Although only one game has been played so far this season and no conclusions of any kind have been drawn, it’s hard not to be skeptical about the legitimacy of Timofey Mozgov’s starting position with the Denver Nuggets. In 14 minutes of action on Monday, Mozgov finished with an abysmal one point on 0-1 shooting from the field to go with three rebounds and the lowest plus-minus of any starter. While he’ll obviously continue to develop as the season progresses, the fact that he’s still largely alienated from playing savvy, veteran basketball seems to go against coach George Karl’s philosophy of refusing to play rookies, or those who virtually are rookies, like Mozgov. Naturally, one can’t help but wonder, “Should Kosta Koufos be starting instead of Mozgov?”
For whatever reason, since Mozgov arrived in Denver he has received an almost unfair share of love from Nuggets fans. A 7-foot-1 frame had been lacking in the Mile High City for quite some time and given the way Mozgov’s unassuming Russian dough boy looks and demeanor came included, it was hard not to like the guy. But throughout the formation of his unofficial fan club, his actual skills on the basketball court seem to have largely gone unnoticed due to injuries and a lack of playing time.
Last season when Mozgov was still a member of the the run-and-gun New York Knicks, his minutes were limited despite the fact that New York was desperate for a legitimate starting center. Through the first 17 games of the 2010-11 season Mozgov saw an average of 12 minutes per game with small stints where he was granted upwards of 17-23 minutes per game. During this time Mozgov accumulated more than five rebounds only once and more than five points just three times. He also went scoreless on six different occasions and did not haul in a single rebound in four different games. After this steady dose of playing time without much production, Mozgov then saw his minutes virtually disappear until February when D’Antoni suddenly spiked them back up to 25 per game before being traded to the Nuggets. During this drastically increased amount of time Mozgov averaged nine points, 6.5 boards and one block per game with a 23-point, 14-rebound game against the Pistons on Jan. 30. Then, after being traded to the Nuggets in late February, Mozgov logged a total of 67 minutes in roughly two months, and in that span tallied six points or rebounds only once.
As for Kosta Koufos, he too received a small diet of time while with his prior team, the Minnesota Tiberwolves, before being traded to the Nuggets. For a large part of the year Koufos saw anywhere from about 3-13 minutes of playing time, although his DNPs were not nearly as numerous as Mozgov’s were in New York. Yet, on the rare occasion he saw more than 20 minutes per game he often did work on the glass averaging over eight rebounds to go with 1.3 blocks and six points per game. Finally, after being traded to the Nuggets in late February, Koufos saw a three-game stretch near the end of the season where Karl blessed the young center with an average of 21 minutes per contest during which he averaged 14 points on .750 shooting from the field along with seven rebounds per game — numbers clearly superior to Mozgov’s given similar circumstances and playing time.
But small sample sizes aside, when looking at both Mozgov and Koufos’ numbers over an entire season, Koufos again comes out on top. For example, per 40 minutes last year Koufos averaged 14.7 points and 12 rebounds while Mozgov only managed 12.4 points and 9.2 rebounds respectively. Furthermore, Koufos had a higher usage rate of 22.2 compared to Mozgov’s 16.1, and a higher rebounding rate of 16.8 as apposed to Mozgov’s 13.2. A statistic many NBA fans are familiar with by now is John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, also known as “PER,” which Koufos again reigned supreme in by scoring a 12.65 in contrast to Mozgov’s 10.85.
Yet when all the numbers are dissected, even with solid evidence pointing towards Koufos being the better player — statistically speaking — there’s still the common sense, or “eye test” judgments that heavily favor Koufos as well. Like age for example, where Koufos is three years younger than the 25-year-old Mozgov, meaning more possible room for improvement. Then there’s the weight department where Koufos is 15 pounds heavier than Mozgov, despite being an inch shorter, which clearly equals a more solid foundation of muscle. But most importantly, Koufos has a more convincing background, as he was born and bred where the best basketball in the world is played on a daily basis. Of course, this isn’t to say that great basketball is nonexistent in Russia, but rather that growing up in America you’re likely more surrounded by the game and given more opportunities to peruse your passion with the best advice from former professionals. In all likelihood this was the case when a young Koufos attended the prestigious Ohio State University where upon after only one year he declared for the NBA Draft and was drafted 23rd overall by the Utah Jazz in the first round. He’s since played four years in the league, and while he hasn’t come close to living up to the expectations placed on him by his draft position, the fact remains that four years of NBA experience always tops one. Mozgov on the other hand wasn’t even drafted and has only played in Russia throughout his professional career, unlike many top flight foreign prospects who often come from Spain.
Entering only his second year in the league after playing sparingly his first season with the Knicks and Nuggets, Mozgov is raw, inexperienced and has yet to show the types of flashes Koufos has when given ample playing time. Though it’s still early and Mozgov deserves a chance to showcase his abilities, Karl cannot become complacent with just a big body down low in order to appease Nene and his desire to play power forward. If Karl continues to inexplicably shun Faried and Mozgov does not take the necessary steps to becoming a threat — and not just a place filler — down low, then Koufos should be next in line when it comes to getting a shot at the starting center position. However, given the evidence presented above an argument for Koufos deserving the starting spot right now doesn’t seem too far fetched. In fact, one of the largest, most uncovered storylines of the 2011-12 Denver Nuggets campaign might very well be the mystery revolving around why Mozgov is so popular, yet so unproven, all the while Koufos remains more experienced, skilled and ready to actually start at center in the NBA.