Timofey Mozgov was acquired by the Brooklyn Nets nearly two months ago. Considering the team’s lack of depth at center, it’s safe to assume Mozgov will have an opportunity to be something more than a pure “salary dump.”
Before becoming a Net in June, Mozgov had an interesting career path. His NBA journey got off to a late start as he played in Russia until his mid-20’s. Due to his outstanding size and physical prowess, in 2010, the Knicks gave Mozgov his first NBA opportunity.
Across the river, Mozgov quickly became a fan favorite. During some of his more notable performances at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks’ faithful would even start arena-wide “Mozgov” chants. He was quickly able to find a niche in Mike D’Antoni’s rotation and even the starting lineup for a handful of games.
This early success in New York was not sustained. Mozgov was dealt to the Denver Nuggets very close to the 2011 NBA trade deadline. He was destined to have to work hard for minutes yet again, but this time, it took much longer.
It would take Mozgov nearly two seasons to find the kind of consistent minutes D’Antoni had given him in New York. Soon after Denver’s coaching staff had reserved a spot in the rotation for the 7-foot-1 big man, Mozgov was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The difference between Mozgov’s trade to Denver and the more recent deal with Cleveland is that in the latter deal, he was the centerpiece. At the time, Cleveland was looking to make a run at the Larry O’Brian Trophy and needed more insurance in their front-court to do so. Mozgov’s first playoff run with LeBron James and company was unsuccessful, but in June 2016, the Cavs won a historic Game 7 against the Warriors.
Despite not seeing much action in the 2016 Finals, Mozgov still garnered interest in the following free agency period. The Los Angeles Lakers were quick to scoop up Mozgov on a four-year, $64 million contract. Unfortunately, since this transaction taken place, the public has thought of him as a number more than a player. His season was cut short in mid-March despite being in good health when this decision was made. This verdict was likely reached in order to give the Lakers’ young guns more minutes and to allow the 31-year-old Mozgov to rest.
Perhaps Magic Johnson and company were looking to unload Mozgov’s hefty contract at the time and didn’t want to lower his value any further by increasing his risk of sustaining an injury. If this was the strategy, then it certainly paid off, and Mozgov was traded for the third time in his career. This time, he was far from the centerpiece of the trade, as he and young stud D’Angelo Russell were on their way to Brooklyn in exchange for Brook Lopez.
How Mozgov Can Help Brooklyn’s Situation
It’s safe to assume Kenny Atkinson will name Mozgov as the starting center to begin the season unless he chooses to go “small ball to the max” by starting DeMarre Carroll, Trevor Booker or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the five. However, it’s hard to imagine the latter scenario coming to fruition, given the matchup nightmares it would create.
Atkinson already has a history with the Russia native. He was an assistant coach under D’Antoni in 2010 when the Knicks first discovered Mozgov. Most of my previous player previews have analyzed each player’s prior contributions to the Nets, but in Mozgov’s case, let’s delve into his performance under Atkinson, in addition to his three other NBA stops.
Mozgov has demonstrated time and time again throughout his career that he is one of the NBA’s most explosive rebounders. On any given night, he has the potential to singlehandedly swing the game’s rebounding battle, which can occasionally indicate how the final score will turn out. The first example of this came during Mozgov’s rookie season. On January 30, 2011, he notched 23 points and 14 boards to help the Knicks win a crucial game against the Pistons. Mozgov has since snatched 20 boards or more in a single game on multiple occasions.
Mozgov has also had sustained success on the boards throughout his career. Over seven seasons in the NBA, his total per-36 minute rebounding average is 9.8 boards per contest. Despite not averaging over 26 minutes per contest in his career, Mozgov always grabs a consistent, large volume of rebounds, even when he is battling an injury.
This a skill that should be welcomed on any team, particularly the Nets. Next season, Brooklyn is going to feature several developing perimeter players who can shoot excessively at points. Between D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead and Sean Kilpatrick, many bad shot decisions are bound to be made. Having an interior force who can dominate the glass on any night will provide these inexperienced players with extra possessions and more opportunities to correct their mistakes. This will in turn increase confidence and allow Atkinson to loosen the leash on players who play a sporadic style of offense.
Mozgov was able to put up some of the best rebounding numbers of his career playing beside a young nucleus. Before being traded to the Cavs in the middle of the of the 2014-15 season, he averaged 7.8 boards per contest while playing with seven teammates who were only in their first or second season. Between this skill and his veteran leadership, Mozgov will no doubt be a favorite among the young guns in Brooklyn.
The Russian center has also developed a reputation as one of the league’s most efficient big men. Granted, this could change as he presumably begins to introduce the 3-point shot to his arsenal next season. However, any player who has played for over five seasons held a rotation spot for most of the time period and still boasts a career field goal percentage of over 50 percent, should be praised.
To put his efficient field goal percentage in perspective, there were only 27 qualified players in the NBA last season who shot over 50 percent from the field. Mozgov often doesn’t qualify by ESPN’s 300 made field goals standard. The last time Mozgov qualified (during the 2014-2015 season), he was given a plethora of minutes throughout the season and ultimately finished fourth in the entire NBA in field goal percentage — knocking down an astounding 55 percent of his shots.
Between put-backs and the occasional post-up, Mozgov’s size plays an integral role in his above-average finishing ability around the rim. In an age where many teams are favoring small ball, the size criteria for a center is much less strict than it was only eight years ago. Mozgov has the unique skill-set of occasionally being able to step out of the paint and knock down a jumper, while having the size to be efficient in the paint. Having a 7-foot-1, 275-pound frame isn’t shabby at all by today’s standards.
Most centers in the NBA either rely on traditional size or another skill, such as supreme athleticism and possessing the ability to stretch the floor. Mozgov has been able to survive for seven seasons using his size to be a scrappy player on both sides of the floor. Ideally, Mozgov will be put in a very special class of centers after reaping the benefits of the Nets’ 3-point centric system. Stretch bigs who possess ideal size and use it correctly (3-and-D centers) are nearly impossible to come by.
The biggest worry with Mozgov is no doubt his fit in the Nets’ offensive system. When analyzing his weak points, it seems as though they completely contradict what Coach Atkinson will be preaching to his players when training camp opens.
First and foremost, Mozgov is not a stretch big, yet. That being said, it is no secret the Nets’ coaching staff will push Mozgov to make a Brook Lopez-esque leap from behind the arc this season. It’s undoubtedly hard to ignore the social media clips of him knocking down consecutive 3-pointers in training sessions:
— Brooklyn Local News (@bklynlocalnews) July 13, 2017
Mozgov has even stated in an interview that he has been working on his outside game in preparation for next season. While these are all encouraging signs, there is no guarantee he will succeed. He has only attempted 40 3s over 423 career games. It’s hard to imagine coaches would let this skill go to the wayside if it was always present in Mozgov’s arsenal. Out of those 40, he has only connected on seven attempts. During the 2013-14 season, Mozgov seemingly became more aggressive from behind the arc, but only made four out of 24 threes on the season.
Mozgov has simply shown no evidence he will be able to produce from the behind the arc in an NBA game. It is conceivable that he will shoot less than 30 percent from 3-point range next season, which would arguably make him unplayable in some scenarios. The key will be to know when to pull the plug on Mozgov as a stretch big. For instance, Jared Sullinger has been attempting to transform himself into a stretch five for his entire career, but he has not shot over 30 percent in each of his five NBA seasons.
Another potential downfall for Mozgov in the Nets’ system will be the pace. Whether it’s pushing the ball up the court on a fast break or getting back on defense, the Nets played an up-tempo style of basketball last season. Atkinson’s squad ultimately played at the fastest pace in the league.
Mozgov is not exactly considered a track star. Oftentimes, after throwing an outlet pass or finishing off an easy deuce, he’ll waddle to the other end of the court. He possesses the potential to leak out on a fast break when necessary; however, this trait is rarely seen. Mozgov is a slight upgrade over Lopez from this perspective, as Lopez almost never sprinted to his spot. Yet, as Mozgov approaches his mid-30’s and injuries start becoming more frequent, it’s very possible he will lag even farther behind his teammates.
Even though he presents some interesting possibilities for the Nets next season, the reality is Mozgov falls short in two major skills needed for Atkinson’s system. Only time will tell if he will be remedy these shortcomings. If not, then it will be interesting to see how quickly Atkinson would reduce his role, if at all.
Looking at the Big Picture
Mozgov’s future in Brooklyn can result in many different outcomes, depending on how next season plays out.
In a perfect world, Mozgov will hold down the starting position and play the best basketball of his career under his former Knicks co-worker. In this situation, his $15.2 million salary for next season instantly becomes more friendly. However, it would be difficult to sell high on Mozgov in this scenario, as his remaining $32.7 million over the following two seasons would surely turn teams away. If Mozgov is successful next season, then ideally, the Nets’ coaching staff and trainers would watch his minutes and ensure he could produce for the remainder of his contract.
The other outcome would be much more difficult. It involves Mozgov sustaining multiple injuries, losing his touch around the rim, playing out of his comfort zone, losing his starting spot to Jarrett Allen (very likely by season’s end) or any combination of these circumstances. If he wasn’t already, Mozgov would without a doubt be impossible to trade under these circumstances. Sean Marks could look into the stretch provision or a buyout of Mozgov’s contract, at the very least. Another possibility is some combination of these two scenarios unfold throughout the season, which would make a decision on Mozgov’s contract tough to make.
Will Mozgov ever be known for more than his salary throughout the remainder of his current contract? Most likely, the answer to that question is, no. Rather, it should be Atkinson’s goal to squeeze whatever realistic new skills and efficient performances that are left in Mozgov, while working with the training staff to ensure he will be able to stay on the court until his contract expires.