What’s Denver Missing in Timofey Mozgov?

When it looked more and more like Carmelo Anthony was going to be traded to the New York Knicks instead of the New Jersey Nets last February, there was much consternation in Gotham and the Mile High City over exactly what the teams would exchange. Danilo Gallinari was New York’s main attraction. He was going to Denver regardless. Then Knicks’ starting point guard Raymond Felton was floated as being part of the deal along with swingman Wilson Chandler. Denver smartly drew the process out to the very end of the trade deadline, expertly pitting Mikhail Prokhorov’s New Jersey Nets against the Knicks for ‘Melo’s services. Masai Ujiri famously “pushed the goalposts” back for New York to cross. He knew they were all-in for Carmelo. Just as the trade was going to be completed, Ujiri requested that 24 year-old Russian 7-foot center, Timofey Mozgov, be included. The Knicks had reached their breaking point. Until they didn’t.

A New Team:

At one point during Denver’s second game together following the trade’s completion against the Portland Trailblazers, ‘Timo’ as he is known, completed a nifty and-1 in the paint. He showed upper body strength and touch around the rim I never knew he had. I quickly exclaimed on Twitter that he deserved a real chance at starting for the Nuggets during the upcoming season.

He continued this solid play through the end of the 2011 season and into the playoffs. When the lockout finally lifted, Timofey found himself in the starting unit for Denver’s season-opener the day after Christmas against the Mavericks. Alongside Nene Hilario, Denver’s beast (finally) at power forward, the Nuggets were going to have one of the most imposing front-lines in the NBA. This was the way to win a title in the Association without a “superstar”. Build a physically imposing, highly-skilled front court that could just as easily matchup with the oversized Lakers and Bulls as it could the quicker Thunder, Clippers, and Grizzlies. Until Mozgov got hurt. And then Nene got hurt. And then Gallo. Every single member of Denver’s front court, listed at 6-foot-10 and above, was out at one point due to injury. And any and all well-intentioned plans were abandoned. Nene was traded for JaVale McGee. Mozgov came back healthy, but, having lost his starting role to Kosta Koufos and backup role to McGee, couldn’t find his confidence or his way. Gallo came back healthy and, having lost his only reliable pick-and-roll partner in Nene, precipitously regressed to an isolation and post-scorer. In one fell-swoop, Denver went from near-contender to JaVale McGee punchline. It was neither pretty, nor fluid.

Through all this, however, Nuggets’ brass held onto the Russian big man. I have continually chirped on Twitter that ‘Mozzy’ is one of Denver’s most-skilled players. This has fallen mostly on deaf ears. In my previous post I reiterated this point and faced a pretty harsh backlash for it. According to those allegedly smarter than myself, Mozgov’s skill level is nowhere near tops on this team. So, I decided to do some research and see if I could in any way back up my “nonsensical” claims. The findings were interesting to say the least.

The Beginning:

At one point during the playoffs, when the Indiana Pacers were playing the Miami Heat, I marveled at how Indiana was built. They get it, I said. They get it. David West and Roy Hibbert were the perfect pairing in the front court to build around. Indeed, Indiana did get it. Larry Bird won the executive of the year award just four days later, as voted on by a panel of his peers. They didn’t have a star. They didn’t lead the league in jersey sales. They weren’t noteworthy on ‘Inside the NBA’. Whether intentional or not, Larry Legend modeled his team after what Sam Presti had done with the Spurs in San Antonio; reliable horses at center/power forward, a quick, strong point guard, and steady, tough bench production. Memphis and Chicago were built in similar ways. Denver was almost on that path.

The template had been set. And Indiana was living proof. How amazing was it? Less than a year prior, people were actually discussing the prospect of contracting Larry Bird’s Pacers from the NBA altogether. Now they were on the verge of pushing the Miami Heat, and title favorite, out of the playoffs entirely. The NBA is a tricky place. And Larry Bird had mastered it.

The Breakthrough:

I kept observing Roy Hibbert. Rewinding and pausing and rewinding and pausing, until I started to get dizzy. I watched his off-ball movement on offense, and his shield, cover, and retrieval on defense. He was almost a defensive savant. I then made the ghastly pronouncement on Twitter that there was no reason Mozgov couldn’t do what Hibbert had exhibited in Indiana. Roy Hibbert wasn’t doing anything spectacular. He was merely playing fundamentally sound basketball.

Mozgov/Hibbert rookie season comparison

Mozgov/Hibbert comparison at age 25

Then I delved into the numbers. My curiosity was first piqued by Mozgov’s seemingly effortless penchant for knocking down a high percentage of free-throws. Coming from a 7-footer, hitting upwards of seventy-percent from the stripe is no small feat. Then I saw his shooting percentages from the field, and the murmurs got a little bit louder. Then I looked at his per-36 minutes statistics, and a warm glow began resonating from my temple. This guy is being as ill-used as Nene. Except where Nene was out of position, Mozgov wasn’t seeing the floor.

I decided to dig deeper. Since 1946-47, there have been twenty-two players measuring 7-feet or taller shoot 68-percent from the free-throw line, greater than 50-percent from the floor, and play at least 1200 minutes. Timofey Mozgov is one of them. Roy Hibbert is not. Names of those who did make the list? Yao Ming, Rik Smits, Bill Cartwright, Pau Gasol, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Robert Parish, Hakeem Olajuwon, Andrew Bynum, Dikembe Mutombo, and Tree Rollins. There are a few other names. All of them just as impressive. The fact that Timo is putting up these numbers without a structured offense run through him (or anyone, for that matter) is the most impressive thing of all.

Small sample size? Absolutely. No argument. But it’s not as small as you think. Especially when considering his fifty-five games in Denver have seen slow, steady, measured improvement. Consider the improvement you’d see if he was actually granted the minutes Denver’s other “energy” guys get. Imagine the improvement you’d see if Mozgov was in a system where his half-court game could develop and flourish, instead of one where it’s always “go-go-go”. Timo played most of his rookie year in New York under Mike D’Antoni, where a prototypical center is often not necessary. For this reason, among others, Mozgov’s shooting numbers didn’t reach their ultimate potential. George Karl and Mike D’Antoni have similar coaching philosophies for sure, as both prefer a running style. Where the two differ, however, is Karl allows his players more freedom to play to their instincts. Neither have a particularly sound coaching style for winning playoff basketball, but only D’Antoni has the infamous “seven-seconds-or-less” value system. If Mozgov gets into a situation where the game is allowed to slow down for him, he is going to blossom into the big-time player he is destined to be. But, like most things, it’s totally environment-dependent. D’Antoni was a bad fit. George Karl was slightly better. Anywhere a highly structured offense already exists should be optimal. Because it’s all there. His defense improved dramatically from his rookie year. His offensive game struggled a bit, but not in such a way that it can’t be improved. After watching every possession with which he was involved last season, I see a few things happening for him going forward:

  1. His visits to the free-throw line should reach their rookie levels and then exceed them as he’s not been one to get the benefit of the doubt from officials. There were countless times where a whistle should have gone his way but didn’t.
  2. Because of this, I imagine his offensive rating to greatly increase, as he’ll be responsible for reduced turnovers and more visits to the line. Every instance where he could have been shooting free-throws but a foul went uncalled, Mozgov was credited for a turnover. This has a doubly negative effect on his offensive rating.
  3. If he’s given more minutes, I imagine his visits to the free-throw line increasing, as officials are apt to give players they see the benefit of the doubt more often than those they do not.
  4. Seeing as how his TS% and usage rate increased concurrently, I see no reason why his percentages from the floor cannot sustain.

In the sixteen games where Mozgov played more than eighteen minutes (playoffs included), the Nuggets went 11-5. Further, in the twelve games he played twenty or more minutes, Denver went 8-4. For a Nuggets team that went 41-32 last year (playoffs included), Mozgov’s contributions are undervalued, at the very least. But Mozgov is still a great player to put alongside Kenneth Faried, as he, like Nene, spaces the floor, which will allow the unskilled rebounder to float.

Timofey Mozgov regular season output

Conversely, in the nineteen games Mozgov’s teammate Kosta Koufos played eighteen or more minutes, the Nuggets went 10-9. Koufos, for all intents and purposes, is more productive. Mosgov though, is clearly more important. And this is where the disconnect continues to linger in the Nuggets’ front office. Where they see production, I see smoke and mirrors. Where they see nothing, I see potential greatness if given the proper coaching and opportunity. This is why I didn’t even bother comparing the two players head-to-head. Because there is no comparison.

Kosta Koufos regular season output

Production will win you games against the dregs of the league. Skill AND size will win you games against the league’s best. And it will do so consistently. This is why Denver will continue to struggle on the periphery. In the lone game last season where Mozgov saw the floor for over thirty minutes, he was a terror. If a 16-7-3-1-1 performance against the New York Knicks’ Tyson Chandler doesn’t set off any light bulbs, nothing will.

That said, Mozgov’s days in Denver are likely over. They don’t know what they have, and thus, will let it walk. This is why Nene was traded for JaVale McGee. This is why their draft addressed no areas of specific need, of which there are many. This is why they may miss the playoffs next year. Because the times they’re content standing pat with what they have are the times they should be making moves. The times they’re making moves are those where they should be standing pat.

Editor’s note: There was much more to include in this study. If you have any further questions, please leave it in the comments section or follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading.

Alec Burks is Special

The first time I saw Alec Burks play during his freshman year at Colorado I remember thinking, “How’d he end up in Boulder?” My next thought veered towards a sense of foreboding catastrophe. We don’t get players like this. He was bound to get terribly injured somewhere along the way, keeping Colorado a basketball afterthought and ruining what appeared to be a promising professional career. I lived with this fear every time I watched Burks on the basketball court. Which, sadly, took away the joy that comes with watching such an unbelievably talented player apply his craft.

In the midst of all this negative thought, however, I observed him with an acute eye. How could you not? He was regularly the best player on the floor.

Boulder, Colorado is not a college basketball hotbed. This is not news. The best player in school history, Chauncey Billups, left early for the NBA fourteen years ago. Since that time, the program has worn its badge of mediocrity with honor. The only Buffaloes player drafted in the time between Billups and Burks is loafing, erratic big man, David Harrison, who’s greatest claim to fame is his involvement in the now-infamous, “Malice in the Palace” where he was charged with one count of assault and battery. In 2008, not coincidentally his final year in the league, he was suspended five games by the Pacers for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. Colorado’s lone NCAA Tournament appearance without Billups was a first round blowout at the hands of Tom Izzo and Michigan State in 2003 — an admittedly tough draw for a team that had successfully upset half of the year’s Final Four in Kansas and Texas during the regular season. Other than that, Colorado Men’s Basketball in the modern era has known little success. Which is why watching Alec Burks produced such fits and starts of trepidation and excitement.

Throughout this past season there were times when it looked as if Burks wasn’t necessarily ready for the next level. Though he never put together a particularly bad game, if he had given a little more effort a time or two, Colorado would’ve walked away with a few more victories. And when it comes to NCAA Tournament selection, those games proved to be the difference.

  • November 16, 2010: Colorado had this early road game circled on its schedule as a benchmark to see where their program stood in the national landscape. The Buffaloes lost, 83-74, after Georgia gave up a seventeen-point lead and missed sixteen free-throws. Burks played a team-high 35 minutes. He also took a team-high fourteen shots, converting only five. It was a ghastly shooting performance from Colorado’s best player in a game the Buffs could’ve easily stolen. Not to mention, a victory here would have been a signature road win for their NCAA Tournament résumé.
  • November 20, 2010: After soundly defeating them in Boulder the year before, Colorado loses in overtime to the University of San Francisco, 83-81. The Dons were relevant in college basketball once. When Bill Russell and K.C. Jones were playing, that is. Burks was fantastic statistically in this game. His performance from the free-throw line was not. Shooting 5-for-10 is quite costly in a contest that goes to overtime. And when March came around, this wasn’t the what the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee needed to see.
  • December 22, 2010: Colorado went into the Las Vegas Classic a very underwhelming 7-4 overall. The New Mexico Lobos seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Alec Burks had one of his better shooting nights of the season, however the Buffaloes lost, 89-76. If you’re looking for a culprit, look no further than the glass. CU was outrebounded, 35-23. Burks, a typically heady rebounder, didn’t help that cause as he only pulled down a single board against the Lobos.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a referendum on Burks’ prospects in the NBA. It is merely a cautionary tale. If Alec Burks had produced a little more effort in any one of the three previously mentioned games (there are other examples), Colorado makes the NCAA Tournament with ease. And in my mind, that is what separates the lottery from the rest of the field; the true lottery picks don’t allow their teams to lose such winnable games when it’s clear they could have done better. Alec could have done better in some of those situations. For the game’s elite, willing your team to victory in the face of inferior competition isn’t a some-of-the-time thing. It’s an all the time thing.

As such, Burks is not a savior. (Especially when he’s paired with a relatively unknown Enes Kanter.) His temperament is that of a leader by example. He appears to genuinely enjoy the company of his teammates and coaches. He approaches practice in much the same way he does each and every game — with professionalism and class. Eminently coachable, there was never a time when he seemed discouraged by input from anyone on the Colorado staff. However, he most certainly is not the type to call for a team huddle in the middle of crunch-time. That said, he isn’t one to shy away from the moment. From the 3:20 mark forward is when Alec Burks took over the Texas game. Watch the video from start to finish to appreciate Burks’ whole body of work.

Burks led Colorado to a stunning come-from-behind victory over the fifth-ranked Longhorns, finishing the night with 33-points, 10-rebounds, and four assists. It was the breakout game of his career — and when I finally came to the conclusion that his time at Colorado was coming to an end. His final output could have been even more impressive had he not gone 12-for-20 from the free-throw line and 1-for-6 from distance.

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