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Timofey Mozgov: The Forgotten Center

Timofey Mozgov is set for a career resurgence with the Brooklyn Nets, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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When the Brooklyn Nets agreed to ship long-time franchise center Brook Lopez to the Los Angeles Lakers in late June, Timofey Mozgov was a mere footnote in the trade, a salary dump of highest variety–an afterthought.

In fact, Mozgov has been an afterthought for much of his career and certainly so after the Lakers pivoted to a younger rotation in February 2016. The demotion came a little more than halfway through the first season of Mozgov’s massive four-year deal worth $64 million. Benched in favor of Ivica Zubac and other experimental lineups, the Mozgov contract looked unfathomably bad, an albatross-sized penance the Lakers’ front office would carry for quite some time.

Ultimately, Lakers had to part with the talented D’Angelo Russell just to entice a far-from-contending franchise like the Nets to take on the final three years of Mozgov’s guaranteed contract. In the ever-evolving NBA landscape, Mozgov and his hard-nosed approach ran out of style as many of his best colleagues expanded their range and added a three-point shooting touch. For many, it’s been easy to forget that Mozgov provided quality minutes to an NBA Finals-bound franchise in Cleveland not all that long ago.

Mozgov is no future All-Star, nor can he go toe-to-toe with the league’s brightest stars, but for the time being, the Nets have found themselves a serviceable asset at center.

Unsurprisingly, Mozgov operates well out of the pick-and-roll—something he’s found success doing alongside the aforementioned Russell. At 7-foot-1 and 275 pounds, Mozgov is an absolute hazard to navigate at times, particularly so when he’s rolling toward the hoop with a head full of steam. He’s a career 53.4 percent shooter and Mozgov’s penchant for the dirty work can make him a nuisance at times. Mozgov doesn’t shoot three-pointers like Lopez just yet (although he hinted at it shortly after the trade), but the Nets should have no problem acclimating him to head coach Kenny Atkinson’s uptempo, high-volume offense.

Following his trade to Cleveland during the 2014-15 season, Mozgov averaged 10.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 25 minutes per game for the Cavaliers. In all likelihood, the Nets would be satisfied with an output in that same ballpark, providing steady screens for their two-headed backcourt and cleaning up any easy chances under the rim. Mozgov would see his minutes drop from 25 to just 17.4 in 2015-16, but he still started 48 games for the eventual champions.

Currently, Mozgov is playing with Russia at FIBA EuroBasket and, through the tournament’s semifinals, has averaged 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds on 57.7 percent shooting from the floor.

Against international competition, Mozgov has used his burly frame to punish smaller defenders on the block, bullying his way into high-percentage opportunities. For all of his shortcomings, Mozgov is a talented rebounder when given the chance and he’ll have plenty of them with the Nets.

While the sudden realization of a three-point shot was a great development for Lopez personally, it often stretched the Nets thin under the hoop. The Nets attempted 31.6 three-pointers per game in 2016-17 and Lopez hoisted up 5.2 of them on his own. Unfortunately, Lopez’s deep positioning often left the undersized Trevor Booker or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in charge of corralling any potential second-chance opportunities—a strategy that often came up empty despite their best efforts.

The addition of both DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe will allow Mozgov to stay right at home and in his rebounding wheelhouse. By all accounts, Atkinson, who was an assistant coach with the New York Knicks when Mozgov signed there during free agency in 2010, is excited to reunite with the center. During the Nets’ introductory press conference for Russell and Mozgov, Atkinson noted that the Russian’s role will not be focused on replacing Lopez.

“We can expect Timmy to be a little bit closer to the basket,” Atkinson said. “We’ll put him in that dunker position behind the basket. He’s really good there. He’s good at the elbows. He’s got a nice jumper.”

The Nets’ 103.5 pace last season was the league’s highest mark and their uptempo offense became a key focus in Atkinson’s modernized run-and-gun system. Still, Lopez typically operated at below-average speeds, often taking his time to post up or trailing fastbreak opportunities for kick-out three-point attempts. At that same press conference, Atkinson heaped praise upon their new starting center and even called Mozgov an elite worker.

“You could see he’s just a direct guy. There’s no B.S. there. He’s upfront,” Atkinson said. “He’s an elite, elite worker, one of the best workers I’ve been around in this league.”

For the Nets, that makes Mozgov an ideal fit.

Given the Nets’ revamped roster of shooters, there’s a chance they’ll take even more three-pointers in 2017-18. Brooklyn badly needed a sturdy player like Mozgov to clean the glass, run the floor and set some solid screens for their robust group of athletes.

With just rookie Jarrett Allen and the newly signed Tyler Zeller occupying space behind Mozgov on the depth chart, he’ll earn the lion’s share of minutes at center for Brooklyn until further notice. As a prospect, Allen is fascinating, but he’ll enter the NBA as one of the league’s youngest players and a less-than-viable option for big minutes right from the opening tip. Thus, the signing of Zeller this week makes sense, if only as insurance against any potentially crippling injury to Mozgov–the new addition poses no serious threat to the Russian’s playing time.

In part thanks to the fit, need and skill set, Mozgov could quite easily have a career year in Brooklyn. Mozgov’s inflated deal has made him an easy target for ridicule, but there’s reason to believe that he’ll not only succeed with Atkinson, but thrive as well. No longer a forgotten man, Mozgov perfectly fits this hodge-podge collection of intriguing prospects and once overpaid veterans.

He won’t replace Lopez, no, not by a long a shot, but a complete renaissance for Mozgov is on the cards as the hard-working rebounder will be key to the Nets’ success this upcoming season.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Bobby Portis’ Time to Shine

Bobby Portis talks to Basketball Insiders about his increased role on offense, the Bulls’ young core of talent and more.

David Yapkowitz

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When the Chicago Bulls acquired Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in the summer of 2016, it was assumed that they were gearing up for another strong season and a playoff appearance. Fred Hoiberg had just finished up his first season as head coach and the team ended with a decent 42-40 record, albeit missing the playoffs.

They struggled the following season, however,but snuck into the postseason as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 41-41 record. They put a brief scare into the Boston Celtics in the first round, but Bulls management ultimately decided to move in another direction. They traded franchise cornerstone Jimmy Butler, bought out Wade’s contract and allowed Rondo to sign elsewhere.

The departure of their veteran players opened up minutes and opportunities for the younger guys on the team, in particular, Bobby Portis. Currently, in his third year with the Bulls, Portis was surrounded by veteran guys during his first couple of years in the league. It’s a different type of environment now in Chicago.

“We went from a veteran-led team, very experienced team, to now having guys on the team here who have never played in the playoffs,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a different team, but at the same time we’re gonna grow together and get better together.”

A McDonald’s All-American coming out of Hall High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Portis was one of the best college basketball players in the nation during the 2014-15 season. He was named the SEC Player of the Year and he declared for the NBA Draft after his sophomore season at the University of Arkansas.

He was selected with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 draft but having joined a team that had serious playoff aspirations, he saw only sporadic playing time as a rookie. His second year in the NBA, he started seeing increased playing time, but he still had a string of DNP’s throughout the year. His role changed this season when the Bulls front office started heading down the rebuilding path.

“I’m just playing more minutes and actually having a defined role on the team. I don’t have to come in worried if I’m gonna play or not, I know I’m gonna play,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the biggest thing for me. Also, the coaching staff having the utmost confidence in me to go out there every night and do what I do.”

This season, he’s emerged as one of the young Bulls most dependable reserves. He’s averaging a career-best 21.3 minutes per game while putting up 13 points on a career-high 10.7 field goal attempts and shooting 47.5 percent from the field. He’s also improved his outside shooting, connecting on 34.7 percent of his attempts from the three-point line.

With many of the Bulls top scoring options gone, Portis has had to take on a much bigger role in the Bulls’ offense. On Thursday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, he dropped a career-high 38 points on 57.7 percent shooting and 6-9 shooting from beyond the arc. In the Bulls’ 22 games since Jan. 1, he’s only failed to reach double-figures in scoring in seven of those games.

“I always say my role is to bring energy and toughness off the bench. Now I feel like my role has changed a little bit,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I have to be more aggressive on the offensive end, even more so than last year. Going out there and trying to make my teammates better, moving the basketball, sharing the basketball, trying to lead by example.”

Although he’s been playing better personally, he’s also seen a change in the team as a whole as the season has progressed. The Bulls dug themselves into a hole to begin the season, losing 17 of their first 20 games. They had a much better stretch during their next 20 games, winning 11 of them, including seven consecutively.

“We’re learning how to close games out, learning how to finish games. That’s something we didn’t do earlier in the season, we let other teams come back and win,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “We’re learning some of each other’s tendencies with the basketball. Having chemistry on the court is always big.”

And as the Bulls move forward with their rebuilding project, they seem to have found at least one player in Portis who can be a part of that. He still has another year left on his contract before he can become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019. He likes what he sees from the Bulls’ young core, and it’s something he’d like the continue to be a part of.

“Guys are going out there and getting minutes,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the biggest thing in this league, you play more minutes you get more experience. It’s having an opportunity.”

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NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler’s Potential Absence Could Doom Minnesota

Should Jimmy Butler miss an extended period of time, the Minnesota Timberwolves could lose footing quickly in the tight Western Conference playoff race.

Dennis Chambers

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Say it ain’t so, Basketball Gods.

In his first game back from the All-Star break, coincidentally after logging zero minutes in the glorified exhibition game, Jimmy Butler left Friday night’s game with an apparent knee injury.

If the worst comes to fruition — a season-ending injury — Butler would join a laundry list of players whose seasons have been cut short.

 Butler’s Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of battling for position amongst their Western Conference peers for playoff spots. At the time of Butler’s injury, seeds three through nine are all separated by one game in the loss column.

Calling it a tight race out West would be a vast understatement. With a few more than 20 games to play, the seeding could land in a different order on basically a nightly basis. And for a team like Minnesota, losing their All-Star and veteran presence could be catastrophic.

But, not all hope is lost.

David Aldridge reported Friday night that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Given how tight the race is amongst the conference, losing Butler for any extended period of time is going to be a big blow to the way Minnesota operates. Very literally, Butler produces a drastic improvement on both ends of the court his team.

On the surface, Butler’s averages are good. They don’t blow you away, but it’s clear that his presence is felt on a nightly basis. 22.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with a 59.3 true shooting percentage is more than worthy of an All-Star selection. But to the naked eye, it doesn’t scream that he’s the team’s most valuable player by a long shot.

So, let’s dig a little deeper.

When Butler is on the court, Minnesota benefits from a 116.3 offensive rating. Houston and Golden State have 115.7 and 115.4 offensive ratings for the season, respectively. The addition of Butler creates more free space for the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play with.

Speaking of those two, with the addition of an established superstar like Butler, they’ve been able to focus more on playing basketball than leading a locker room, allowing for growth in their games — Towns especially.

Truly coming into his own as one of the league’s best big men this season, arguably nobody on Minnesota’s roster benefits more from Butler’s performance on the wing than Towns does. On the court together, Towns sports a pretty 114.1 offensive rating, which produced a satisfying 9.3 net rating. That’s winning basketball.

Take Butler away, though, and things get ugly. Fast.

Because of his vast arsenal of offensive versatility, Towns’ offensive rating doesn’t suffer when Butler isn’t in the fold. But his defense? Well, it falls off of a cliff. Towns’ defensive rating balloons to 120.9, bringing that once impressive 9.3 net rating all the way down to -6.5. Butler alone accounts for a 15.8 point swing in Towns’ net rating. The levels of codependency from Towns to Butler in relation to effective basketball are incredibly concerning if the latter is lost for an extended period of time.

Basketball isn’t just a two-man game, though. So, while Minnesota’s younger All-Star benefits greatly from his elder counterpart, maybe the rest of the roster isn’t in such bad shape without him, right?

Wrong.

In fact, as you could probably assume, the production for the Timberwolves as a whole plummets when Butler grabs a seat on the bench. Shooting percentage, net rating, assist rate, rebound rate, finishing at the rim, defending and just about any other conceivable statistic you can find is worse for Minnesota when Butler isn’t on the floor.

Beyond all of the stats though, Butler represented more to the Timberwolves this season. He was the star to get the team over the hump. The veteran two-way impact player that could take just enough of the load off of the two budding studs in Towns and Wiggins to make Minnesota a threat night in and night out. Tom Thibodeau brought Butler over from Chicago because he knew the level of work ethic and leadership he would bring to a team that had talent, but needed guidance.

Up until Friday night, the pieces were falling into place.

The state of Minnesota will hold its collective breath while waiting for the results of Butler’s MRI. For the sake of Timberwolves fans, the organization and most importantly, Butler himself, hope for a clean scan.

Without it, and without Butler, the team could find itself in a free-fall amid this clustered Western Conference playoff race.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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