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Timofey Mozgov’s Struggles Putting Cavaliers in a Tough Spot

Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers came into the 2015-16 season with some question marks surrounding starting center Timofey Mozgov. Could he handle a heavy workload after never averaging more than 25 minutes per game in a single season? Would his surgically-repaired knee hold up throughout the year? Could he provide an offensive presence for a short-handed Cavs team looking for scorers not named LeBron James?

It’s still only 20 games into the new campaign, but the big Russian hasn’t looked like himself. He’s playing 19.5 minutes per game, his lowest average since he was a backup with the Denver Nuggets back in 2012-13, and logged a total of 47 minutes during the team’s current three-game losing streak. After swatting away 56 shots in 46 games last season, Mozzy has just 14 blocks this year.

The Cavs gave up two first-round picks last January to acquire Mozgov from Denver and fortify their low-post defense. At the time, it seemed like a desperate response to Anderson Varejao’s season-ending Achilles injury, but Mozgov played admirably during his abbreviated stint with his new squad. He contributed 10.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, while the team allowed just 100.9 points per 100 possessions when the seven-footer was on the court, per NBA.com.

This season, he’s chipping in 7.1 points, 4.3 boards and 0.8 rejections. Unfortunately, those aren’t even the most galling of Mozgov’s stats.

When Mozgov is on the court, Cleveland is allowing 108.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst of any Cavs player who’s logged more than 15 minutes this season. When Mozgov sits, the club allows just 96.6 points per 100 possessions, the lowest off-court defensive rating of anyone on the roster. Keep in mind we’re talking about a player who was brought in almost solely for his defensive acumen.

In fairness, the Cavs are still 11th in defensive efficiency and fifth in points allowed per game, while opponents are shooting 8.4 percent worse from within six feet with Mozgov defending as opposed to their normal rate. Still, the last three games are Exhibits A, B and C with regards to the team’s Mozgov quandary.

First, Mozgov played just nine minutes in a loss to the Washington Wizards on Dec. 1 as the Wiz tore up the Cavs with a small-ball lineup that featured Jared Dudley at center. Three nights later, Mozgov was barely on the court during the second half as Cleveland surged back to force overtime against the New Orleans Pelicans. In the team’s most recent loss to the Miami Heat, a James-less Cavs team allowed 44 points in the paint as Mozgov logged 21 minutes, his longest stretch in nearly a month.

Cavs head coach David Blatt believes that the short-term issues with his starting center, who’s battling knee and shoulder troubles, are mostly physical (per Cleveland.com).

“I think it’s fairly clear that right now he’s not at the same level physically that we’re used to seeing him. And we got to get him there.”

The long-term problems for Cleveland and Mozgov are two-fold. The Cavs struggling to stop smaller lineups is troubling, especially since the club appears destined for an NBA Finals rematch with the Golden State Warriors. The W’s five-man rotation of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green is scoring a ridiculous 154.7 points and allowing just 84.8 points per 100 possessions.

Furthermore, if Mozgov isn’t the answer in the middle, who is? The team had success in the playoffs utilizing Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup, but they also had Mozgov to compensate for TT’s defensive shortcomings. Varejao’s lack of durability and extensive injury history make him a poor choice to start again, while rookie Sasha Kaun has played 19 minutes all season. Does the team look outside the locker room for help again?

What about Mozgov? He’s in a contract year and had his sights set on a max deal when the salary cap explodes next summer. His current slump combined with a potential benching would certainly throw a wrench into those plans.

It’s the kind of curveball Cleveland didn’t think it would have to face when they traded for him last winter. The good news is the Cavs will still be heavy favorites to come out of the East once the team returns to full strength. The bad news is this Mozgov situation is a crack in the armor that’ll only widen if it doesn’t get fixed.

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