Can Mozgov & Thompson Create Enough Offense to Share the Floor?

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For the next five days the guessing game continues. How will the Cavaliers respond to the loss of Kevin Love? Mostly what you’ll get is unsubstantiated guesswork, which is pretty much par for the press corps course.

We’re not so presumptuous here. So we talked to some people beyond the typically cagey Coach David Blatt and his team, and went back and watched some film. Specifically we were wondering that the Cavaliers can do when Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are on the floor together.

The combo can be very good defensively (94.2 defense efficiency, 3rd best on team), but is one of the team’s worst options offensively (107.9 off efficiency, worst of any involving a starter other than LeBron James-Kendrick Perkins & Kevin Love-Mike Miller).

Our thinking is this – if you’re looking to replace a large cog you must take advantages of other inefficiencies. Perhaps the Tristan/TMo offense can be improved, making it a more viable weapon going forward.

We’re not clever enough to answer that question, but we were able to go back and look at some of the sets the team ran against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat when Love missed a couple games toward the end of that long road trip in mid-March. We suspect part of the reason for Love to sit was to give Blatt an opportunity to toy with the TMo/Tristan sets prior to the playoffs.

One thing we’re likely to see a lot more of is double high screens using both Tristan and Mozgov as screeners. On this play Kyrie’s man gets caught between them before Kyrie Irving goes right and Tristan releases.

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Irving’s handle and skill ensures that he can get where he wants on the court, the issue is how much company he has getting there. So far this season he’s had relatively little trouble getting to the rim relatively unchallenged because of slow rotating help and the defensive issues the Cavs posed with their 3-point shooters. That won’t be the case so much with Tristan in there.

This means that while Kyrie will still be able to break down a defense, he’ll find a lot more resistance at the front of the basket. This means he has to maybe take a few more pull-up jumpers – which isn’t such a big deal since Irving’s one of the best shooters off the dribble in the league. (He shot 47% (eFG), fourth-best in the league behind Eric Gordon (62%), Chris Paul (58%), Kawhi Leonard (53%), and ahead of James Harden (42%) and Stephen Curry (41%).)

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Above we can see that even if you pull defenders away from the basket positioning Mozgov near the top of the key, that won’t stop them from sagging with help on the pick and roll. TMo must then roll to the basket for an alley-oop, or, if challenged, Kyrie can feed LeBron in the corner, should his man help.

Sometimes you might need a little action to disguise it. In the below video, LeBron and Kyrie execute a dribble handoff that then runs into a Mozgov screen. This leaves the defense scrambling as LeBron attacks the center of the lane with the dribble allowing Timofey to slide in behind.



The lane is going to be more crowded, just as a matter of course. The Cavs will need to beat this by passing a little more. With more guys near the basket there will be more switching over on the drive. It will be important for penetrators to spot this and dish to the big men underneath. This will also open up offensive rebounding opportunities.

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Then there are simple overloaded side pick and rolls (below) with the other three players on the other side of the court. As you can see, working from one side toward the center gives the defense extra distance to cover in rotating to the roll man. This will also lead Mozgov open, though that’s dependent in this case off Tristan’s passing ability, which isn’t great. (Instead he hit the shot.)

cavs_side_pick_and_roll_lebron.png

We will also probably see some of Kyrie working the in-between game, as below, where he comes off a pick from Mozgov and hits Thompson cutting to the basket, for a contested, but ultimately successful close shot.

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The ability of the TMo & Tristan pairing to play better defense than Love-led squads allows the team to make lemonade if they can improve the offense. It might mean a few less 3-pointers, but it is possible.

But the fact that the team has created a certain persona and style of play can’t and won’t be tossed. Indeed, we’re much more likely to see either Tristan or Mozgov paired with James, Shumpert, Smith and Irving most of the time with Dellavedova picking up a lot of the other minutes.

Miller, James Jones and Shawn Marion will doubtlessly play, but it’s a lot harder to guess how big their role might be from here. Marion can score cutting off the ball and without having plays run for him, shot decently inside the arc (48%). Cavs analyst Campy Russell thinks we’ll see more of Marion in the playoffs now.

“Shawn’s the kind of guy that just knows how to play and looks at what is needed and he’s able to provide that,” says Russell. “Shawn is a special talent and has been a special talent ever since he’s been in this league, and I’m sure Coach is going to look to try and get him the ball.”

The one thing you don’t want to do, according to Russell, is change what you do. You want to stick to what brought you here, so that means drive-and-dish offense. If that is true, expect to see plenty more of Mike Miller and James Jones whose historic long-distance marksmanship is why they’re here.

“We will always try to extend the court because that’s what we do, but it may not come as consistently as it did when we had all hands,” he says, suggesting that too much change at this point could be counterproductive. “They will look at keeping guys in positions that they can be effective at. One thing you don’t want to do is lessen someone’s confidence.”

He believes the team can still be effective in those times when Mozgov and Thompson are on the court, even without the same spacing as Love provided. “You may not be able to do it as much in a half-court situation but those opportunities will present themselves. Just now when those opportunities present themselves you have to take advantage," he says.

Blatt echoed those thoughts, when questioned about spacing without Love. “We’re going to have to [maintain spacing] because that’s the way that we play,” Blatt said in response to a Joe Vardon question. “Obviously without [Love & J.R. Smith] in the lineup we’re going to have to play a little differently. But we’ve been pretty successful this year and we don’t want to go away from the things that made us successful.”`

This has a corollary effect. If you’re going to stick with what brought you here offensively, even if you can’t be quite as effective and efficient at it, you’re going to need to step up the other parts of your game, notably defense. This is someplace where you really can replace Kevin Love. Indeed, moving James to the power forward position and starting Shumpert will almost definitely improved the team beyond what they were capable of defensively with Love on the floor.

When Kevin Love was in the game, the team was more vulnerable defensively. Love’s lack of lateral quickness meant he had trouble switching pick and rolls. Other teams would try to expose him as a weak link, putting him in pick and roll defense.

The same goes for Timofey Mozgov, but even more so since he’s a worse pick and roll defender. (According to Synergy, Mozgov is 51st percentile, Love 71st, Thompson 82nd.) This is why Mozgov and Love often sat in the fourth quarter in favor of a better defensive lineup, and particularly one that could close out the three quicker.

We believe by replacing Love with Shumpert (and moving James to power forward more) would replace Love’s lost offense with much better defense. Indeed when Thompson replaces Mozgov the team would be able to switch just about everything – which is the reason why Blatt used the lineup.

Defense takes on even more importance in the playoffs where possessions are harder to come by and teams defend much closer to the top of their ability than during the regular season. This is the reason why the loss of Kevin Love is not a mortal wound – so long as the team steps up the defensive intensity and turns those increased turnovers and offensive boards into fastbreaks and putbacks.

“You really have to defend to win any games in the playoffs, and it’s going to be important that we defend at the highest levels because you’re suddenly faced with a situation where a pretty good number of points aren’t in your lineup,” Blatt says. “You have to find them other places but you have to defend to give yourself a chance to win.”

We still don’t even know who we’re going to play but the one thing you can count on is that if the Cavaliers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals it will be on the backs of an even stronger defense, not because they’ve replaced Kevin Love’s offense.

As always, you can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can also hear us on Michael James’ Defend Cleveland show on WRUW, 91.5, Mondays around 10:45 a.m. You can find an archive of my Cleveland Scene stories here and many of my other clips at chrisparker.contently.com.

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