For many, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round exit at the hand of the New York Knicks is still a bitter pill to swallow. It first was hard when the Miami Heat smoked those same Knicks in the second round, especially with the Heat on the verge of making the NBA Finals. It’s difficult for some to watch LeBron James, a player linked in lockstep to the legacy of the modern Cavaliers, battle and carry his Lakers to the Western Conference Finals. For others, the fact that the Boston Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals again behind a young, star-studded core is frustrating – especially when Cleveland had Boston’s number all regular season.
For others, it was tough when Cavaliers star Donovan Mitchell was watching and cheering on Jayson Tatum and the Celtics. Doubly so for others seeing Mitchell cheer on his New York Mets after defeating the Cleveland Guardians in extra innings. How dare Mitchell have friends and colleagues within the same sphere of employment? Moreover, how dare he root for his favorite team – which has also employed his father for nearly his entire life?
Regardless, Cleveland went home earlier than expected, and, despite the regular season success, that can crystallize things as a disappointment. Thankfully, the Cavaliers aren’t a team that’s a dying star, stagnant and collapsing on itself. Instead, Cleveland has a ton of young talent with much room for improvement. Sure, there are still more questions than answers about this team after the sudden end to the season. But if the Cavaliers can iron out their rougher edges and learn from their mistakes, the end of this season will be a footnote in their story.
Again, Cleveland is flawed as currently constructed. But, as Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff would say, the NBA is a copycat league, and there’s a lot Cleveland can apply from this postseason. Obviously, with how well players like Jayson Tatum, LeBron James, Jaylen Brown, Michael Porter Jr. and Jimmy Butler have performed, the Cavaliers need to nail down their starting small forward. Mind you, all the players mentioned before are bonafide superstars or at least stars in their own right. Players like that don’t grow on trees, nor are they readily available. Nevertheless, one throughline with that bunch can apply to what Cleveland needs and what President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman stressed the team needs: shooting.
The Denver Nuggets have typically played only one non-shooter at any given moment against the Lakers. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is trying a similar approach around their star-studded duo of James and Anthony Davis. Miami has done it by peppering rotations featuring Heat stars Butler or Bam Adebayo on the floor with Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin to provide spacing. Finally, despite their recent cold streak, the Celtics have three-point shooting available from every player other than Robert Williams III, a traditional rim-running center.
Making shooting a priority is a product of modern basketball and, as Bickerstaff has implied, is something every team is copying from one another. The Cavaliers already have stellar shooting from Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. They even have it from Caris LeVert – who had his best season overall in three-point shooting last year. But, after that trio, things fall apart to the wayside for Cleveland.
Isaac Okoro’s shot cannot keep opposing defenses honest. Dean Wade’s shot, meanwhile, abandoned him after a shoulder injury, and Cedi Osman’s is too inconsistent. Ricky Rubio’s percentages have come back down to Earth. Like Williams III, Jarrett Allen is a traditional big man, while Evan Mobley, Allen’s starting co-partner, is still searching for his touch from beyond the arc.
If the Cavaliers are hellbent and determined to stick with Allen and Mobley starting together since it gave them the league’s best overall defense, they must supplant shooting around them. That’s why, multiple league sources say, Cleveland is monitoring the options available on the upcoming free agency market – including Max Strus, Josh Richardson, Terence Davis, Lonnie Walker IV and Malik Beasley. Sure, it’s a lengthy list, but those same sources have expressed that the Cavaliers are mindful of the fact that high-quality shooting is a premium commodity, especially in free agency.
Cleveland will compete with every team on the open market, so they must keep their options open when acquiring shooting. Naturally, you can hope there will be internal growth and improvement from Cleveland’s Island of Misfit Toys regarding their respective three-point shooting. Moreover, you’d hope that Mobley will be the player who takes the biggest leap in adding a reliable three-pointer to his repertoire. But what if Mobley didn’t need to prioritize adding a three-point shot this offseason? Instead, what if he further fleshed out something that’s always been great: his playmaking?
The way the Nuggets play around the god-given abilities of superstar big man Nikola Jokic is beautiful to watch. Denver’s offense always has a consistent purpose in their movement, cuts and screens, and it’s all centered around a heliocentric Jokic-based hub through his passing. In their three wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nuggets have scored 83 points from 34 Jokic assists, with 15 of those dimes being three-pointers. Many of those assisted shots have been back-breaking at the expense of the Lakers and, more importantly, is why Denver is a win away from playing for an NBA Championship.
Granted, Mobley isn’t a one-to-one match to Jokic regarding passing, and that’s a relatively lofty and unrealistic expectation of what Mobley is capable of as a playmaker. Nevertheless, the foundation is there for Cleveland to add a game-changing wrinkle to their offense, especially if they’re committed to addressing their shooting concerns this summer. In his 2022-23 campaign, Mobley averaged the second-most passes per game on the Cavaliers with 43.1 deliveries. Of those 43.1 passes per game, the fifty-seventh most in the NBA, Mobley created 7.2 points per game via assist, which ranks him 134th in the NBA and fifth overall on the Cavaliers.
Jokic, meanwhile, averaged a league-best 75.0 passes per game for the Nuggets and created 24.5 points per game off of assists, which was fourth-best in the NBA. In the postseason, those numbers jumped considerably for Jokic, with the Serbian big man averaging 81.0 passes per game and creating 25.2 points per game from his creation alone. For those wondering, Mobley could have been better in the playoffs – averaging 46.8 passes per game, all while creating 4.6 points per game off of assists. It was clear that Mobley and the Cavaliers were rattled in the heat of the moment this postseason. However, heading into next year, Cleveland must copy what’s working for Denver and apply it to their offense.
During his exit interview, Altman did stress that the Cavaliers need to utilize Mobley more on offense and facilitate their attack through their young star’s unique attribute. Of course, much of it hinges on whether Cleveland can lock up a few options to legitimize their perimeter attack. But, with Garland and Mitchell finding their identity off the ball, they can feed off of Mobley’s passing and bending of opposing defenses. Sure, it will differ from what Jokic has been doing for the Nuggets. But further unlocking and empowering Mobley’s passing will add dynamism missing from the Cavaliers on offense for quite a while.
That’s not to say that Cleveland shouldn’t expect Mobley to continue working on his outside shot. Mobley has been working with assistant coach Luke Walton at length on his perimeter game, and it’s starting to bear fruit. The mechanics, footwork motion and placement all seem fundamentally sound for Mobley’s shooting, and it’s much improved compared to his rookie season. Unfortunately, he still cannot rely on it enough to make it a staple within his offensive arsenal. Somewhat to a fault, Mobley would instead lean on something he can rely on versus something he’s still working through to help the Cavaliers win. That’s where Mobley’sedge as a playmaker trumps his outside shooting as a serious wrinkle on offense.
There are still more questions than answers about what this Cleveland team could be when everything starts to click. But the Cavaliers can take plenty of notes on what’s working for the four remaining teams and apply it to their style of play in the future. Ultimately, every NBA team is a chameleon in some way, shape or form. They all try to keep changing colors until, one day; they’re glistening in championship gold.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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