How Timofey Mozgov Has Impacted the Cleveland Cavaliers
If I told you before the season that Timofey Mozgov would be one of the most valuable players on the Cavaliers, there is no chance you would have believed me.
Granted, the fact he started the season in Denver would have been the main reason why, but the 7’1” Russian had averaged just 6.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in his first four NBA seasons, so it would have been hard to see him being a key player for any team as soon as 2015.
Plus, the Cavaliers roster included LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, who had a combined 15 All-Star Game appearances, making it equally difficult to envision a newcomer having a major impact.
Cleveland was 19-17, though, before acquiring Mozgov for a pair of protected first-round picks in an early January trade. Since then, the team has gone 29-10 and now looks like the title contender we thought they would be before the season. Our algorithms now have Cleveland as the fourth most likely team to win the NBA Finals.
Correlation does not equal causation but when we look at the uptick in Cleveland’s performance with Mozgov on the court coupled with the center’s individual numbers, it is apparent he has played a significant role in the Cavaliers’ success.
In the beginning of the year, the Cavaliers had no trouble scoring, but interior defense was a major problem. From the start of the season until January 7th (its last game before the Mozgov trade), Cleveland was scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions while also allowing 108.8 points per 100 (the league average is 105.5, according to Basketball-Reference). The Cavaliers allowed an effective field goal percentage of 51.7%, worse than the league average of 49.5%.
In its 39 games after acquiring Mozgov, Cleveland has scored 114.5 points per 100, while allowing 105.3 and improving its effective field goal percentage defense to 48.5%.
Mozgov’s on/off splits numbers also speak to his impact, as the Cavaliers have scored 116.9 points per 100 possessions while allowing 102.0 with Mozgov on the court, according to NBAWowy.com.
When he has been on the Cleveland bench, the team has an Offensive Rating of 110.9 and a Defensive Rating of 108.5. Since they acquired him, the Cavaliers have outscored opponents by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions with Mozgov on the floor and just 2.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
His defensive impact is most evident in terms of opponents’ attempts within three feet from the basket. Without Mozgov, opponents have attempted 30.8% of their shots from this area, making 65.2% of them (the league average is 62.6%). This includes both the minutes Cleveland played with Mozgov on the bench and those played before they acquired him. If we just include the 880 post-trade minutes with Mozgov on the bench, these numbers are 31.8% and 65.0%, respectively.
With Mozgov on the court for the Cavaliers, their opponents’ shooting percentage within three feet drops to 58.5%, while they attempt just 27.5% of their field goals from this range.
You probably noticed the Cavaliers are not only allowing fewer points with their new center but also scoring more themselves. While Mozgov has given a slight boost to the team’s offensive rebounding rate (27.3% with him, 26.6% without him), an uptick in shooting efficiency is the main reason.
Cleveland’s own field goal percentage within three feet rises to 67.7% with Mozgov (from 61.5% without him), and given he is shooting 72.1% from this range with the Cavaliers, this increase is easy to understand.
The team’s three-point accuracy has also gone up with Mozgov, even though he has not attempted a three-pointer since joining Cleveland. Presumably due to improved floor spacing, the Cavaliers are shooting 39.0% from three-point range with Mozgov on the court compared to 36.5% without him.
Mozgov’s Impressive Numbers
While we know for sure that Cleveland has gotten better since January 7th, has Mozgov’s play been a catalyst or has his new team just simply improved its play in the time since he arrived?
Why we naturally cannot overlook factors including James' health, James, Love and Irving seemingly growing more comfortable playing together, or the solid play from fellow newcomer J.R. Smith, Mozgov’s stats with Cleveland indicate he has been a reason for the turnaround as well.
Since joining Cleveland, he has averaged 10.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 25.6 minutes per game, to go along with a team-high 63.5% true shooting percentage.
His 120.0 Offensive Rating and 11.2% offensive rebound rate are both second on the team to Tristan Thompson, and his 4.1% block rate leads all Cavaliers who have logged more than five minutes per game.
Mozgov has been a good complement to Love in terms of post scoring, ranking second behind Love in frequency of shots coming on post ups (21.3%). Mozgov has been efficient on these possessions, averaging 0.96 points per possession on post ups, which places him in the league's 82nd percentile, according to NBA.com.
The Russian big man has been even more efficient as a roll man on pick and rolls, using 18.5% of his possessions on such plays and scoring 1.22 points per possession to rank in the 90th percentile.
Defensively, Mozgov has personally allowed a 56.3% field goal percentage on opponents’ shots in the restricted area, according to NBA.com.
In terms of overall efficiency stats, Mozgov is third on the Cavaliers in terms of both Win Shares per 48 minutes (0.174) and PER (19.2), behind James and Irving.
Although his season stats as a whole are weighed down by a pedestrian start to the year in Denver, Mozgov still ranks fourth in the league in field goal percentage (55.7%), 14th in true shooting percentage (55.8%), and 19th in block rate (3.8%). He is also sixth among centers in ESPN’s Wins Above Replacement player metric.
As for our nERD metric, Mozgov ranks 40th in the league even after a slow start in Denver. According to nERD, Mozgov, as a starter on a league average team, would provide 3.9 wins above .500 over the course of a season.
Given Mozgov’s strong performance since joining the Cavaliers, it seems safe to say he deserves a good amount of credit for their successful run during the last three months even if he wasn't the only player to step up his game since January.