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The Cavs can get more out of Jarrett Allen by embracing his potential

If the Cavs are going to re-sign Allen to a big extension, they should build more around him.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Cavaliers — who aren’t open about anything — acquired Jarrett Allen in January, they were transparent about wanting Allen. Cavs GM Koby Altman, in the last time he answered questions from the media, said as much and publicly put him as part of the team’s future plans.

By all accounts, that has not changed. Allen missed some time with a concussion but averaged his first career double-double this year. He’s 23, right in line with Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro and the still-growing Cavs core, (At least as it exists right now.) With Garland, Allen has already developed some chemistry Cleveland can work with.

He’s also set to get paid this summer.

There’s chatter out there that he could get an extension for $100 million or more. At minimum, he seems to be seeking a contract akin to what Clint Capela got from the Hawks. If that ends up happening, it will be on the Cavs to maximize Allen in a way that didn’t always in his first year with the team.

There’s an idea now that centers aren’t worth paying a lot to. There’s some merit to it, to be sure — so much modern basketball is played on the perimeter and is built around versatility. Teams still need bigs, but some are opting to invest a few million for a center vs. building a team around one.

In Allen’s case, he’s a potential-high end defender and something of a specialist on offense. He’s got an ok jumper from the foul line and has dabbled in taking three-pointers. Allen is not comfortable doing dribble hand-offs or passing from the elbows or top of the key just yet. (It’s the one thing Isaiah Hartenstein, who would be a good backup at a fair price, has over him.) What he best at is crushing lobs and working around the rim:

He does have some ability to score when he’s not passed open, which helps:

It would be good to see him get to try mor next season. Playmaking is the one the Cavs have talked about more than him shooting, but expect an effort to add both.

Defensively, though, Allen is already really good. In 51 games with the Cavs, Allen had a block percentage of 2.4% — putting him in the upper 75% of bigs, per Cleaning The Glass. For his career, he’s never had a below-average block rate — a good sign that this isn’t a fluke. He also only fouled on 1.8% of his time on the floor last year, putting up in the 99th percentile of bigs. That’s the template for a high-end big a team can build a defense around and give an extension to.

The most obvious comparison point here for Allen and the Cavs is Capela and the Hawks. (Some will point to the Jazz and Rudy Gobert, but Gobert is a little older and another level up from the Capela/Allen class of centers.) Before being traded by the Rockets last season, he inked a five-year, $90 million deal that keeps him with the Hawks through the 2022-23. This past season at age 27, Capela had arguably his best season and was the anchor for the Hawks’ defense. Atlanta finished the year 17th in defense and just a tad under league average, per Cleaning The Glass, en route to the fifth seed in the East.

What the Hawks and Jazz do is offer a template for what the Cavs can do next year. The overall scheme will be largely vanilla — little switching, no trying to have smaller players scramming out of post-ups, only the rare hard trap or blitz — but built on strong principles. Allen will be the center of that. In pick-and-roll, he’ll drop, slide back and try to defend two players — and allow everyone else to stay home on shooters. It’s not complicated, but it can work.

Watch how Capela defends here. He’s always in some version of help, keeping his eye on the paint. If he’s covering a guard who gets beat, here’s there to slow the opposing ball handler and still be in position to block the shot. Or if he’s recovering for busted defense, he’s still lurking and doesn’t overcommit and put himself out of position.

And watch how Gobert works here. None of Utah’s other defenders are perfect and even Mike Conley Jr. at the point of attack is small and attackable. But they are so disciplined that it doesn’t matter. Everything is built and pushing it at Gobert.

The Cavs are already doing some of this. They almost exclusively played drop coverage last year with a bit of zone mixed in out of timeouts and in other spots. The problem is that Allen came in midseason and there wasn’t real-time to install and fine tune in the middle of a condensed season. If you’re Cleveland, the hope is that a training camp and real preseason with practice time is enough to get the principles down and build from there. He also might need to add some strength to handle being attacked over and over again by bigger creators. Allen is 235 pounds, but looks skinny.

There are some roster questions too with Kevin Love stands out as the most pressing one. When he’s engaged and willing, he can help on that end by rebounding, putting in effort and being in the right spots. Love grabbing Allen blocked shots and firing up the court to start a fastbreak sounds great on paper. But what if he loafs around and is forcing Allen to cover for him more than be the center of the defensive scheme? If that balance gets out of whack, the whole spine of the Cavs’ defense crumbles. Allen, or any big, can only cover so much space.

There are spacing and health concerns, but it might be easier to build this way with Larry Nance Jr. at the four with Taurean Prince and maybe a draft pick like Jalen Johnson or Franz Wagner getting some minutes at the spot. Maybe Lamar Stevens will get a shot at minutes next year. Maybe Dean Wade can do enough to make it work and offer better spacing. A buy-low free agent like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Otto Porter maybe could make sense.

Year four for Collin Sexton and year three for Darius Garland needs to yield some improvement too. For as fun as they can be on offense, figuring them out on defense is essential to building with both of them. And, to be blunt, it’s very hard to build a defense with smaller guards. The Jazz do it, but Gobert is otherworldly. Conley is also one of the smartest players in the league as a point of attack defender and it. That has to offer some Gobert some boost.

The hope here has to be that both make improvements as their careers progress and that Sexton, with his seamlessly limitless energy and decent 6’6” wingspan, can become a pest at the point of attack in passing lanes. (Last year, Sexton had a below-average steal rate. To be fair so does Mitchell. There’s definitely a risk calculus here in staying home vs. gambling to get steals. The Jazz, by choice, don’t go all-out in search of turnovers.) By comparison, the Hawks have gone all-in on length around Young and play an arguably worse defender than Love in Danilo Gallinari next to Capela.

This is also going to take time to sort out. For the Jazz, it took a few years not only for Gobert to grow but also for the team to fill out and for Quin Snyder to get his scheme to where it is now. For the Hawks, they made a jump to 17th from 28th in 2019-20. They were also 11th in defense from March 1 — when Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce — to the end of the regular season. There’s definitely something to the coach helping on that end. To really give this a chance to work, the Cavs need to give J.B. Bickerstaff time to work with the roster and build something. They probably need to keep Koby Altman around too, as he built the roster as it is now. They shouldn’t have an unlimited runway, but also need time to try and get somewhere.

And for what it’s worth: The Cavs had a defensive rating of 117.1 with Allen on the court last year and 113.2 with him off. But the lineup data varies heavily lineup-to-lineup, so it’s hard to put too much stock in these numbers. The 2020-21 season, frankly, was very weird.

This team could be close to being at least in the play-in hunt. Winning in the NBA takes time, patience and some luck. If the Cavs make any drastic changes because they are impatient — a hallmark of the Dan Gilbert era — then it’s only going to hurt. Reaping, sowing, etc.

Allen needs time to grow into this too. He’s 23 and, when someone in his age range signs a deal it’s at least partially based on upside. To see if he can get there, the Cavs would be smart to build around Allen on the defensive end of the floor and give it time to see where it goes.