The Cavs finished the week 1-2 with close losses to Memphis and Charlotte and a win over the Atlanta Hawks. There were plenty of positives to take away from the first week despite the losing record.
Here’s what we learned from week one.
The offense hasn’t been the issue.
Assists aren’t the ultimate barometer for whether or not an offense is good, but it may be for the Cavs considering their three big man starting lineup. Starting three seven footers, and only one of which who can shoot, can congest a half court offense unless there is exceptional guard play, some level of playmaking from all positions, or consistent outside shooting. The Cavs have gotten two of those things through three games.
Coming into this season, I would’ve said the offense is what would hold the Cavs back, but that hasn’t been the case so far. The Cavs are averaging just over 111 points per game despite shooting a poor 30.9% from three as a team. Playmaking within the half court has been the great equalizer as the Cavs are averaging 29 assists per game which is good for third in the league thus far.
It’s easy to point to Ricky Rubio and Darius Garland as the reason why the Cavs have taken a drastic leap in this area. Rubio’s ability to run an offense, get people in position, and probe a defense off the dribble has been exactly what this team needed (although we could’ve done without that 4th quarter against Charlotte).
The secondary playmaking from the bigs has also helped tremendously. Evan Mobley’s passing has been impressive. He has the ability to calmly, but deliberately survey the court and make passes that are unheard of for people his size and age. Kevin Love has had a tough start to the season as a scorer, but he’s had a positive impact as a playmaker as he is contributed 3.7 assists a game off the bench.
The big-to-big passing has allowed the Cavs to get away with jumbo lineups so far. There’s been 11 big-to-big assists so far this season. That may not feel like a lot but those passes force defenses to stay on their man when a big has it in the low or high post. These passes can add some spacing as it forces the defense from completely collapsing to the paint.
The offense is not going to be the calling card of this team, but it has shown to be functional even without Garland.
The Cavs need to control the paint.
At the risk of sounding like your high school basketball coach, the Cavs’ success this season will come down to how well they control the paint.
Theoretically starting three seven footers should give you an advantage for rebounding and attacking and defending the paint, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Cleveland was outscored in the paint 70 to 54 and lost the second chance points battle 13 to 7 in their loss to Memphis. Charlotte outscored Cleveland 58 to 52 inside and had 10 more second chance points on Friday. The Cavs flipped the script Saturday as they outscored the Hawks 54 to 42 inside and had four more second chance points.
The Cavs will need to be a net in the positive in the points in the paint and the second chance points in games they want to win this season. It’s hard to envision a team with this little outside shooting winning many games they lose in those two areas.
The second half 3-2 zone was one of the reasons the Cavs were able to win that battle against the Hawks. The guards and wings had consistently been getting beat at the point of attack which forces the bigs to help contest shots at the rim. This in turn gets the bigs out of position to get rebounds which can lead to second chance points.
The 3-2 zone (or any other kind of zone) doesn’t eliminate this problem, but it can help. The zone allows the bigs to go from contesting shots at the rim to preventing shots at the rim since they are able to pick up drives before they get to the restricted area. Unfortunately, this defense can leave you more susceptible to the outside shot or dump offs to a big if the rotations aren’t quick enough which is why few NBA teams run zone for extended periods.
The defense has been okay with Allen in the game. The breakdowns have mostly happened when he rests. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s the only rotation player with a positive net rating and positive plus/minus through three games. The Cavs have an endless supply of bigs and seven footers on the roster, but only one playable center in Allen. Making the non-Allen lineups work is something that J.B. Bickerstaff will need to do if the Cavs hope to be competitive this season.
I wouldn’t go to playing a base 3-2 defense as I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long term. However, I would like the Cavs to employ it for segments of games and especially when Allen is on the bench. It’ll be interesting to see how often Bickerstaff goes back to the zone in this upcoming road trip.
Evan Mobley is the real deal.
This Cavs season will be a success if someone on the roster shows that they can and will be a legitimate franchise player. It’s early, but Mobley is showing us that he could be the cornerstone of this franchise for the foreseeable future.
There are often growing pains for rookie bigs, no matter how high they’re picked. Defense in the NBA requires much more versatility on every level than it does in college. This is why it’s typical to see bigs taken in the top three struggle on that end their rookie year no matter how impactful they end up being. Mobley has been the exception to this rule through three games.
Mobley’s defensive impact has been ridiculous as he’s averaging 1.3 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. His ability to disrupt guards on the perimeter while still being able to protect the paint has been the most impressive part of his game and it doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. We saw multiple examples of Mobley forcing exceptional guards like Trae Young and Terry Rozier into bad shots or giving up the ball entirely when Mobley was switched onto them.
The rookie’s offensive impact has also been better than expected as well. He’s averaging 15.7 points and 3.0 assists per game with a 57.8 effective field goal percentage despite only hitting one three so far this season. His vision and ability to finish through contact is impressive for someone his age.
Mobley’s inability to control the paint and glass on the defensive end without Allen has been the only concern so far. He often finds himself out of position for defensive rebounds (mostly because he’s contesting the shot at the rim) when he’s playing center. This, coupled with his smaller frame, allows stronger centers to take advantage of him on the glass. The rebounding issues can also be chalked up to a team wide problem as the Cavs don’t have many players outside of Love and Allen who are good rebounders for their position.
It’ll be interesting to see how Mobley holds up all season and whether he can keep up this impressive output over an 82-game season. Mobley is currently leading the team in minutes played (35.3 per game) which will be something to monitor as the season progress. Generally, you’d like to keep a rookie big with a thinner frame closer to around 30 minutes a night. The Cavs may not have that luxury if they really want to compete this season. Balancing Mobley’s future against the team’s current needs will be something the coaching staff will be forced to do all season.