Three months after it was initially reported that Tristan Thompson and the Cleveland Cavaliers had agreed to an extension on his rookie deal, the two sides are still no closer to an agreement, even with training camps set to open next week. Thompson and his agent Rich Paul see the salary cap set to explode next summer and they don’t want to budge off a max offer while Cleveland is trying to maintain some semblance of financial responsibility after handing out hundreds of millions in contracts over the last year. Hanging over everything is the impending free agency of Timofey Mozgov, the other key piece in the Cavs' frontcourt.

Before paying either Thompson or Mozgov, Cleveland already has a literal embarrassment of riches upfront. They gave Anderson Varejao a three-year $30 million contract before the start of last season, they just gave Kevin Love a five-year $110 million extension and LeBron James is in line for an absolutely mammoth one of his own next summer. The question isn’t just whether the Cavs can afford to pay all of their big men. It’s whether there are enough shots, touches and minutes to go around.

The season-ending injuries to Varejao (near the start of the season) and Love (in the first round of the playoffs) were the best things that could have happened to Thompson and Mozgov. They both thrived in expanded roles on the biggest stage of the sport - they were the starting frontcourt on a team that went to the NBA Finals and they each played a ton of minutes next to LeBron James as the sole big man in a four-out offense. Even if the older and more injury-prone Varejao gets the short end of the stick this season, Love’s return to the fold means fewer minutes for the two members of the Cleveland frontcourt still waiting to get paid.

After barely having enough guys to fill out a rotation in the playoffs, David Blatt is going to have to make some tough decisions when it comes to playing time. At this stage in his career, LeBron is at his best when playing as a small-ball PF next to three wing shooters. Blatt may not use those line-ups as much in the regular season when he is trying to save LeBron’s legs, but when push comes to shove in May and June, he’s going to go with the line-ups that best utilize his most important player. While Dan Gilbert has had no problem busting out the checkbook, he would probably blanche at paying out huge sums in luxury tax penalties for a fourth big man. Just as important, a guy in his prime making upwards of $15 million isn’t going to want to play fewer than 20 minutes a game in the playoffs.

The question becomes which guy is more important to Cleveland - Thompson or Mozgov?

They each bring something different to the table. Mozgov is the biggest guy in the Cleveland frontcourt, a mountain of a man (7’1 250) who covers up the paint and can bang with the biggest players in the NBA. Thompson is smaller (6’9 240), faster and more nimble, an offensive rebounding machine who can move his feet like a guard and switch on the pick-and-roll. Thompson is one of the longest tenured players on the Cavas' roster and he shares an agent with LeBron, who has said he thinks Thompson should spend the rest of his career in Cleveland. Mozgov came to the Cavs at mid-season and immediately helped turn their season around. There was more to it than that - LeBron drinking from the Fountain of Youth during his two-week sabbatical to Miami, losing Dion Waiters and then acquiring JR Smith and Iman Shumpert all helped - but there’s no denying Mozgov’s importance to their success.

Of the two, Mozgov is by far the more skilled offensive player. Not only is he more capable of scoring with his back to the basket, he’s a better free-throw shooter and he can step out and knock down a mid-range jumper, something which Thompson has long struggled. Even after his highly-publicized decision to switch shooting hands two summers ago, he still has very little range on his jumper and isn’t a threat to defenses outside of the paint.

Despite the difference in skill level, though, Thompson has a higher overall offensive rating (121) than Mozgov (117). That’s probably because Cleveland doesn’t have as much of a temptation to run offense through him when he is in the game, which in turn redistributes shots to their star players on the perimeter. When you have LeBron, Love and Kyrie Irving, you don’t really need to feature your center in the offense. Thompson makes a living doing the dirty work, setting screens, crashing the offensive boards and not looking for his own shot unless he has absolutely no other options.

On the other side of the ball, Mozgov is the only guy on the Cleveland roster who can play high-level interior defense, as Love, LeBron and Thompson are all natural PF’s without the size or inclination to protect the rim. Thompson, meanwhile, is more capable of guarding out on the perimeter and he’s great at guarding face-up PF’s like Paul Millsap, whom he completely shut down in the Eastern Conference Finals.

If you go by revealed preference in the NBA Finals, it would seem like Thompson is the guy over Mozgov. Blatt chose to have Thompson’s speed against the Golden State Warriors when they went small, keeping Mozgov off the floor because of his inability to defend 25+ feet from the basket. My question is whether Blatt made the right choice. It’s not like the Cavs had much success defending the Warriors small-ball attacks as the Finals went on while Thompson’s inability to score made him an increasing liability on offense. Despite how well Mozgov was playing on offense, Blatt blinked first, going small and allowing the Warriors to dictate the flow of the game.

Not only was it going to be next to impossible to beat Golden State at their own game, the numbers over the course of the season clearly show that Mozgov was the more valuable of the two:


ORTG (on court)

ORTG (off court)


DRTG (on court)

DRTG (off court)


Net Points Per 100 Possessions

















However, even these are a bit misleading because it only tells us how the two were utilized by the Cleveland coaching staff in terms of the line-ups they played with and the offensive and defensive strategies in use when they were on the floor. The key for any coach is finding the right combinations of players to put on the floor. What a guy does in isolation isn’t nearly as important as how how his game corresponds with the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates.

For all the concern about Love’s fit with the team, line-ups with LeBron at the 3, Love at the 4 and either big man at the 5 were absolutely killer.



Net Points

PPP (points per possession)

Opponent PPP

Thompson at 5





Mozgov at 5





Thompson’s group was better on offense and Mozgov’s group was better on defense. When Mozgov was on the floor, opposing teams took fewer shots at the rim (27.4% vs. 30.1%) and shot a lower percentage on those shots (61.1% vs. 65.3%). But while Mozgov shot the ball at a preposterously high percentage (65.5%) playing next to LeBron and Love, the team as a whole shot way more free throws with Thompson (253 vs. 414), presumably because they were generating more activity in the half-court by running more pick-and rolls that featured Thompson diving to the rim.

Where it gets really interesting is when you start looking at the two-man combinations.




Opponent PPP

LeBron + Love




LeBron + Thompson




LeBron + Mozgov




Love + Thompson




Love + Mozgov




A couple of things jump out right away:

1. The Love + LeBron combination isn’t quite as effective as you would assume on offense given their skill-sets. Even though it has the best spacing of the group, it doesn’t stand out from any of the other combinations and it gets killed on defense.

2. Maybe more importantly, every small-ball unit that Thompson is on gets killed on defense. For all his ability to guard on the perimeter, the lack of rim protection and size upfront with him at the 5 becomes a serious issue.

3. The two best defensive units feature Mozgov.

4. In terms of trying to utilize Love more, he is a much better fit with Mozgov than Thompson. The defense is less of an issue with more size behind him and he’s a much more effective individual scorer (1.21 PPP vs. 1.06) when paired with a big man who can score in the post and step out as opposed to a big man who needs to be used in the pick-and-roll to be effective.

5. The most effective unit on both sides of the floor is the unit that was used the least frequently - LeBron + Mozgov in space. That’s the pairing that I want to see a lot more and that’s the one I worry we’ll never get to see if Thompson and Love are both coming off enormous extensions.

Cleveland could theoretically keep all of their frontcourt players, divvy up the minutes at PF and C between Love, Thompson and Mozgov and use LeBron at the PF only on rare occasions. However, before you even get into the mind-boggling luxury tax penalties that would require, every team has to play small at least some of the time in the modern NBA. If I have to choose between Thompson and Mozgov, I’d much rather have the big Russian. If the Cavs pay all of their big men except for the biggest one of them all, they may end up making a huge mistake.