Up until now, Timofey Mozgov had the Nets’ center position essentially locked up. But after using the hulking Russian off the bench for the first time this season Tuesday, coach Kenny Atkinson has thrown it wide open, a mix-and-match mesh of matchups and meritocracy.
“There is no reaction,” Mozgov said. “I still have to do my work, still have to be ready and come ready on the court and do my best. It doesn’t matter where I’m starting, whether it’s starting five or not. It’s still the same. You have to play basketball at the end of the day.”
Clearly, the center spot is in flux. Backup power forward Trevor Booker got the nod there Tuesday versus the Celtics, and though Atkinson said that was due to facing mobile Al Horford, he was noncommittal about whom he’ll start Friday against the Jazz or Sunday versus the Warriors.
“That’s how it’s going to be going forward,” Atkinson said. “We’re still trying to figure out the whole big situation and how we can be the most efficient. We’re still starting to discover who those guys are. That’s a work in progress. Even [Friday], I haven’t made a decision how we’ll go — [the Jazz] go small a lot — figuring where Timmy fits and Tyler [Zeller], your centers and how to play them.”
At least on Tuesday, he decided to go with the smaller duo of Booker (12 points, eight boards) and Quincy Acy (19:21), and they played well. Mozgov got a season-low 5:37, while Zeller went back to not playing.
“I’m thinking of Golden State going forward and those teams that really have four, sometimes five guards, out there,” Atkinson said. “It’s just the reality of the NBA. Obviously, Trevor and Quincy and Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] are a little more equipped to go out and guard on the perimeter at the 3-point line.”
Booker (6-foot-8, 228 pounds), Acy (6-7, 240) and Jarrett Allen (6-10, 246) are all better equipped to deal with stretch bigs. But there’s also the matter of the pick-and-roll — not just guarding it, but Mozgov’s fumbling of passes while running it.
“We have to give it to him in better positions, but yes, he’s fumbled a few. He’s got to improve in that,” said Atkinson, who added Mozgov took the news professionally. “He’s a soldier. He understands we’re still trying to figure it out. I know that’s not easy for him. It’s not easy for any player.
“But we have to figure it out first for the team. He’s a consummate pro. I told him before shoot-around [Tuesday], ‘Listen, we’re starting Trevor.’ He said, ‘Fine, whatever you need coach.’ He’s that type of guy. … What we’re trying to do is figure out his role. All of them — him and Tyler and Jarrett.”
Mozgov’s role is shrinking, going from 18 minutes in Portland to 10 at Utah to a cameo Tuesday.
Asked if he was surprised, Mozgov replied: “Yeah, it’s not like we talked about it for weeks, but I’m a soldier. What can I say?
“I do my job. Like Kenny said, I’m a soldier. I do my job. It is not my decision how much time I play on the court. So I just do my job, try to be ready every night, go out there and play hard.”
For his part, Booker wasn’t fretting over his size or the Nets’ size — or lack thereof.
“Not really. We can still handle our own,” Booker said. “I’m cool with it. Playing the 5 or the 4, I’m down. I’m down for just being on the court. … With us going small, we can get up and down the floor faster, so there will definitely be some advantages.”
Point guard Spencer Dinwiddie agreed.
“Jarrett and Booker both give us the capability of playing extremely fast,” Dinwiddie said. “Mozzie is the slower big out of those three. At the same time, he’s the biggest body and takes up the most space in the paint. So there’s pros and cons.”
The Nets still have not filed for a disabled player exception for Jeremy Lin, out for the season with a knee injury. They have until Jan. 15. The exception allows a team over the salary cap to add another player if it loses someone to a serious injury.