Mid-way through the 2011-12 season, Masai Ujiri decided to take a risk. In return for the ever-steady Nene, Ujiri and the Nuggets would get to inherent all the problems and promise of the raw yet gifted JaVale McGee. The initial risk morphed into a long-term investment in the form of a 4 year, $44 million deal that banked on McGee’s enormous pool of untapped talent to make it a worthwhile endeavor by the time the contract reached its back-end. Big men take awhile to develop, after all, and what’s a few years of limited production if the ultimate gain is an elite big man?
And yet, ironies of ironies, as Ujiri is off cavorting in Toronto and McGee is bench-ridden with injury, it is another raw big man who’s reaped the rewards of quiet development. It’s the forgotten cog that – at the time – almost laughably derailed the Melo trade, who has risen up this season to champion hope for the future.
Timofey Mozgov, a perennial afterthought in regards to thinking about the young talent on the roster, has become perhaps the steadiest player on a team so often caught up in erraticism. He’s posting a block rate comparable with Andre Drummond’s and a PER that puts him fifth among his peers. He’s graced the team with their second highest net rating* and in the 848 minutes he’s been on the floor this season, the Nuggets have played defense at a rate just a hair better than Oklahoma City’s third ranked unit. Opponents are shooting 45 percent at the rim when Mozgov is in their vicinity according to SportsVU, a mark that puts him in the same company as Andrew Bogut, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, and Dwight Howard, and opponent’s field goal percentage drops a full 10 percent at the rim when Timo is on the court per NBAWowy.
*The highest (+8.5 points per 100 possessions) belongs to Darrell Arthur, who’s absence has truly cratered the defense whenever Mozgov sits. It’s good to finally have him back.
It certainly helps that he is mostly going up against bench units and defense remains one of the most difficult things to quantify with stats, but even couching theses numbers with proper context, everything points to Mozgov evolving into a burgeoning rim-protector.
Shaw has Mozgov hedge high or drop back on the pick and roll depending on the matchup, but usually he tends to dip just below the free throw line on a standard high pick and roll. His greatest hinderance before on both defense and offense was a seeming obliviousness to his size, he played as if he didn’t know he towered over nearly everyone else on the court. That’s changed this year and driving ball handlers are now meeting a fully-realized behemoth at the rim, with arms straight up at the ready and a maw ready to gobble up whatever comes its way.
His ability away from the rim is even more impressive. His adept mirroring of probing guards’ movements is invaluable on a team whose diminutive backcourt is usually getting smushed on a screen or blown past off the dribble*
*A key factor that must be noted is Darrell Arthur’s recent absence due to injury. It’s been a limited sample size of games but, backed up with evidence throughout the season, Mozgov is not the same kind of defender with Arthur off the court. Denver’s defense is slightly better with Mozgov on the court without Arthur, but with them paired together they buoy the unit to an elite status. This is not so much a knock on Mozgov but an illumination of how poor a defensive substitute any other one of Denver’s bigs are to Arthur. It’s a lot easier to drop back and defend the rim when you have a pick and roll blitzer like DA on the court than it is when you have the likes of J.J. Hickson bumbling his way to over-hedging and slow to nonexistent attempts to get back to his man.
A great defenders greatest attribute, however, is his offense – he’s only as good as what he gives up on the other end – and it is there that Mozgov really shines. Most of his points come off the typical duck-ins as another big runs the pick-and-roll (the proverbial JaVale role in George Karl’s offense) but as of late he’s flashing a very useful post game and Denver is growing more and more confident in running the offense through him down low. His go-to move is a very simple slip of the screen followed by a seal of his man in the post, after which he’ll often break out a surprisingly devastating hook shot once he’s fed the ball.
Another interesting wrinkle is some flashes of adept passing, a skill whose presence is devoid in all of Denver’s other big men. The passing is solid enough to exploit broken plays with some fun POINT MOZZY stuff, but it’s raw enough that it needs a lot of refinement to actually base plays around its implementation. However, recently, Denver has started running some horns sets (consists of two big men in the high post, usually at the elbows) and Mozgov’s passing out of the high post has borne fruit.
At the moment, Mozgov is only playing 20 minutes a game, another victim to an overcrowded front court whose rotations Shaw keeps trying to juggle. It’s clear he needs more minutes and, as his impact becomes more and more obvious, he’s seen his playing time steadily rise. But at some point things are going to come to a head and Denver is going to have to stabilize the rotation. It’s not as big a deal that he isn’t starting, the problem is he isn’t finishing games. Shaw has consistently gone small with Hickson at center in crunch time and the results have been uninspiring to say the least. The most recent game against Charlotte, though, lends hope for a change as Shaw decided to stick with Arthur and Mozgov down the stretch. Time will tell if this is a harbinger of things to come or but a blip on the radar.
For now, Denver seems content with just giving everyone a fair amount of burn. In the short-term, judgement on the success or failure of the season will likely hinge on whether or not the Nuggets make the playoffs. But, in actuality, all that matters is that this new regime leaves the season with a clear idea of what they have on the current roster.
As Gallinari’s absence complicates things and the diminishing return of JaVale McGee becomes more and more apparent, the Nuggets find themselves a long ways away from any kind of true clarity.
But, in Timofey Mozgov at least, Denver seems to have found its first hidden gem, finally gaining a return on the investment they didn’t quite know they had.