Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers leaned on playing to their strengths through their big men. Sure, there was offensive firepower in the backcourt as well with All-star point guard Darius Garland running the show. But, at the end of the day, the Cavaliers last season had a fairly simple ethos: dominating opponents on the interior on either end of the floor through their superstar tandem of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.
Of course, Cleveland’s star duo was also supported by supplemental shooting and rebounding from fellow big men Lauri Markkanen, Kevin Love and at times, Dean Wade. In fact, Markkanen was even a starter alongside Mobley and Allen – where he averaged 14.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and also connected on 35.8% of his three-point attempts in 30.8 minutes per game.
Markkanen, along with fellow spacers like Love and Wade, were all key components in making playing so many big men at any given moment work. Sure it’s a bit of an antiquated way to go about things in the modern NBA. But, with the Cavaliers finishing last season 44-38 overall there’s a reason why this story is being written and why any of us aren’t on an NBA coaching staff.
Fast forward to now, and things are a lot different on the hardwood for Cleveland. Markkanen is gone after being one of the key pieces in the Cavaliers’ trade to acquire Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Sure, Love and Wade are still in town for Cleveland. But, Markkanen was a key component to the Cavaliers playing big stylistically.
Naturally, the acquisition of Mitchell has shifted things for Cleveland as they’ve had to go back to playing a more traditional starting lineup all while trying to find a nuanced balance between all their stars. More than anything, the offense will be funneled through Garland and Mitchell.
At the end of the day, that’s ideally what you want too. The Cavaliers want to play to the strengths of arguably their two best players and, in turn, have a trickle-down effect on everyone else offensively. In order to make that happen, you need to have the ball in either Mitchell’s or Garland’s hands. So far, that’s been the case with Mitchell leading the team in usage percentage at 32.2% and Garland just behind him at 29.1%.
The numbers between Mitchell and Garland will continuously fluctuate all season long and, eventually, they’ll find a happy medium. But, even with a newly-formed offensive wrinkle, it doesn’t mean Cleveland has to abandon its core identity either. Instead, they can further evolve their primary ethos of playing big and dominating the paint. And although it’s early into the season, the Cavaliers are showing early signs of their next evolution of playing big on either end of the floor.
Adding Mitchell alongside Garland, and inserting Caris LeVert in at the small forward spot, has increased a lot of the defensive pressure Mobley and Allen have to deal with. Due to this added pressure, that’s why the defensive evolution has become to fruition sooner than many expected. At the rim, Allen is allowing only 2.0 field goals per game and, on average, is only allowing 42.9% of shots attempted within that distance to connect. Mobley, meanwhile, is just behind his partner – allowing 3.8 field goals per game at the rim and, on average, allowing 57.5% of attempts at the bucket to connect.
That alone is fairly impressive for such a young duo and is also why Cleveland is the third-best team in terms of defensive rating already this season. But, in regards to Mobley, it’s so much more than that. According to Synergy, Mobley is allowing 0.57 points per possession when having to defend in isolation. That means that whenever Mobley is forced to defend a player on the wing or in isolation, he’s seldom letting his opponent score. So much so that Mobley currently grades as the best isolation defender in the league – allowing only 1 bucket from Pascal Siakam in the Cavaliers’ season opener.
“The team definitely puts a lot of emphasis on that,” said Mobley to Right Down Euclid. “Like, me being a defender and being one of the top defenders on our team. So, any time that challenge comes up, I really try to step up and be that guy to get stops.”
Mind you, Allen is no slouch either in isolation and has shown a willingness to defend players in isolation as well. In the team’s latest overtime win over the Boston Celtics, Allen made several clutch defensive stops against Jayson Tatum, one of the best isolation scorers in the league. While Allen has only spent 13.9% of his defensive possessions defending in isolation, he’s also only allowed 1.18 points per possession in those scenarios as well.
“I find it as a fun challenge,” said Allen to Right Down Euclid. “Against Kuzma the other night, he made the shot and tapped me on the back and said ‘Good job.’ But, it’s a good challenge for me and I like taking those challenges.”
Clearly, Allen won’t primarily be an isolation defender and the numbers clearly show that his greatest strength is defending the basket. But, with how multifaceted both he and Mobley are on defense, it’s taking clearly taking Cleveland to new heights on that end of the court and allowing their core identity to further grow and flourish.
Offensively, meanwhile, things aren’t coming to a head as quickly for the Tower City tandem. But, there are some unique offensive wrinkles starting to form that are coexisting alongside the new dichotomy spearheaded by Garland and Mitchell. Curiously enough, it’s somewhat similar to a part of what makes the Cavaliers’ starting backcourt so lethal: passing.
Obviously, neither Mobley nor Allen will be as effective as their fellow co-stars in regards to passing. They just will never have the ball in their hands enough in order to make that happen. But, with Mobley assisting on 9.4% of Cleveland’s field goals while on the floor and Allen doing the same at a 6.8% rate, there’s clearly something cooking with the two as offensive creators. Especially when they’re working exclusively with each other.
More often than not, the Cavaliers will utilize Mobley as an offensive hub near the free throw line on offense. This is an ideal way to play to Mobley’s strengths as an offensive creator as it allows him to kick it back out to players on the perimeter as defenses collapse their attention toward him. Or, more importantly, Mobley can further take the top off the defense by throwing it down even lower to a waiting Allen, who can then get an easy bucket at the basket.
There’s also the inverse of this between the two as well. After Mobley kicks it down to Allen, he can read and react to what the opposing defense is throwing his way. If the bucket isn’t there, he can instead kick it out to a shooter on the perimeter or back to Mobley, who has shown a willingness as a shooter this season as well. This big-to-big passing between these two has become an interesting offensive wrinkle for Cleveland and, according to Allen, something that has been in the works for a while.
“It started last year whenever he would get fronted in the post,” said Allen to Right Down Euclid. “It’s something we did practice and something J.B. tried to instill in us when we first started playing together. Again, I think it’s still blossoming and it’s more than just a set action. We’re starting to pass to each other in broken-down defenses.”
“We want our bigs to take care of each other,” said Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid. “No one understands the job of a big man and how unheralded that job can be at times. So, we want our big guys to look out for each other.
“Obviously, it’s not a selfish thing. Like, when a big has the ball and there’s another big open, then you throw him the ball. We’re asking our big guys to do a ton defensively. How they protect the rim, rebound the ball and they guard multiple positions. Offensively, everybody wants to feel a part of it. So, the bigs work together defensively and we expect the same of them offensively as well.”
Again, it’s early, but, there are clear indications already that the Cavaliers haven’t abandoned what got them to where they are currently. Instead, their bigs have grown and adapted to a more backcourt-centralized offense. As the passing grows from Mobley and Allen as defenses collapse on them, it can lead to easier three-point opportunities for a trigger-happy Cleveland squad.
With everyone sharing the wealth on offense, it can lead to the Cavaliers becoming one of the most balanced teams in the league on either end of the floor. It’s going to take time, and, thankfully, the defense is already further ahead than expected with Mobley and Allen locking things down for Cleveland. It’s only a matter of time before the offense catches up and things evolve even further.
Featured image credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
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 a week on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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