The Cavs have had a very status quo offseason. Re-sign Jarrett Allen? Check. Acquire a backup point guard? Done, with the trade for Ricky Rubio. Not overthink their top-three pick? They did that too in picking Evan Mobley. Get a bench coach to replace Lindsey Gottlieb? Yes, they did that too in bringing in veteran assistant Sidney Lowe.
But it was not a perfect offseason. They do not exactly have viable wing players other than Isaac Okoro. Dylan Windler is an injury question mark, Taurean Prince was sent out for Rubio. Lamar Stevens has a limited offensive skill set, and Brodric Thomas is pretty raw despite having good size. Who knows what to expect from Cedi Osman. There are serious question marks about who can play the wing and provide a little bit of everything.
When I first began writing this piece up, I was going to make the case that Larry Nance Jr., in all of his hometown boy glory, could be trade bait to bring in a wing with the idea being that the Cavs replace Nance’s production with Evan Mobley.
As it turns out, the Cavaliers did half of what I suggested. In a bold move, the front office sent out Larry for another power forward in Lauri Markkenen, the disgruntled former first-round pick who provides a skillset nearly the opposite of Nance. Whether the move makes the Cavs better is yet to be seen (I think in some ways it makes the team better, but in more ways, it makes them worse), but now the team needs someone to replace what Nance brought to the table.
Enter Mobley. He’s pretty green, but, on the surface, has some very similar qualities to Nance in a different frame. It is not a perfect replacement, but for right now he can provide very similar traits to Nance from a defensive and playmaking standpoint.
Let’s start with the defense. The one thing coming out of college that nearly every NBA Draft analyst agreed upon with Mobley was the defensive aptitude. At seven-foot with a 7’4” wingspan, he can defend the rim with ease and use his size to deter would-be drives. Mobley held a block rate of 8.8% in college, using his high awareness and good length to erase shots at the rim.
As good as Nance was defensively, he was not apt to play center or protect the rim. He held a block percentage of 0.8 per Cleaning the Glass, placing in in the 18th percentile of all bigs. Nance allowed opposing players to shoot 63.9% from inside six feet — actually a hair worse than former teammate Dean Wade, albeit in a bigger sample. Mobley can be more of a rim protector than Larry was.
Mobley also has good lateral quickness to stick with players on the permitter, something that Nance was often tasked with as well — though he often needed another bigger player on the floor with him to eat up space. Mobley has better size than Nance, making him more versatile defensively. Nance certainly has the IQ that Mobley does not have yet but, on paper, there is enough to say that the Cavaliers will not have to fret too much about the defensive loss of Nance.
I don’t think people realized just how important Nance was to the playmaking of this team. Aside from Darius Garland, Nance was arguably the team’s second-best playmaker. Losing that is difficult, though the addition of Rubio certainly makes up for it. However, having a big that can pass opens up some fun things on offense and the Cavaliers could certainly use a few more tricks in their playbook. Once again, Evan Mobley can help! Mobley averaged three assists per Summer league contest, accumulating an assist rate of 17.6% on a 26% usage rate. That is not quite as effective as Larry Nance (14.4 assist percentage to a 13.9 usage - kinda nuts), but Mobley is still learning NBA passing lanes and game speed. His per-36 minutes numbers project just about four assists per game - just a tick over Nance’s 3.1 assists per game last season and only a hair below Collin Sexton’s 4.4 dimes per game.
Evan Mobley's scoring and defensive versatility are the main selling points, but his decision making and passing may be my favorite aspects of his game. Outstanding vision, accuracy, and decisiveness here. pic.twitter.com/FvY04vSWW9— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) May 18, 2021
His smart, quick passing abilities will pay dividends for the Cavaliers and allow them to run more intriguing offensive sets. Passing from the elbow, finding cutters, getting out of double teams (which is difficult even for top-end bigs), and passing as a driver are all options for Mobley. He figures to have an above-average usage eventually, but for right now it seems he can get close to the numbers that Nance had on the playmaking side of things.
Nance Jr. shot 36% on threes last year, a number that Mobley will be lucky to get close to this season as his shot continues to develop. While the rookie out of USC does have a very good touch on his shots, and he did stretch things out a little bit in Summer League, he will likely not be able to match the three-point shooting that Larry brought to the table. So that does limit his offensive output. Mobley will be going up against bulkier power forwards and centers, so I do not think he will be a back-to-the-basket savant right off the back. But he does have good footwork for a young big and should be able to finesse some guys down low and get easy buckets. He will be a fun pick-and-roll threat with Garland as well, grabbing lobs and finishing in the short roll. The offense is certainly the rawest aspect of Mobley’s game, but then again, it was not exactly Junior’s strong suit either. There are other ways to make a big impact offensively that does not revolve around being able to shoot.
Now when I began writing this, I figured it would be a wing coming for Nance, and Mobley’s playing time would be a combination of Larry’s minutes and taking from whatever the difference is between typical starter minutes and what the Cavaliers can feasibly play Kevin Love. This trade has really thrown that slapdash plan right out the window. Getting Markkanen muddles things up, and not in a good way. The Cavs did not trade for and sign Lauri to play him as a backup, and he will likely not accept being a reserve. So that means he will start.
The Cavs just paid Allen to be the center of the future, and he will certainly start too. Garland, Sexton, and Okoro round out the starting lineup. So where does that leave Mobley? Unless the Cavs are planning to play Mobley as a super wing (not likely, but this team is weird so we have to assume anything is possible) or use him as the backup PF in lineups with Love at the center (which had previously been reported as a potential outcome), then things get messy. The Cavs giving all of Nance’s minutes to Mobley will likely be the outcome, though how they stagger the lineups will be challenging for J.B. Bickerstaff. Maybe that means Love is out of the rotation altogether, another potential avenue considering his attitude and reported unwillingness to take a buyout and play elsewhere. I would not bank on the Cavs removing Love from the rotation altogether, but the team needs to be mindful of Mobley’s growth first and foremost.
Overall, trading the heart and soul of the Cavaliers is difficult. Larry Nance is tough to replicate and his play transcended the box scores. He did not score copious amounts of points. He did not shoot the lights out. He did a little bit of everything and did some important things really well. He will certainly be missed, no doubt about that. But it does open the door for Mobley to come through and fill a very important role on the floor, and the signs point to him being able to do that and flash some offensive potential that gets everyone excited.