding percentage (7.9 percent) and sixth in defensive rebounding percentage (17.3), where he trails seldom-used shooting guard Joe Harris.
Lastly, while scoring has never been a huge part of Mozgov’s game, his offense has been especially bad lately. He went 0-for-5, all five of which came inside the painted area, en route to a scoreless night against the Warriors on Christmas:
Afterward, he accepted blame for his shortcomings while also being vague as to the root of his struggles, per Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com.
“I got to finish a little better. I’ve got to go in the gym and work a little bit, so that’s all I can say. I have to make those shots…Some of it’s mental, some is not.”
Meanwhile, Blatt expressed concern over Mozgov’s focus:
“I don’t know if there was something wrong mentally, but he could have been more engaged.”
Whether it’s a sudden lack of confidence, injuries taking their toll, the weight of increased expectations or some combination of the three, Mozgov has been a shell of the player he was just a year ago. There’s a chance the move to the second unit gets the big man out of his funk, but his continued struggles in every facet of his game could be problematic going forward for a Cavs team with high hopes this season.