When a team is as deep as the Denver Nuggets appear to be heading into the 2014-15 campaign, struggles for playing time are bound to occur. But while Randy Foye and Arron Afflalo are still fighting for minutes at shooting guard and the backups are working to cement their spots in the rotation, Timofey Mozgov is building upon last year's late-season emergence and establishing himself as the clear-cut starting center.
As Christopher Dempsey wrote for The Denver Post after the big man's second impressive preseason showing, the center affectionately known throughout the Denver fanbase and organization as either "T-Mo" or "Mozzy" has a firm grasp on a spot in the opening lineup:
Timofey Mozgov has picked up right where he left off from his breakout campaign last season. His camp has been good, and during games he continues to separate himself in the question as to who starts at center for the Nuggets this season. As it stands now, there isn't a question; Mozzy's the guy until the job is taken from him.
Other players on the Nuggets certainly get more attention.
Ty Lawson is the most realistic All-Star candidate from the Mile High City, using his blazing speed to impress everyone who watches him play. He'll most likely lead the team in scoring, as he told me he expects to do during the team's media day.
Then there's Kenneth Faried, fresh off inking a four-year, $50 million deal that ensures his energy will delight fans at the Pepsi Center for at least a few more years. And we can't forget about Afflalo, returning to Denver after a two-year stint with the Orlando Magic, or the players coming back from season-ending injuries—Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson and JaVale McGee.
Mozgov isn't at the center of attention, but he has to be at the center of Denver's plans, especially if this squad hopes to displace one of last year's eight playoff teams and stave off the other strong candidates to burst into the postseason field.
Huge Need for a Consistent Center
It's easier to get away without a true center in the Eastern Conference, as you're left contending with a few up-and-coming players and a limited number of established studs at the position. But in the West, teams are forced to square off against Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez and Nikola Pekovic.
A failure to use a big man, not an undersized power forward who's shifting over to play the 5 in a small-ball lineup, is often a recipe for doom.
The Nuggets have had trouble finding a center they can count on for a while now, relying on Hickson to play out of position, Mozgov to handle more minutes than he's previously been capable of managing and McGee to become a consistent contributor.
But it hasn't worked, and 82games.com shows that center was one of the positions on the 2013-14 squad with negative net production. Of course, last year was a strange one, filled with unexpected injuries and a first-year head coach. Even in 2012-13, though, the center position finished dead last for net production, even if it was still an overall positive for the team.
Now, more than ever, the Nuggets desperately need for Mozgov to evolve.
Hickson still isn't healthy enough to suit up in the preseason, is set to serve a suspension at the beginning of the year and should be forming a rotation with Faried at power forward rather than attempting to bang around with bigger players at the 5. Jusuf Nurkic, one of the team's first-round picks this offseason, is an incredibly raw big man who has yet to show great control of his torso and limbs, recording plenty of rebounds during the preseason but failing to show any defensive discipline or shooting touch on the other end.
But most problematic of all is McGee.
Despite his massive contract, he has yet to pan out for the Nuggets. He missed all but five games last season after suffering a stress fracture in his left tibia, and he's still not fully recovered, as Denver head coach Brian Shaw explained to Dempsey:
What he's going through right now is when he has practiced and he has done physical work out there on the floor, he's the only one that’s shown some soreness the next day. But from our medical staff they say that’s pretty natural, he’s going to be sore and then he'll take a day (off) and the soreness will go away and then he'll do a little bit more the next time.
McGee's rim-protecting skills are still quite valuable to the Denver cause, especially because no other frontcourt player excels at blocking shots and truly anchoring the interior of a defense. But it's clear the Nuggets can't plan things around him, given the uncertainty of his health.
And so, Mozgov is even more important. Fortunately, he's proven up for the task for a while now.
Success Carrying Over
If you totally missed Mozgov emerging as a quality starting center at the end of the 2013-14 campaign, I can't blame you. There were plenty of interesting stories going on throughout the league, and the Nuggets, who had been all-but-mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, didn't need to be a top priority for basketball fans without a Denver-related rooting interest.
But just as trees falling in the woods make sound, so too did Mozgov shine despite a glaring lack of attention from the media.
The Russian 7-footer moved into the starting lineup on a permanent basis for a Feb. 25 contest against the Portland Trail Blazers, and he made the most of his opportunity. During the final 27 games of the season, he averaged 11.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, shooting 52.1 percent from the field.
However, he was even better at the very end of the campaign, as Shaw gave him a bit more offensive freedom, even letting him take the occasional three-pointer. He'd make only three of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc during the final nine games of the season, but the rest of his output was undeniably stellar:
|Last 27 Games||11.1||7.7||1.0||1.3||52.1|
|Last 9 Games||16.7||9.2||1.3||1.4||56.7|
Clearly, he handled the additional workload rather well, especially when he recorded 23 points and 29 rebounds against the Golden State Warriors on April 10.
No one is expecting Mozgov to average 16 and nine during the 2014-15 season, especially not with so many major pieces returning from injuries. But he's proven that he's capable of playing a large part in the offensive stylings of these Nuggets, and that's quite the luxury to have.
Plus, he's been even better during the preseason.
The most glamorous play he's submitted thus far came in his second game, a home contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder. As one of his three help-defense blocks, he rolled over and flat-out stuffed Kevin Durant, denying him a dunk, sending the reigning MVP to his fanny and then running down the court to finish the play with a slam of his own:
But that's not even what's impressed me the most.
Mozgov is playing better defense because he's more disciplined and has clearly upped his basketball IQ. He's not getting caught in the air as often, and he's making the proper rotations almost without fail, though the perimeter defense of the Nuggets has left him exposed in two-on-one situations too often. He'll never have the athletic ability of McGee, but Denver has thrived with him on the floor because he's serving as a decent anchor in the paint.
Through two games—and yes, small-sample-size warnings abound—the Denver center is averaging 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.5 blocks while shooting a scorching 81.2 percent from the field, via RealGM.com. That's bolstered by his 20-point outing against the Thunder, one in which he didn't miss any of his eight shots from the field or four attempts at the charity stripe.
His player efficiency rating after those contests? A mind-boggling 35.45.
No longer is he lurking and waiting for easy opportunities, but he's playing aggressive offensive basketball. He's seeking out putback opportunities, forcing his involvement by asking for the ball and working with his back to the basket and generally putting himself in the right positions.
Mozgov doesn't even resemble last year's version of himself. More so than ever before, he's showing touch and aggressiveness, two traits that have often eluded him in the past.
"It's nothing new, I try to give energy for the team," he told Dempsey after torching OKC. "I try to run and rebound, and (in) scoring guys give me the ball. They trust me. I just try to score."
But that trust is new.
The Nuggets were giving him opportunities last go-round, but they only did so after the season was over for all intents and purposes. Now, he's being featured as a primary part of the offense, and it makes a deep team with widespread talent all the more dangerous.
Denver has upped his role, and Mozgov has been more than up to the challenge thus far.