The mini-turnaround didn’t happen right away. Cleveland lost four straight when Smith began suiting up for the team. Three of those losses occurred with Mozgov in his new threads, and the 107-100 loss against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 13 came as LeBron James’ returned from injury.
Despite the initial losing streak, the Cavs' new pieces are starting to jell with the team's current stars. As a result, Cleveland is beginning to build confidence and a newfound identity.
Playing for an atrocious Knicks team -- currently the worst team in the league with a 7-36 record -- could demoralize any player.
Smith was mediocre with New York this season, averaging 10.9 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game while shooting 40.2 percent from the field and 35.6 from beyond the arc. This all while first-year head coach Derek Fisher failed to implement a successful version of Phil Jackson’s famed triangle offense.
Though Smith didn't make a shot in his first game with Cleveland -- shooting a paltry 0-of-5 from the field -- his scoring average has improved by nearly four points with his new squad putting up 14.6 points per game through eight games. He had a rough shooting night against Utah (5-of-16 from the field, 2-of-11 from deep), but he’s sprinkled in three games scoring 20 or more points.
As a role player who can stretch the floor and knock down open triples, Smith is a valuable commodity -- as he showed by winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2013.
If anything, Smith should consider launching those three-pointers with even more frequency. Only 23 percent of his attempts have been shot from beyond the arc since joining the Cavs, yet he’s making them at a 35.5-percent clip. Cutting down on the dreaded long twos needs to be a priority for the rejuvenated shooting guard as he settles in with his new teammates, but the initial outlook has been positive.
Mozgov’s Rim Protection
Even before veteran big man Anderson Varejao suffered a season-ending Achilles tear, the Cavs’ interior defense was awful. Cleveland just didn’t have the personnel required to intimidate opponents down low. Their leading shot blocker was 6-foot-9 Tristan Thompson -- who’s averaging less than one per game. Mozgov isn’t a terror in terms of shot-blocking prowess, but he’s an improvement over anything Cleveland had in-house.
The towering 7-foot-1 Russian is averaging 1.2 blocks per contest on the season (1.1 with Cleveland). That’s not even in the same stratosphere when compared to elite rim protectors like Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, but it’s a tremendous upgrade for David Blatt’s roster.
Of course, blocking shots isn’t the only measure of solid interior defense. Case in point: during Cleveland’s 108-94 win over the Bulls, Mozgov played 33 minutes and frustrated rejuvenated big man Pau Gasol into a 4-of-14 shooting night. Mozgov didn’t shy away from the veteran Spaniard and made scoring difficult for him in the process.
“I just think when you have someone who can protect the rim and know he’s going to be there it helps a lot,” James said of his new teammate, per an article from the Plain Dealer’s Chris Fedor. “He’s very big and he plays big. A lot of big guys don’t always play big. That’s something that he brings.”
Mozgov’s ability to defend talented post players down low and alter shots when guards penetrate into the paint will be invaluable for Cleveland -- especially in the postseason. Surrendering two first-round picks for him (which will almost certainly fall late in the draft) isn’t outrageous on that basis.
Mozgov and Smith have made big-time contributions in a small sample size with their new team. It’s worth noting, however, that this mini win streak for the Cavs has coincided with LeBron’s return from lingering knee and back injuries.
James sat out eight consecutive games while getting his body back in peak physical condition (the Cavs went 1-7 in his absence). The results following his prolonged respite have been eye-popping.
Since returning to the court against the Suns, the four-time MVP is averaging 30.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. Those numbers are vintage LeBron, and they’re tied directly to his health.
James said as much by revealing that he felt better in the first three games since his return than he did all season, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Smith and Mozgov have provided an offensive and defensive spark, respectively. Shumpert’s eventual return to the court will provide yet another useful piece to the overall puzzle. Ultimately, however, Cleveland’s success is dependent on LeBron's health and production on the court. If he continues to lead by example, everyone else should begin to fall in line. Perhaps the Cavaliers will finally start playing up to their lofty expectations from this point forward.
Note: All stats used in this article are accurate as of Jan. 22 and the visuals will update automatically.
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