The Cavs are off to a 7-5 start, their best through 12 games since the 2016-17 season. Darius Garland is blossoming as an on-ball creator and lead ball-handler. Collin Sexton was adapting to an off-ball scoring role prior to injury. Ricky Rubio has been a steady guiding hand off the bench and put together a FIBA Ricky showing to rout the Knicks.
The offense has shown more signs of life through three weeks than it did for all of last season and there’s been inspired play throughout the roster. Despite the overall funkiness of the team, Cleveland makes more sense, with much credit due to the stellar play of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.
Allen was honored with Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the week of November 1st, bolstering a 4 game winning streak. Allen’s gaudy averages over that stretch, 20.5 points per game and 16.3 rebounds, are astounding and the award was well deserved. Mobley has arguably been the best rookie in the NBA, a borderline top-50 player, and is already the best player on the roster.
The Cavaliers are seventh in defensive efficiency over the past ten games per Cleaning the Glass, primarily due to the activity and versatility of the starting frontcourt.
Allen and Mobley have provided a backbone in the half-court in traditional means and outside the box scenarios that adhere to the ethos of the Cavs’ personnel.
Both have been fantastic as rim protectors: According to Second Spectrum Tracking Data via nba.com and B-Ball Index, opponents have shot 9.7% worse than expected at the rim against Mobley (91st percentile), and 12.5% worse than expected at the rim against Allen (95th percentile).
Given the Cavs’ struggles defending at the point of attack, the frenetic rim protection has been essential to sustaining a quality defense. Cleveland currently allows the second-highest percentage of shots at the rim (not great!) but holds opposing teams to the fourth-lowest field goal percentage at the rim. Context considered, Allen and Mobley have an absurd workload, but have kept pace and then some to establish a defensive shell from the inside out. The pair are both individually top ten in the league in contests per game, with Mobley leading the league in entirety.
One of the more impressive aspects of the duo thriving has been being able to play consistent defense without excessive fouling (The Cavs have the lowest foul rate in the NBA). Mobley’s timing on rotations, often from the weak-side, and his verticality at the rim have looked more akin to an All-Defensive team nominee than a 20-year old rookie.
Evan Mobley's timing and verticality are just so ridiculous already pic.twitter.com/xCYI8fNuty— Mark Schindler (@MSchindlerNBA) November 9, 2021
Allen is averaging below a block per game for the first time in his career, but make no mistake, his defense has been better than last season. He’s still altering and contesting shots at the rim routinely (just over 9 rim contests per/75 possessions, a lot!), but has greatly increased his hand activity and disruption defending in the pick and roll prior to the shot even occurring.
He’s averaging a career high in steals (1.2) due to that improved activity, and also his ability to play more on the perimeter. He’s been relatively coverage versatile since entering the NBA, but has utilized his mobility and hands to the max as he’s defending more out on the wing both in coverages that employ him closer to the level of the screen, in zone (more on that later) and some occasional switching. He’s been exceptional at picking his spots at darting out with his length to spear the ball away.
As summed up on The Dunker Spot, Jarrett Allen isn’t a switch-big yet, but he’s getting very close to entering the discussion as he continues burgeoning as a perimeter defender.
Mobley has already put himself firmly in that conversation. It is so hard to explain to someone who has never watched Mobley what his defensive ability is like. His intersection of court-mapping, mobility, recovery and timing skills, along with his length and traditional physical skills are just ridiculous.
Fantastic defensive possession from Evan Mobley pic.twitter.com/rwT0dE1WyJ— Mark Schindler (@MSchindlerNBA) October 23, 2021
Mobley has taken every defensive assignment with assertiveness and has a quick memory. Damian Lillard, despite his slow start, is one of the best drivers and guard finishers in the league and he gave Mobley fits for much of the game against Portland. Mobley picked up Dame late in the game, isolated on the perimeter with the chance for the Blazers to pull the game within one possession, and pulled off this sequence.
Yeah, Mobley is a special player.
“Switch-big,” is a relative term. Neither player should be guarding a wing or guard for an entire game, but the ability for them to do it for possessions and quick spurts of time has smoothed over so much for this team.
The Cavs run zone often as another means of defensive refinement, and logically so given the roster make-up. While much has been made about the awkwardness of starting 3 bigs, they have supreme length and size on the court when deployed together. They can dictate the court dimensions in a way, using their timing and recovery skills to make open shots and drives much less so than they initially appear.
Driving into two 7-footers at the top of a 2-3 zone is just not something that opponents typically see, and there’s a disruptive factor to that.
An active 3-2 with Evan Mobley at the top of the key, ranging from the free throw line to both wings with his wingspan and lateral quickness: also jarring!
Is a top-ten defense, the sixth seed, and three-big lineup fully sustainable? In all likelihood: no. But for now, the Cavs are making it work and doing replicable things on both ends that optimize the players on the roster. Allen and Mobley have propped up this team in a way that few expected headed into the year and both are on track for All-Defensive team nominations.
Cleveland is winning games they had no chance in in prior years, have shown their mettle against likely playoff teams, and are crafting a formula that works for the time being. Mobley and Allen have warped the dimensions of the court, particularly on the defensive end. As long as their play remains consistent, the Cavs should be in the hunt for the playoffs.