From our current vantage point, we now see that Cleveland’s move to acquire J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and a future first round pick at the expense of Dion Waiters was part of a compound plan. The pick acquired from Oklahoma City in the aforementioned trade has already been committed elsewhere, packaged with another first rounder (originally belonging to Memphis) in a second deal to acquire Denver center Timofey Mozgov.
If two future firsts seems a tall price to pay for a merely functional starting center, that’s because it is. Yet Cleveland maneuvered itself into position to make the most reasonable course correction it could. The Cavs have neither the trade chips nor the future flexibility to make a run at an upper-tier center, effectively locking them into a more limited range of potential upgrades at the position. Mozgov was one of the better options under the circumstances: tall, able to wall off the rim, effective on the glass, competent offensively, and under contract with a team option for next season at a relative bargain.
That it took so much to get Mozgov to Cleveland is a function of both the scarcity of available rim protectors and the Cavaliers’ growing desperation for one. It’s tempting to think that Cleveland could have done better if giving up two future firsts. Yet, parse rosters around the league and you’ll find few starting-caliber centers fit to be moved for future assets. Mozgov and Memphis’ Kosta Koufos have swirled through rumors in relation to the Cavs for a reason. They were the best options on the board that could in some sense be deemed expendable to their respective teams. They were also the two most realistic options for a Cleveland team that likely needed to fit an acquired center into its $5.3 million trade exception. The roster’s current construction has left the Cavs short on movable assets, even in its apparent need.
Given all that, Mozgov was as solid as an attempt could be made at addressing the gaping hole in Cleveland’s middle. When Anderson Varejao went down for the remainder of the season with an Achilles injury, the team’s defensive misery was laid bare. A finish in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per possession seemed destined. Mozgov at the very least helps to change that trajectory, even if he doesn’t project the kind of defensive influence to fully redeem what remains a flawed team defense. Keep in mind, after all, the Nuggets allowed 106.8 points per 100 possessions with Mozgov on the floor, per NBA.com -- a mark worse than the Cavaliers’ average. Pairing Mozgov with David Blatt (who coached him to oppressive coverage as a member of the Russian national team) in a new context should make better use of his skills, though the 7-1 center won’t get far without improvement across the roster.
Attempts to improve the quality of defensive personnel on the roster can only do so much to counteract what has been a poor show of defensive effort and focus. In that, some corresponding change needs to come from the likes of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James -- none of which has yet been adequate on that end of the court. Mozgov makes for a much better safety net than Tristan Thompson, and that in itself might incrementally raise the level of execution within Cleveland’s defense. The addition of Shumpert, once healthy, could contribute the same. Shumpert’s defensive performance this season hasn’t at all held up to his reputation, though the very fact that the Cavs will soon have a hard-working, defensive-minded guard in the mix means something.
There’s also little way to view these paired deals as anything but a relative upgrade. Quibble at the price of acquiring Mozgov if you will, but he’s a center for a team that had none. That he’s done great defensive work for his new coach in the past only adds to the appeal. Shumpert might not be quite the defender that some have purported, yet he’s still far more capable and committed on that end than any of Cleveland’s alternatives or the outgoing Waiters. Those two additions (along with Smith) will not fundamentally change what the Cavs are. They do, however, position Cleveland to contend more credibly through balance. This is a chance at defensive competence for a team that badly needs it. If the price of doing business is two likely late first rounders and a pass on Waiters’ future, so be it.