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Cavs, Mozgov proving to be near-perfect fit for each other

Cleveland's trade for the ex-Nuggets center paid off almost immediately and has helped the Cavs' interior defense

POSTED: Mar 25, 2015 2:18 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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So far this season, the Cavs' net rating rises 11.6 points when Timofey Mozgov has been on the court.

You can put together a pretty good list of NBA championship teams simply by stringing together the names of the centers who have anchored them.

George Mikan ... Bill Russell ... Wilt Chamberlain ... Willis Reed ...

Show us a great NBA center and, invariably, at some point, we'll show you that fellow's championship ring. More often than not, those guys end up hugging trophies and peeking at their notes from a stage in Springfield, Mass., about five years after they retire.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ... Dave Cowens ... Bill Walton ... Wes Unseld ...

Dunk of the Night

TImofey Mozgov takes the feed and throws one down over the defense.

From the moment Dr. James Naismith invented the game, it has always served big men better. Coaches knew it, other players knew it, fans came to expect it as a necessary ingredient for any legitimate contender. Often, greatness followed.

Robert Parish ... Moses Malone ... Hakeem Olajuwon ... David Robinson ... Shaquille O'Neal ...

Every so often, though, a team would beat the odds without a future Hall of Fame center. Size still mattered and a defensive presence was vital, but greatness? Meh. Typically, the teams on which those big men played remained formidable only for as long as the guy's career peak lasted.

Cliford Ray ... Jack Sikma ... Bill Laimbeer ... Bill Cartwright ... Tyson Chandler ...

Moz has been one of the key factors in us turning our season around. He fits in extremely well with the other guys -- he understands what we want from him and what the other guys expect from him.

– Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, on Timofey Mozgov

Over time, the league changed. Legitimate centers grew harder to find. Players who once would have been schooled from the game's lowest levels to grind with their backs to the basket wanted to face the rim and play farther out on the floor -- "centers" became power forwards (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace). And the job description for a center on a team with championship aspirations started getting edited; "essential" got crossed out, "serviceable" scribbled in its place.

Luc Longley ... Ben Wallace ... Kendrick Perkins ... Andrew Bynum ...

Rules changes have altered the NBA game to the point that MVP awards are won and championship runs are driven by wing players. Quicker, smaller lineups often carry the day. When Miami won its 2012 and 2013 titles, it did so with forward Chris Bosh ostensibly manning the center spot. San Antonio got to consecutive Finals and won last June with hybrid forward Boris Diaw as its titular center (Duncan setting up shop, as usual, at power forward).

All of which is a historically based way of saying that the Cleveland Cavaliers feel awfully good right now about adding another name to the lists of those italicized above:

Timofey Mozgov

For a lot of casual fans, Mozgov only conjures a memory from early in his rookie season, when the Clippers' Blake Griffin scaled and vaulted him for a monstrous dunk. It wasn't just a highlight play, it was an affront, Griffin pushing with his left hand off Mozgov's head to throw down the ball from three feet away from the rim.

Blake Dunks on Mosgov

Blake Griffin jumps over Timofey Mozgov to throw down the nasty dunk.

Mozgov, all 7-foot-1 and 250 pounds of him, was with the Knicks then -- but not for long. Two months later, he was thrown into a blockbuster trade to Denver that delivered Carmelo Anthony to New York and began Mozgov's high-altitude internship with the Nuggets. Over the next three seasons, the native of St. Petersburg, Russia, averaged 6.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 16.9 minutes and got a taste of the playoffs in 2012 (10.2 points and 8.4 rebounds on a 36-minute basis vs. the Lakers).

Two-and-a-half months ago, in a trade that didn't generate nearly the headlines but could pack a heftier payoff, Mozgov was the centerpiece player. Cleveland GM David Griffin so coveted him for his rim protection -- with starting center Anderson Varejao done for the season with a torn Achilles -- and ability to bang inside offensively that Griffin swapped two protected future first-round picks.

The trade was made on Jan. 7. Mozgov played as the Cavs center two nights later. If you spot him three games in six days to familiarize himself with his new team -- and, ahem, for LeBron James to return from his two-week spa shutdown -- Mozgov's impact for Cleveland can be stated simply: from 19-20 to 46-26, a 27-6 stretch that has bolstered both James' MVP case and Griffin's for NBA Executive of the Year.

Mozgov's Rejection

Timofey Mozgov goes up for the block in the paint.

Mozgov has been far more than just a big man in the paint for the Cavaliers. His size has made opposing scorers think twice in a way that even Varejao's energetic shot-blocking didn't; with Mozgov, a foe might actually get hammered hard or take some pain merely bouncing off him. Other teams talk of having "long" players at that position, but Cleveland coach David Blatt doesn't have to fudge.

"Boy he's big -- you can't teach that," Blatt said in Milwaukee over the weekend. "Moz has been one of the key factors in us turning our season around. He fits in extremely well with the other guys -- he understands what we want from him and what the other guys expect from him."

Blatt already was familiar with Mozgov, having coached him on the Russian national team. But since the big man's arrival in Cleveland, Blatt has seen a defensive development -- Mozgov's grasp of "verticality" has improved immensely. Blatt credits the teachings of Brian Shaw, fired earlier this month as Denver's coach but a defensive guru who worked with Indiana's classic big, Roy Hibbert, when Shaw was an assistant there.

Mozgov Mash

Kyrie Irving darts in traffic and finds Timofey Mozgov for a monster crush in the lane!

Mozgov has averaged 10.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 25.6 minutes for Cleveland. And while Blatt has been known to lift him from games, particularly in fourth quarters, while using Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers -- since Mozgov's arrival -- have been 11.6 better in net rating when he has been on the floor.

James, who has always valued big men on whom he can rely (Varejao, Thompson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas before them), has embraced Mozgov too. With stellar results, obviously.

"I think since Mozgov came to the team we're fifth in pick-and-roll defense, and it's just because of his length, his size and him protecting the rim," James said in Milwaukee. "That's huge for our team, having someone who can get down, guard pick-and-roll and can protect the rim. And also, at the other end, makes the opposing '5' man respect him."

Mozgov might not make an All-Star team, win the Bill Russell Award or end up in Springfield ... and that's OK. His team and Cavs fans would settle for seeing his name italicized on the lists above.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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