Just over a year after being traded from Denver to Cleveland for two first-round picks, the 7-1 Russian has played at least 20 minutes in just 14 of his 37 games this season.
Averaging just 17.8 minutes, Mozgov has reached double figures in points just seven times and has yet to record a double-double. He is playing strong defense when given the opportunity, but it just doesn’t seem like there’s enough court time for him.
It’s all the more discouraging for Mozgov because it is the last year of his contract and likely the only opportunity he will get to make big money on the open market; he turns 30 on July 16. Mozgov told SheridanHoops that the season has been difficult for him in every way.
“It gets hard for me, but I’m just looking forward and I keep going,” he said.
When asked what role Mozgov has on the Cavs, coach David Blatt tersely told SheridanHoops that he was the starter for Wednesday night’s game against the Nets. “He started last game, too,” Blatt said before Cleveland coasted past Brooklyn at Barclays Center.
Blatt went on to say that his starting center is dependent on the night’s matchup. Mozgov has been given the nod against bigger bruisers such as Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and Brook Lopez, while rebound machine Tristan Thompson has started against the more nimble frontcourts of the Spurs, Mavericks and Sixers.
While Cleveland invested two first-rounders — likely in the late 20s — for Mozgov, ownership invested even more last summer in its big men. Kevin Love was re-signed for five years and $113 million in July, and Thompson held his ground before receiving five years and $82 million less than a week before the start of the regular season. Love averages 32.2 minutes and Thompson plays 27.4 minutes, which makes a lot of sense. The Cavs have 195 million reasons to play those two big minutes.
Mozgov was diplomatic about his playing time, saying that he was just trying to make the most of his opportunities while on the floor. When asked if he had spoken to Blatt about his role, Mozgov said that whatever he discusses with Blatt stays between them.
This is a far cry from just last season, when Mozgov had 18 double-doubles in the regular season, split evenly between the Nuggets and Cavs, and was a tremendous asset for Blatt’s bunch in their NBA Finals run.
In a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals, Mozgov averaged 26.6 minutes, 10.8 points and 7.5 rebounds on 56.7 percent shooting from the field. His counterpart at center in that series, Al Horford, was impressed by Mozgov’s performance.
“He was really good,” Horford told SheridanHoops. “He’s just a very smart player that defends well, can finish around the rim. He had a big impact for them last year, I believe.”
Horford was spot-on about Mozgov’s influence on Cleveland’s fortunes, especially against Golden State in the Finals, when he was perhaps the Cavs’ second-best player with Love and Kyrie Irving sidelined by injuries.
In a Game 4 loss, Mozgov played 33 minutes and scored 28 points to go with 10 rebounds. But since the Cavs lost by 21 to even the series at two games apiece, Blatt decided to play Mozgov just nine minutes in the pivotal Game 5 loss. In the decisive Game 6, Mozgov was great again, putting up 17 and 12 in 32 minutes, although Cleveland fell short.
“I’ve always liked his game,” Horford said. “I think he’s a really good player.”
It’s not known the kind of impact offseason knee surgery had on Mozgov’s game, but a Yahoo Sports report from late last week indicated that Cleveland started to make inquiries into the center’s value on the trade market. We’re now exactly four weeks from this season’s Feb. 18 trade deadline.
With Mozgov likely to command more than $10-12 million on the open market in the offseason in what could be the only chance he gets at a big contract in his career, the cost could prove too prohibitive for the Cavs.
While the Cavs have Mozgov’s Bird Rights, meaning they can exceed the cap to sign him for five years while other teams are limited to four at lesser money, Cleveland already has more than $100 million in committed salaries for next season. Including the luxury tax fees, Mozgov’s real cost to the team would be far greater than his salary.
“I don’t really think about it,” Mozgov said of his impending free agency. “It is important, but I’m only trying to get better every day. It’s simple.”
If Cleveland doesn’t think re-signing Mozgov in July is financially prudent, it would seem logical to explore a trade. The Cavs would avoid risking losing him for nothing and essentially dealing a pair of first-round picks for 1 1/2 seasons of Mozgov, two-thirds of which would have come with his reduced minutes.
But Mozgov has seemingly little control over what happens behind closed doors, so he is solely focused on what’s in front of him on the court.
“Just get better,” Mozgov said with a chuckle. “Simple goals.”
It was a simple reply from Mozgov in a season that, for him, couldn’t be further from it.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.