In case you haven’t heard, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been pretty bad at defense for the past few years. Being bad at defense is bad, obviously, because the other team is more likely to score more points than you. It’s hard to be successful even with a top-five offense if your defense is next-to-last in the league, as the Cavs’ was this season, and that reared its head throughout the playoffs this season. The Cavs have plenty of decisions to make regarding their roster this summer, but they absolutely have to get better on the defensive end.
If the draft breaks a certain way, that could mean that Mohamaed Bamba is in play for the Cavs with the eighth pick. And if defensive improvement is the goal, Bamba’s as good an option to address that as anyone in the draft. The Texas big man has drawn Rudy Gobert comparisons since last summer, and it’s easy to see why. He stands 7’0” with an astounding 7’10” wingspan, and he finished second to Marshall’s Ajdin Penava with 3.7 blocks per game. He absolutely looks the part of being the NBA’s next great rim protector:
Bamba’s wingspan will be the longest in the NBA, a full inch longer than Gobert’s. That gives him a great natural advantage when it comes to rim protection. His standing reach is 9’6”, meaning that he has to jump four inches to touch the rim. That makes it very difficult to get a shot off against him one-on-one. In the post, you have to bring a standard level of craft, because he’s going to get the best of you otherwise:
Of course, being a productive rim protector is more than just height and length. You have to be able to recognize plays developing, have the quickness to rotate over and shut things down, and be agile enough to defend both the ball-handler and roll man in the pick-and-roll. Bamba has this skill set in his future. He showed the ability to make these simple reads in the pick-and-roll, and he has good footwork for someone his size:
One potential struggle Bamba will have is with rapid change-of-direction. He is good at moving in one direction laterally, but lacks quick hips allowing him to change directions in the way that DeAndre Ayton and Wendell Carter have shown. He could make blocks like this in college, but it’s tough to see him doing the same against someone with an elite NBA handle and athleticism, like Kyrie Irving:
Bamba also struggles in a few other key areas that could limit his NBA effectiveness. He has the physical tools to contain in the pick-and-roll, and his footwork is strong enough that he could become a decent switching big. But his attention to detail is lacking, and that can be a detriment. He is prone to not finishing plays, particularly if he makes a bad read:
This also rears its head in rebounding. Bamba was strong at Texas as a defensive rebounder, thanks primarily to his length. But his lower body strength isn’t where it should be, and he combines this with a lack of motor, rarely boxing opponents out under the glass:
Offensively, Bamba shows the same type of skill set — flashes of elite talent and potentially valuable play, interspersed with a lack of understanding and motor that may limit his ultimate ceiling. Bamba’s length makes him a truly elite rim finisher, shooting 77 percent at the rim (88th percentile of college bigs). He’s at his best diving to the rim, where the gravity of his catch radius forces defenses to cave off shooters.
He’s also a very strong offensive rebounder, with a 12.2 offensive rebound rate and a highlight reel full of putback dunks. These two skills fit the traditional “dive-man” role pretty well, and it’s a skill set that is beneficial to any team in today’s pick-and-roll NBA. It helps that Bamba’s also the best screen-setter of the draft’s top big men, and that’s going to help him have greater impact early on in his career.
Bamba also shows the potential to do more, particularly as a shooter. While he hit just 27.5 percent from three last season, he has spent a lot of the pre-draft process working on that jumper. His mechanics are decent for a player with that length - his shot is always going to be pretty mechanical due to how physics work, but he gets great arc on the shot, and he’s not afraid to let it rip:
However, he’s probably a little too prone to letting it rip. Bamba’s offensive performance at Texas hinted at a belief that he is more skilled than he actually is, and he doesn’t appear to be a high-level decision-maker on that end. There were times when Bamba would miss very simple movements by the defense necessitating a simple pass or move to get closer to the rim, and would instead settle for a low-percentage contested post-up or jumper:
Bamba isn’t an effective shooter at this point, and it’s difficult to see a path to him becoming a quality face-up big because of his questionable handle and decision-making. That begs the question of why he’s spent so much development capital on this area of his game. Texas tried to feature him in those roles to the detriment of the team, and it seems to be all he wants to focus on in videos and interviews he’s done publicly.
This could be where the Cavs would be a decent landing spot for him. With LeBron, they need him focused on a specific role, and can reign in his possibly outlandish goals on offense in favor of fleshing out his pick-and-roll threat. LeBron/Bamba PNR would almost certainly be a cheat code, and he could potentially make even better use of the dunker spot in the offense than Tristan Thompson has over the years. And if LeBron leaves? Well, then the Cavs can let him try to work on his shooting and creation value, with the goal of him approaching the role of an elite rim protector that can also shoot and put the ball on the deck — an archetype that has made Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis into All-Stars.
Either way, the Cavaliers absolutely would need his defensive value, and that’s a hesitation point due to Bamba’s weaknesses. The lack of motor on defense should scare you about putting him in this team’s environment, where the defensive lapses have almost uniformly been due to effort rather than ability over the years. Bamba can erase mistakes, but if he doesn’t give his all every play like the rest of the roster struggles with, that really only creates a few extra highlights a game instead of actually fixing anything. He is far from a singular cause for change, and will need a good environment to reach his defensive ceiling.
Bamba is probably the Cavs’ best shot at adding an impact defender through the 2018 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t seem to be a natural fit with the roster in a way that would matter to a large degree. He offers some interesting offensive value, but its nowhere near the value of Wendell Carter in that regard, and Carter may actually end up as a better functional defender because of his understanding of team defense.
In all likelihood, Bamba will be gone before the Cavs pick, and that’s probably a good thing, because while he’s enticing, his actual value to the team doesn’t appear that it will be that strong.