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In January, the downtrodden Denver Nuggets traded a top asset, the reasonably compensated (a little over $4 million a year) burgeoning center Timofey Mozgov to the Cavaliers for two "first-round" draft picks of extremely dubious value.
When fans start identifying reasons for the Bulls losing just about as winnable a playoff game as a basketball team can lose, they can point to Derrick Rose's disappearances for long stretches, Mike Dunleavy's offensive failures, J.R. Smith's killer three-point shooting and LeBron James simply being one of the top five players in NBA history.
But the main thing that killed the Bulls on Sunday was the Cavaliers' huge advantage at center. Joakim Noah had a great game defensively, but he is in an offensive funk so severe he may have to hire a team of sports psychologists just to help him some day actually make two shots in a row.
Sure, Pau Gasol was out with a hammy, but Gasol's defensive deficiencies are significant enough that it is truly questionable whether the offense he brings makes up for his difficulties at the other end. If the Bulls could somehow figure out a way to have Noah play D and Gasol O, they could roll to an NBA championship. But I'm pretty confident the NBA won't be instituting hockey-style mid-action line changes any time soon.
On the other side, the Cavaliers' lop-sided advantage at the position (Mozgov was 4-of-5 from the field and 7-of-8 from the line, had three assists and three blocked shots in 39 stellar minutes and his determined put-back over Noah and resulting celebration would have been seen as the final nail in the coffin but for the Bulls' little miracle of a comeback in the last 1:30) stems from a mid-winter trade that is a great example of why teams like Denver continue to suck.
The Nuggets plummeted from perennial playoff contender to lottery repeat offender these last two seasons after they fired a successful veteran coach (George Karl) and brought in an overmatched former player (Bryan Shaw, who has now also been fired). We wouldn't want that to happen to our team, would we Bulls fans? Sure hope Bulls management isn't that stupid. Denver suffered from a rash of injuries in 2013-14 but this past year they were just bad.
A big reason for the badness was that the team decided to tank the season in January. And the first step in that process was trading Mozgov, a 28-year-old, 7-foot-1, 250-pound force who was just starting to round into his own, as effective big men often do a little later than guards and forwards in the NBA.
One of the first chapters in the tanking textbook tells teams that any trade that brings back multiple draft picks is a good trade. And so the Nuggets traded him for two protected first-round picks. The word "protected" is why I put quotations around "first-round" earlier. As is often the case with "protected first round picks," neither of them will result in a pick this draft (because the teams that had them negotiated to not give them up if the team did poorly enough for the picks to have actual value).
One of those picks was so valuable (not), that shortly thereafter, the Nuggets turned around and gave it away to the Philadelphia 76ers in order to save $12 million. The Nuggets wanted to dump JaVale McGee's disastrous contract but the only way the 76ers would take it is if they got that pick. The Nuggets may eventually get the other pick from the Trail Blazers (though not this year) but only if the Trail Blazers are good enough for the pick to no longer be "protected," i.e., if the pick is in the bottom half of the first round and therefore not very valuable.
Mozgov may not have been the sort of center that a team that wants to run, run and run like the Nuggets wants to have out there terribly frequently (and Denver does have promising 20-year-old big man Jusuf Nurkic). But Mozgov is the type of center a team better have if it wants to contend for a championship these days and he was way too valuable to give away for an at-best mediocre pick.
Look at the teams that are still alive. We are keenly aware of the players the Bulls and Cavs have in the middle. With star guard John Wall on the sideline with an injury, the Wizards have taken a 2-1 lead on Atlanta because their bigs, Marcin Gortat and Nene, have been way better than the Hawks' bigs.
Center Marc Gasol has led Memphis to a shocking 2-1 series lead over Golden State. Center DeAndre Jordan has led the Clippers to a 3-1 lead over the Rockets (whose overrated center Dwight Howard is simply going down in flames again).
Did I mention that Mozgov is all of 28 years old? Barring injury, he will be a big-time center in the NBA for a long time to come. Probably for about the same length of time the Nuggets will continue to bottom feed.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.